"Diversity" vs. Affirmative Action

Richard Tapia has an essay on diversity in American academica in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education that I find a bit troublesome. He starts with the Affirmative Action court cases of the 1970s, including The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, and then moves on to criticize the inclusion of foreign and "new immigrant" communities under "diversity."

Over all, the rulings on affirmative action in higher education have said that diversity is a legitimate goal of universities, based on the reasoning that the institutions' educational missions can best be carried out with diverse student bodies. On the surface, then, it seems as if representation is in safe hands. However, if universities (and the courts, for that matter) assume that encouraging diversity will encourage representation, they are mistaken.

The term "diversity" has virtually replaced "affirmative action" and "representation" in discussions of minority issues in academe, following the language of the courts. That shift was more than semantic. It was accompanied by a shift in direction.

Whereas affirmative-action policies aimed to solve the problems faced by large segments of the U.S. population in gaining access to higher education, the new emphasis on diversity led to a focus on the representation of many types of people, defined by religion, language, and other cultural attributes. As required by the courts, diversity was interpreted very broadly.

Over time, more and more groups were included under the diversity umbrella. Most notably, diversity took on an international flavor, and diversity programs and activities typically began to emphasize an understanding of the world's many ethnic groups. While the shift away from affirmative action's focus on American diversity and domestic-minority groups may not have been intentional, new efforts toward inclusion are. (link)

I don't think the word "diversity" expanded in quite the way Tapia describes. If anything, the term always included groups other than the underrepresented minorities (Latinos and African Americans) Tapia is talking about. The question is really whether it is the correct tool to achieve the goal Tapia desires; it may not be.

Cynically, one could suggest that schools and universities knew full well what they were doing when they embraced the rhetoric of "diversity" starting in the 1980s -- perhaps it was always intended as a way to dodge the demand for strictly proportionate representation of historically oppressed groups.

But whether or not that's the case, the term "diversity" now decidedly does refer to all forms of ethnic, cultural, and religious difference. And the idea that "diversity" is merely a sell-out or a ruse designed to keep things the way they are doesn't work for me: diversity for its own sake does have benefits in higher education.

That said, there is some statistical support for Tapia's position in another Chronicle article, which is probably only free for a short time:

In 2005, 109,964 U.S. minority scholars held full-time faculty positions at American colleges and universities, up from 69,505 in 1995, according to the Education Department — a 58-percent increase. The proportion of minority scholars in the overall professoriate also rose, but not as much. The department found that 16.5 percent of scholars were from minority groups in 2005, up from 12.7 percent in 1995. The increase in the proportion of U.S. minority scholars lagged well behind the increase in raw numbers because the number of white and nonresident-alien scholars also rose during the decade. The department includes both U.S. citizens and resident aliens (noncitizens who are permanent residents) in its racial categories, but lists nonresident aliens separately.

Hispanics and Asians experienced the greatest percentage growth: Some 22,818 Hispanics and 48,457 Asians held full-time faculty positions in 2005, both up at least 75 percent from 1995. The growth over that decade for American Indians and black scholars was slightly lower: Some 35,458 black scholars had full-time positions in 2005 (up by nearly a third from 1995), as did 3,231 American Indians (a 50-percent increase). (link)

The key figure: of the 110,000 "minorites" teaching in academia, nearly 50,000 are Asians, while only 35,000 are black. There is, obviously, a demographic discrepancy there.