Diversity: An Ideology

While the rapid spread of affirmative action policies met a backlash in the late 1970s, this resistance was largely a white middle class revolt. Support never flagged among elites. In fact, most of the country’s largest corporations opposed the Reagan administration’s efforts to dismantle affirmative action practices in the early 1980s. Despite regulatory relief, nearly all Fortune 500 firms continued to pursue or even expand efforts to recruit and employ more racial minorities and women. Elite universities remained strongly committed as well. In 1978, the Supreme Court issued its famously scattered ruling. In a victory for affirmative action supporters, the Court agreed that some alternative system of racial preferences could pass constitutional muster. It is precisely here that the ideology of diversity entered mainstream American thought and practice.

Justice Powell argued that “a diverse student body” was a worthy goal of any university which allowed the consideration of race in admissions. He justified this neither on the grounds of racial justice nor the amelioration of past or present discrimination, but on the grounds of diversity. Powell claimed that racial and ethnic diversity advanced the core intellectual mission of American higher education, namely “speculation, experiment and creation,” “the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views,” and an encounter of differing “ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” This claim hardly originated with Powell, of course. He was simply repeating the collective views of Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania as stated in their joint brief to the Court in defense of affirmative action.

The country’s managerial elite now rarely misses an opportunity to demonstrate commitment to diversity. When policies barring consideration of race, ethnicity, and sex in the public sector went to referendum, in each case, the largest corporations in the area – Exxon, Enron, Boeing, Microsoft, General Motors, Ford – were among the strongest opponents. In 2012 and again in 2015, 45 Fortune 100 firms argued that diversity is essential both for individual “success in the corporate world” as well as “business success” in “country and world economies that are increasingly diverse.” Diversity in higher education management is today so hegemonic that it stands as an orthodoxy against which only the most foolhardy or cantankerous now speak.

But is there really a business case for diversity? While most corporations claim to be true believers, social science gives a decidedly mixed answer. That being said, the academic debate over diversity’s impact on the bottom line is largely, well, academic. Managers embraced diversity long before any meaningful evidence existed for its positive effects. The first systematic academic study of whether diversity policies even produce diversity, much less profitability, wasn’t published until 2006. Business and educational elites certainly aren’t waiting around for academics to tell them what to do now. Higher education managers are in a similar position. Universities claim the case for diversity is an educational one, an argument their most elite representatives pioneered decades ago. Yet academic debate continues, particularly over the degree to which diversity improves student cognitive skills and tendencies.

Despite all this uncertainty, higher education displayed total unity of purpose in the Fisher case. Plaintiffs Abigail Noel Fisher applied to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 and was denied admission. The woman, White, filed suit, alleging that the University had discriminated against her on the basis of her race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Briefs supporting the University of Texas were filed by seventy-five universities and colleges as well as by the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Association of American Law Schools. Not one college, university, or educational organization filed in support of Abigail Fisher.

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