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The University of Wisconsin's latest diversity plan calls for "equity" in high-demand majors and the distribution of grades.

By W. Lee Hansen

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July 16, 2014

Many American colleges and universities are in the thrall of “diversity,” but none more so than my institution, the University of Wisconsin. This spring, the university adopted a new plan that, according to Board of Regents policy, “[p]laces the mission of diversity at the center of institutional life so that it becomes a core organizing principle.”

That is, promoting diversity appears to be more important than teaching students. 

This Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence sailed through our Faculty Senate without the least bit of attention, much less the “sifting and winnowing” on which it prides itself. 

Although much of the language is a thicket of clichés, no one dared challenge it. Moreover, there was no probing of the ramifications of the plan. Apparently, “diversity” has become such a sacred cow that even tenured professors are afraid to question it in any way.  

To begin, the university’s justification for the new policy is difficult to understand: “Our commitment is to create an environment that engages the whole person in the service of learning, recognizing that individual differences should be considered foundational to our strength as a community.”

That language is mere education babble, but the Faculty Senate swallowed it whole. So did the academic staff and the students. 

The plan¹s definition of diversity focuses on a wide array of differences that can be found in every enrolled student. Here’s what it includes: 

Individual differences in personality, learning styles, and life experiences, and group or social differences that may manifest through personality, learning styles, life experiences, and group or social differences. Our definition of diversity also incorporates differences of race and ethnicity; sex; gender; and gender identity or expression; sexual orientation; age; country of origin; language; physical and intellectual ability; emotional health; socio-economic status; and affiliations that are based on cultural, political, religious, or other identities. 

The list is so expansive that it leads one to conclude that every student is “diverse.” And I believe that is correct. Every student is different in so many ways that it makes no sense to say that some students “increase diversity” while others don¹t. 

The new plan provides no information on how the addition of these “individual and group/social differences” can create an environment that “engages the whole person,” whatever that means. Based on my experience, I would have no idea how to incorporate these “differences” into my economics teaching.  

I wish someone had asked what bearing these particular “individual and group or social differences” have on student learning. Most people believe that individual differences in intelligence, aptitude, motivation, commitment, high school class rank, ACT/SAT scores, and academic preparation are far more important in contributing to student learning. 

Those latter differences, what most people view as indicators of academic excellence, indeed are appropriate considerations at an institution priding itself as being a world-class teaching and research university. 

How will the university assemble information on these supposedly crucial “differences”? Most applicants will not be able to describe their “learning styles,” or how to characterize their “personalities,” or how to assess their “emotional health.” Moreover, many students would hesitate to disclose personal information about their “cultural, political, religious, or other identities.” Without that information, it won’t be possible to use them “in the service of learning,” assuming that this notion is something other than empty rhetoric. 

To achieve the plan’s vague aims, the Ad Hoc Diversity Planning Committee formulated five goals and thirty detailed recommendations. Unbeknownst to faculty senators, these goals and recommendations are based on the “Inclusive Excellence” framework adopted earlier by the Board of Regents. (See Agenda Item II.6 for the March 5, 2009, meeting of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents; in a PDF linked at the bottom of this page.)

That framework includes eight essential “working definitions,” among them the already-discussed diversity, as well as others: “compositional diversity,” “critical mass,” “inclusion,” “equity mindedness,” “deficit-mindedness,” “representational equity,” and “excellence.” 

Let us take a closer look at one of these working definitions included, namely “representational equity.”  

It calls for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”  

We are not told exactly what adherence to this will entail. It appears to mean that directors of programs and departmental chairs will have to somehow ensure that they have a mix of students with just the right percentages of individuals who embody the various “differences” included in the definition of diversity. I cannot see how that is possible and even if it were, how it improves any student’s education. 

Suppose there were a surge of interest in a high demand field such as computer science. Under the “equity” policy, it seems that some of those who want to study this field would be told that they’ll have to choose another major because computer science already has “enough” students from their “difference” group.  

Especially shocking is the language about “equity” in the distribution of grades. Professors, instead of just awarding the grade that each student earns, would apparently have to adjust them so that academically weaker, “historically underrepresented racial/ethnic” students perform at the same level and receive the same grades as academically stronger students.  

At the very least, this means even greater expenditures on special tutoring for weaker targeted minority students. It is also likely to trigger a new outbreak of grade inflation, as professors find out that they can avoid trouble over “inequitable” grade distributions by giving every student a high grade.  

Is there any reason to believe that the UW system’s Inclusive Excellence plan implemented at UW-Madison is going to improve the education of its students? I can see no reason to think so. Actually, the contrary seems more likely. 

One problem is that the obsession with all those non-academic details about students comes with a cost—the cost of good students who are not admitted because they don’t seem “diverse” enough. Also, some of the preferred, “diverse” students will be admitted with significantly weaker academic capabilities than their classmates.

Although campus officials regularly fail to publicize detailed results of their diversity programs, my investigations show that roughly a quarter of its “diverse” targeted minority students do not meet the competitive admission standard applied to other applicants. This means that the students UW-Madison is trying to help instead find themselves at an immediate academic disadvantage. 

Moreover, the obsession with groups distracts everyone from what truly matters—whether or not each student makes the best academic progress. 

The campus climate has worsened by constantly referring to minority students as “targeted” minority students, and in the process stigmatizing them. It has also led to an unseemly “us versus them” mindset among many of those students. 

That manifested itself several years ago when Roger Clegg, general counsel of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity came to Madison to report on his research showing that the university’s racial preference policy meant severe discrimination against white and Asian applicants. Two senior UW officials orchestrated a disgraceful pro-diversity mob-like student demonstration at the hotel near campus where Clegg was making his presentation. 

The demonstrators burst in and shouted Clegg down until he left the building. (Peter Wood has a good account of the entire matter in this Chronicle piece.)  

It is impossible for me to imagine anything less consistent with the values of any educational institution than organizing a mob to protest a talk. It is also impossible for me to think that such a thing could have happened at Madison but for the obsession with diversity that has been building for years. 

The University of Wisconsin adopted its first diversity plan back in 1966 and every few years it launches a much-touted new one. During my 30-year teaching career at Madison, followed by more than a decade of retirement, I have seen not the slightest bit of evidence that the fixation on “diversity” has made the campus better in any respect.

I predict this new Inclusive Excellence plan will fail to produce its hoped-for utopian outcomes. In a few years, the university will hear demands for yet another diversity plan.  

Achieving “diversity” is like sailing toward the horizon.

You never get there.

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