The independent news organization of Duke University

Delving into diversity

Beginning this fall, the University of California, Los Angeles, will require applications for regular rank faculty positions to include an “EDI statement” that describes the candidates “past, present, and future contributions to equity, diversity, and inclusion.” This policy change resembles similar protocols being instituted at other universities, including five other UC schools. While this shift has been quietly accepted by the UCLA community, it has served as a flashpoint in the national argument against efforts toward equity in higher education. Those who feel that colleges have becomes sanctuaries for the hypersensitive—where honest conversations on race, gender, sexuality and identity have run rampant—strongly oppose UCLA’s initiative towards diversity.

Heather Mac Donald, a conservative commentator, has been the most vocal opponent of the initiative. In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, she decried UCLA’s “diversity obsession” and warned that it would dilute the academic and intellectual purpose of the institution. Mac Donald presents the exploration and understanding of one’s identity as being an irrelevant component to the role of college. Her arguments are based in a narrow, regressive vision of the purpose of universities and willfully ignorant of the racism and hate speech on UCLA’s campus. In both the past and the present, higher education in society exists as a gatekeeper to both knowledge and power. They limit access both directly and indirectly through admissions and relationships within circles defined by wealth, social capital and race. In the case of faculty diversity, the ability of a mentor to engage with and understand the experiences of their students is crucial in opening previously locked doors of opportunity. A student’s success in a given discipline is directly impacted by their ability to access that field, and that accessibility is directly related to identity, whether Mac Donald believes it or not. It is in part through this mechanism that black students made up only 5.2 percent of all doctorate recipients and only 1 percent of computer science doctorates nationwide in 2016. These statistics, which Mac Donald misinterpreted as being representative of a demographic trend, are actually an indication that enormous pitfalls and barriers still exist in higher education to keep certain students out of these types of programs. 

However, the one positive quality of Mac Donald’s otherwise misinformed column was her criticism of the bureaucratic processes of diversity initiatives. One needs only to look to the vice chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at UCLA to begin to see the failings so common in neoliberal universities. The vice chancellor has a total pay of about $400,000, more than four times that of many faculty positions, particularly the lower income adjunct faculty positions that are disproportionately occupied by black professors. These types of institutional failings and short term plans are not at all dissimilar from the endless task forces and committees created to put out fires across Duke—which are staffed and led by administrators who have yet to acknowledge or reckon with their own complicity in lighting the matches. These administrative bodies and roles, at their heart, seek to artificially boost a university’s image rather than work to improve it in meaningful ways. Asking applicants to fill out this EDI statement has the same effect as any other minute policy changes instituted for the purpose of progressive posturing: doing just enough assuage the concerns of wealthy donors and prospective students who want a school that exists on the bleeding edge of neoliberalism, while avoiding the larger issues.

The true solutions to the problems of representation and inclusion exist in a place beyond the ultimately fruitless, unbridled idealism embodied by UCLA’s new policy, but also beyond the cynicism associated with calls to abandon a dream of racial diversity and equity in higher education. This initiative from UCLA should not be immediately discounted, but it must be accompanied with absolute clarity that these small changes do not absolve universities from the need for conversations about the underlying motivation behind their pushes for diversity. An exclusive system that is forced to accommodate others looks much different than one that actively seeks out their voices and changes the system to be better. To transition from the former to the latter, UCLA, Duke and every other university must understand the consequences of their continued complacency. Identity and equity serve not as a distraction from education, but as a critical component of its mission. However, the question of intent versus impact still remains: what does it mean for a university like UCLA or Duke to create policies that give off an air of equality without the intention of pursuing it? UCLA’s diversity statement provides a needed point for introspection on how each piece of academia's machinery contributes to expanding opportunity, but without the proper implementation and intention, none of these policy changes will get to the roots of the issues that exist both on UCLA's campus and ours. 


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