Opinion: Carolina Beat

No. 713: How Bizarre: NC State Hires Diversity Czar

North Carolina State University has followed the lead of many other universities and hired a “diversity czar.” This shows, alas, that the school has succumbed to the same mania over “diversity” that has turned many campuses into bubbling cauldrons of petty resentment. The best we can hope for is that the diversity czar will prove to be an irrelevancy, but there is reason to fear that his efforts will make things worse.

Jose Picart is the diversity czar at NC State, charged with the responsibility of making sure that the campus atmosphere is always celebratory of diversity, that no one ever feels left out, and that every insensitive thought is nipped in the bud. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Or maybe not. The insistence that everything in and around our ivory towers must be appropriately diverse is the equivalent of the Hoola-Hoop fad of the late 1950s, except that Hoola-Hooping was at least some exercise.

Why can’t colleges and universities just stick to their traditional academic missions? Picart insists that “we must put diversity into academics.” The trouble is that at many institutions, including NC State, academics are already weakened and injecting the diversity curriculum into scholarly disciplines only detracts further from students’ ability to concentrate and learn.

Picart advocates having professors “integrate diversity into the classroom of every discipline.” He says, for example, “An engineering professor could require students to go into the community to conduct group projects, then grade them on their interactions with residents.” I can’t imagine that any engineering professor would take that seriously, because it obviously takes time away from presenting to students the knowledge they need to become good engineers. I wonder what part of any engineering class Picart would say should be dropped in order to make time for these unvolunteer projects.

And precisely what is the benefit of working diversity into every class? Reading through the literature on this, you hear repeatedly that diversity experiences “break down barriers between people.” That sounds nice, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Students in college all know that there are great differences among human beings, even among those who are from “the same” culture. Virtually all are tolerant of those differences and overt hostility is almost nonexistent.

Diversity enthusiasts love to think that their various projects, studies, training, and rules are terribly important and bring about long-term benefits of social harmony. To hear them tell it, they’re doing something on a par with bringing down the Berlin Wall or abolishing slavery. But people often make mountains out of molehills and this is one of those cases. Social harmony is a noble goal, but incessant talking about diversity doesn’t help get us there.

Constant harping on group membership and cultural differences, as diversity fans do, probably does more harm than good. Much of what goes on under the banner of diversity is polarizing. It makes members of “protected groups” believe that, regardless of personal circumstances of family history, they are owed something for past wrongs, real or imagined. On the other hand, students who aren’t in protected groups are told that they must refrain from saying or doing anything that could possibly be construed as “insensitive.” That hardly makes them want to start singing the Barney Song.

If you compare the atmosphere on campuses where the diversity mania is in full flower with campuses where the school leadership has chosen to keep a traditional academic focus, it’s hard to see much difference – except for the absence of diversity czars.

Speaking of focus, putting diversity into academics means turning the university’s attention away from the learning of concrete subjects – engineering, chemistry, history, mathematics, and so forth – and toward the shaping of feelings and attitudes. The time spent on diversity projects, readings, and discussions is time taken from substantive coursework. Touchy-feely stuff instead of knowledge. It’s not a good trade.

Diversity advocates say they’re promoting the goal of “cultural competence,” meaning the ability to interact correctly with people from other cultures. They elevate cultural competence to a learning objective at least as important as literacy. But the goal is absurd. People are so fantastically varied that you can never be certain that something you say or do won’t give offense. Besides, innocent cultural slip-ups are usually ignored.

The best diversity program is just to follow the Golden Rule. Most students have learned that long before getting to college, but if not, a diversity czar won’t do any good.

George C. Leef is the director of The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.