Diversity and Social Policy: An Essay 


The impetus

In recent years I have served, somewhat reluctantly, as the administrative head of a new university program and ex officio as the chair of a very active search committee to hire new senior faculty. I was also working to build up a diverse faculty by co-appointments to our program of other faculty members who were already working across a very large and complex university system. These experiences, directly and indirectly, re-directed my attention to some difficult core issues concerning how we conceptualize diversity in the academy and just what sorts of social policies are needed and both morally and intellectually justified.

 Anyone familiar with contemporary U.S. society will know how fraught with controversy these issues have become, particularly because of the active opposition of many conservative politicians and some scholars to policies of ‘affirmative action’ in universities. I am not an expert on the legal or sociological issues, and this is not scholarly article, but only an informal essay that shares some of my own recent thinking and feelings.

Two facts and a need

 I start with two core facts that stand out for me. The first is the historical and contemporary fact that dominant social interests have actively worked for generations to deprive members of various social categories of both the access to resources and political power which they themselves enjoy and the basic human respect that is the foundation of life in civil society. It is an ugly fact. It is for some a natural consequence of innate human greed, or capitalist competitiveness, or the pathologies of masculine identities. For others it is simply historically contingent, morally wrong, and politically both myopic and dangerous. I find some sense in all these views, but no comfort in any of them. Facts happen and they demand some response from us.

 The second fact, more specific here to the situation of the academy, is that members of these disempowered and disrespected groups, even to the extent that they achieve the necessary credentials for membership in our community, are not proportionally represented among university faculty. It is said by some that this is a transient historical problem, which will in time resolve itself, and that contemporary concerns are mainly with the rate of change, not the fact of change. Even to the extent that this is true, it does not seem to me to mitigate the pressing need for action to increase faculty and student diversity at every level of our peculiar academic prestige hierarchy.

 Why? Why do we need committed action to intervene in the historically produced situation in which we find ourselves? Because it is in our community interest to do so. There is another way to read the second social fact I have highlighted: academic communities, particularly at their most prestigious levels, are dismayingly homogeneous and monocultural compared to the healthy diversity of humanity as a whole. To see what I mean and why this matters requires a brief digression on social epistemology.

A digression on epistemology

 I believe that it is a simple matter of observation that all important knowledge is socially fabricated. The mere fact of its social fabrication has no direct bearing on its usefulness for our work in the world, but the manner of its social construction certainly does. Every discipline has its methodological canons, its collective wisdom about what manner of proceeding is most likely to result in useful knowledge. Notably absent for a long time from these methodological canons has been any consideration of the fact that people who have led different sorts of lives, been treated differently by others, come to hold to different values, attitudes, and beliefs, function through different habitual practices, and embody different ways of being in the world will generally concoct different strategies for the production of useful knowledge about anything. The mutual articulation of these many strategies is more likely to result in robustly useful knowledge (i.e. knowledge useful for many different sorts of purposes) than the repeated application of only a single strategy, arising from a single or homogeneous social and cultural perspective. Various versions of this principle have been called ‘standpoint epistemologies’, though I think the version here makes only the minimal relevant claim for purposes of the issues I am raising.

The argument for diversity

  Given that social diversity informs intellectual diversity, then the academy suffers to the extent that it does not include such diversity. This principle also helps to distinguish ‘mere diversity’ from diversity useful to our purposes as scholars. Merely to have come from a different background, merely to be a member of some distinct social group, whether by self-identification or ascription, even to be a fully enculturated member of the group is not enough. What matters is the demonstrated ability to translate difference of background into difference of practice and different approaches to the production of knowledge and insight. This intellectual difference may appear in teaching and mentoring, in choice of research program, in methodology, in contributions to discussions of program policy or curriculum, in styles of discourse, or in substantive work and results. In addition, sometimes the mere fact of sharing social and cultural background with another member of a disempowered or disrespected group (e.g. with a junior colleague or student), makes possible a quality of productive dialogue and a degree of trust, respect, and collegiality, that is not possible when there are no such people in the community.

 I believe that a substantial increase in faculty and student diversity will produce a healthy increase in the degree of challenge to existing paradigms (of all stripes and on all issues) and ultimately foster an intellectual renaissance in the academy. Failure to do so, or even merely letting things take their otherwise ‘naturally’ much slower course, is likely to contribute to the increasing intellectual stagnation, social isolation, and practical irrelevance of the academy as the initiative for innovative ideas and practices shifts to other institutions.

Diversity and social justice

 At the larger social level, the academy is morally obligated to make its contribution to progressive social policy because of the dangers to the society that supports us from not doing so, from not responding constructively to that first, ugly social fact I put forward. We are not a significant broker of power or center of resources with respect to our faculty hiring, not on the stage of U.S. society as a whole. We have more impact through our selection of students, because we are trusted gatekeepers for a very imperfect meritocracy. If we do not act to restore access to resources, power, and respect for socially excluded groups, we risk letting our society fall ever deeper into destructive dissension, social mistrust, and utter waste of desperately needed human resources.

 At the personal level, we need to face another disquieting fact. No one can be a ‘just man’ or woman in an unjust society. None of us can claim to be unaffected in our judgments and actions by the social distortions that result from systemic injustice and the prevailing social structures and cultural ideologies which insure the continuation of systemic injustice. We cannot not be part of the problem, and so we cannot be our own best selves so long as these injustices persist. Even actively working against these injustices does not immunize us from the intellectual and moral effects on us of a whole life lived in an unjust polity.

 It seems easy therefore to conclude that we ought to have a socially progressive policy and actually to act on it to increase meaningful diversity and equity. What sort of policy should this be?

  Here I only want to comment on what seem to me, in light of the arguments I’ve already made, some problematic turns in our common discourses about such policies.

On social categorization

 First, there is the question of which social groupings are most affected and which are most likely to contribute to genuine and meaningful intellectual diversity. This is a complex and problematic area because the definitions of social groups are themselves artifacts of the unjust practices we seek to change. U.S. society is above all unjust in matters we call ‘racial’, despite the fact that human biology gives no support for there actually being significant differences among so-called ‘races’, and indeed finds the greatest overall human commonality between peoples of european and african descent. ‘Race’ is a purely social-political reality; it exists and matters only because we behave as if it should. The differences which make a difference in this case do so quite arbitrarily. The surface features by which we identify members of different races, whether physical or behavioral, need not make a difference in any other respect (though this is perhaps more true of the physical differences, because behavioral differences which arise from cultural ones are often already part of larger patterns).

 Race matters indeed, and even in ways we disguise behind the mask of other forms of difference, e.g. linguistic difference in the case of attitudes toward Latino/as is in most cases disguised racial prejudice against their partly or fully non-european descent. Cultural prejudice against people of many Asian groups is also often at its core a function of racializing practices. I believe however that pure race prejudice is on the decline, particularly among the affluent and highly educated people in the U.S. who serve on university faculties. I believe that what one might call ‘cultural-behavioral’ prejudice is the most significant factor today maintaining discrimination against members of all disempowered and disrespected social groups. It is how the members of these groups are perceived to act, particularly in matters of communicative and social-interactional style or behaviors perceived as aggressive or disrespectful, that matters even more than racial categorization.

 Both ‘suspect’ cultural-behavioral differences and the cultural-intellectual differences  which we ought to value for their diversity do not arise because of so-called ‘racial’ differences directly, but only indirectly because people who are differently racially categorized are socialized into different cultural, behavioral, and intellectual practices, at least in some significant respects. Conversely, such differences can also arise from other social categorizations in addition to racializing practices. Social class categorization, gender and sexuality categorization, ethnic-national categorization, religious categorization, and age categorization all also produce differences of socialization that result in cultural-behavioral differences that are easily and arbitrarily stigmatized, and so they too can result in differences in intellectual perspective that are potentially of great value.

 A concern for diversity is not the same as a concern for social justice. We need both, but they are distinct. A concern for diversity on the part of a member of the most empowered groups in society is in part selfish and can and perhaps should arise out of enlightened self-interest. A concern for social justice may also be partly a matter of enlightened self-interest, but it is I think intrinsically more altruistic. It seeks betterment for others because that course is right, not solely because it is necessary to our own survival or prosperity. I write this essay from a position which is more nearly that of the most empowered social groups, though I also in some very definite ways distance myself those groups (as I explain in some detail in the opening chapter of my book Textual Politics).

 Social categorization is always a matter of gross oversimplification of the lived reality and diversity of humanity. It is a low-dimensional representation, a caricature in fact, of the multi-dimensional degrees of  difference among people on dimensions that matter for every social purpose. Real people inhabit every possible intersection and combination of human qualities; real people vary by continuous differences of small degree on all the dimensions that get counted as relevant to social categorization. Human diversity is not a matter of either/or. Many of us are both masculine and feminine, some of us are both male and female. Many of us share both european and non-european descent. If we are more conventionally masculine in some of our behaviors and preferences, we may still be less so in respect of others. Even what constitutes conventionally masculine behavior varies from culture to culture, age group to age group, and among social classes. Phenomenologically there are no neat social ‘classes’, no absolute ‘genders’ or pure ‘sexual orientations’, no pure ‘races’ or idealized ‘languages’ or ‘cultures’. Social categorization is partly a convenience of everyday speech and mostly a product of political ideology. It mainly functions to give discursive voice to previously successful strategies for the accumulation of power on the part of dominant groups. Social categories are, in my own view, highly problematic as the basis for scholarly or scientific work. [For more see here.]

 That said, as it needs to be said more often and more clearly than it usually is, a quest for meaningful diversity in the academy should begin with efforts to recruit not just faculty and students who are women or who identify as African-American or Latino/a or Asian-American or Native American, but also those whose intellectual viewpoints will have been influenced by their experiences of working-class lives or serious poverty, living with a minority sexual orientation in a hostile heteronormative culture, being raised and/or educated outside the U.S., and even (most radically I think) being at a significantly different point in the age distribution than are most current faculty or students. [For more on age-related issues see here.]

 If we are serious about diversity, we should be serious about more than just ‘race’ or ‘minority status’. We should not just be looking at surnames or physical appearance, but at life experiences and the ways in which an individual seems able or likely to translate those experiences into forms of participation in our community which challenge us and open up our work and discussions to new perspectives.

Three degrees of affirmative action

 So I come, finally, to matters of social policy. The primary social policy in effect in many universities that is relevant to these concerns  is usually called affirmative action. Regardless of its legal or formal definitions in different places, it seems to me from my own experience and what I have learned from friends and colleagues in many places, that there are in fact three different degrees of affirmative action in the academy, for each of which we need to formulate our own personal responses.

 The first degree of affirmative action is a policy of pro-actively seeking to increase the diversity, with respect to as many relevant social categories as possible, and at least for those formally recognized in the law or by university policy, in the pool of applicants for faculty positions or student admissions and aid. Recognizing what I have already said about the difference between mere diversity and meaningful diversity, and the need to expand the range of relevant differences, I personally strongly support this first degree in all cases. I believe that it represents progressive social policy and good academic policy. Its unintended side-effects seem minimal and generally acceptable.

 The second degree of affirmative action in the academy occurs at the stage where, for faculty hiring, we short-list those to be interviewed and given an opportunity to persuade us of their value as prospective members of our community. Here progressive social and academic policy, for me, requires that, if at all possible, members of disempowered social groups be included at this stage. Such a policy does clearly advantage some applicants and, where the total number to be interviewed is limited, as it usually is, correspondingly and necessarily indirectly disadvantages others. I believe that the justification for such policy, apart from everything else I have already argued, is that cultural-behavioral differences require face-to-face contact over an extended period to allow members of culturally different groups (here usually interviewers and interviewees) to begin to appreciate each other’s value, personally and intellectually. I would even argue, though I know why it is in other respects perhaps impractical, that for candidates who are thought likely to add significantly to the diversity of the community we all be given a longer period of time (days or a week or multiple visits) to get to know one another. I believe that at this degree of affirmative action, the prospective benefits to the community outweigh the relatively small discrimination against other candidates. At this stage of the process, there are, after all, so many imponderables and uncertainties that it is difficult to argue that the candidates disadvantaged by the process would otherwise have been preferred. On the other hand, I do not support pro forma interviews of sny candidates who have no realistic chance of being selected. I believe this demeans both the process and the candidates.

 The third degree of affirmative action is the rarest, though I believe it is more common than is publicly acknowledged. Some institutions privately recognize that their other efforts to increase diversity, whether meaningfully or even just statistically, have not been very successful. At this point they may resolve that a particular search, or more often at least one among two or more simultaneous searches, should if at all possible result in the selection of someone who would increase overall diversity. It is in these cases that the effect of disadvantaging other candidates becomes problematic for me. If we simply weigh diversity as being extremely important, as I do, so that among otherwise substantially equal candidates, we prefer the one who also adds most to meaningful diversity, then I believe that good decisions result. If on the other hand, a clearly better candidate is rejected solely for reasons of social categorization, then this is the point where I find a conflict between large-scale social policy regarding aggregate social justice and local policy which aims to benefit the institution. I cannot in general resolve that conflict, at least in the abstract, always in favor of diversity alone. I say this despite the fairly obvious historical fact that the reverse situation, in which strong candidates from disrespected social groups have been passed over in favor of someone who seemed more comfortably of the ‘right sort’, has always been far more common and has undeniably contributed to both social injustice and the weakness of the academy.

 I believe that the proper arena for contention in these matters is that of the degree of relative weight, in the case of real individual candidates, among their strengths and prospective contributions. Adding to meaningful diversity should be an important element in these discussions, but social categorization alone should not become the over-riding consideration in a final decision, unless there is no substantial qualitative difference otherwise among the candidates. I recognize that this position does leave open the possibility that progressive arguments will not be able to overcome residual prejudice, or just inter-cultural discomfort, regarding candidates who would add most to diversity. I recognize that it does not guarantee outcomes that solve the problems which I have articulated. But I think it ought to matter to the academy how we work to solve our problems as much as what the outcomes are, and that we should not take easy solutions that compromise our own rationale for progressive action.

Policy and organizational scale

 In my thinking about social and institutional change more generally, I have found it useful to analyze the relationships among situations and processes at different organizational scales. My own strong commitment to diversity and affirmative action is easiest to maintain at the larger scales, when we speak about whole institutions. When it is problematic to implement, this most often happens in the messy realities of individual cases and decisions. This suggests to me two possible further lines of inquiry.

 First, it may not be appropriate to translate an institution-wide policy of promoting diversity into a uniform implementation in each unit of the institution. The very diversity which we value will often insure that members of different social categories (i.e. people who have led diverse social lives in diverse cultures and subcultures) will consequently differ in their attraction to various occupations or specialist fields. A commitment to diversity entails, for me, an opposition to social and cultural uniformitarianism. I do not seek a society in which there are no cultural or social-categorial differences in people’s interests, values, practices, dispositions, occupations, etc. Only one in which there is enough equity of access to power, resources, and respect to insure that no group or coalition of groups dominates all others and that there is some meaningful social diversity in most social activities, particularly those that most influence community-wide decisions.

 Accordingly, it may not make sense to aim for the same statistical distribution across all social categories in all operations and units of the university or of other institutions. It may make more sense to allow considerable latitude at these levels of organization and set our goals only for overall, institution-wide outcomes.

 Second, we may then also wish to take affirmative action at the institution-wide scale directly, rather than only indirectly as the cumulative result of independent decisions at the unit-level. This suggests to me that an institution may want to take action to recruit, for example, a cluster of faculty across different disciplines who individually and even moreso collectively contribute to a stronger voice for alternative viewpoints on campus. This might apply not just to the traditionally identified minorities, and to women, but also to internationally recruited faculty, to sexual minorities, or to social class representation. I realize that not all of these options are equally realistic, but another institution-wide step might be to conduct internal and also external assessments of the climate for diversity at an institution. How welcoming is the institution as a whole, and also its individual units, to various diverse viewpoints and cultural-behavioral styles? Which dimensions of diversity are well-represented in the institution and which are not? One might think of this as a sort of regular ‘diversity audit’ that contributes to the formulation of institutional-scale policy and planning, and which goes beyond statistical facts to inquire more deeply into the lived reality of the university.


I thank anyone who has read this whole essay for their extreme patience! I hope that the ways of looking at these issues that I have suggested here will stimulate your own thinking and action in an area of our community life that is neither simple nor easy to come to terms with, but which matters greatly to me, and I hope to all of us.