By Roger Clegg
Elmhurst College, in what is apparently a first, will ask this question on its admissions application: "Would you consider yourself a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community?" Answering the question will be optional; applicants may chose "yes" or "no" or "prefer not to answer."
Those answering yes to the LGBT question will be eligible for a diversity-driven "enrichment scholarship" since they will be considered members of an "underrepresented group." On the other hand, according to Insider Higher Ed, the school "admits around 65 percent of applicants, and does not anticipate using sexual orientation as a factor in admissions decisions."
You can read about all this on the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed websites, and the college itself subsequently put out a statement on the matter (in which it notes that "the College did not seeks publicity for this step").
There do not appear to be any federal legal problems with the college's action, and if there are it will be, ironically, because of liberal rather than conservative legal theories. That is, the left has been aggressive in pushing legal arguments that federal law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation; to the extent that courts and bureaucrats accept those dubious arguments, then it opens the door to claims that preferences on the basis of sexual orientation are illegal, too.
Law aside, does Elmhurst's action make sense as a policy matter?
The principal justification, of course, is that this will improve campus diversity. Relatedly, the college says this will improve its ability to tell LGBT students and applicants about the school’s pro-diversity LGBT programs and resources. The school does not assert that the policy serves a remedial function, which is good; remedial arguments even for racial preferences have generally been rejected for universities as the Jim Crow era fades into the past, and such arguments are even less persuasive for LGBT students, since it cannot even be asserted for them that the effects of past discrimination get transmitted from generation to generation. The school does discuss its past championing of racial equality, and asserts that it “is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a Protestant denomination that frequently has been at the forefront of ecclesiastical efforts to embrace the whole of humanity.” (Some Protestants find it hard to read Scripture without concluding that God is creeped out by gay sex, though he loves homosexuals, along with everybody else. Elmhurst and the UCC, however, are entitled to their own readings of the Bible.)
As for the diversity justification, it is as always underwhelming. Admitting and awarding scholarships to students simply with an eye on their academic ability and commitment will have much greater “educational benefits” (the Supreme Court’s phrase) than diluting that standard in order to improve the quality of dormitory bull sessions. Nor is it clear how encouraging students to go to this campus rather than that campus will increase the net number of non-LGBT students who have contact with LGBT students—how does Elmhurst know that LGBT students are “underrepresented” there, anyhow?
But even if there are asserted benefits from the new policy, they must be weighed against the potential costs. There is of course the general problem with basing admission and scholarship decisions on any criterion—race, ethnicity, sex, legacy status, Daddy’s donations, etc.—that has nothing to do with academic ability and commitment.
There is also the general problem of encouraging students to think of themselves as first and foremost members of this or that group rather than as individuals. Racial identity politics and racial essentialism are bad, and so is LGBT identity politics and LGBT essentialism. It is predictable and inevitable that Elmhurst’s new policy will encourage this mindset.
And this leads us to a bigger problem, and one peculiar to the LGBT context. There is something particularly disturbing about encouraging 17-year-olds to sign on the dotted line as LGBTs. As Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application Inc.—which decided earlier this year not to include an LGBT question—observed, “[N]ot all 17-year-old kids know they’re gay or are comfortable with being gay, or they know they’re gay, but their counselor and their parents don’t know. Or maybe they do know but think it’s none of your business.” The Common Application’s board said, “One common worry was that any potential benefits to adding the question would be outweighed by the anxiety and uncertainty students may experience when deciding if and how they should answer it.”
Bob Schoenberg, director of the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is likewise ambivalent: “[H]ow would a student who is questioning his or her sexuality or gender identity deal with the question? What does it mean if you don’t fill it out?”
Indeed: In what sense is it progress to make our sex lives a matter of record? And if a student gets an LGBT scholarship, will he or she feel obliged to join this or that organization, take this or that stance, act this or that way, embrace or continue to embrace this or that identity? Why would a college want to risk bringing such pressure to bear, no matter how subtly or unintentionally?
All is all, then, Elmhurst College’s policy should not be followed by other schools—but, of course, it will be.
Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.