By Richard Vedder
Universities enjoy a privileged position in our society and lots of independence from political and economic forces, partly to provide an environment where diversity of views reigns -where conformist, stifling uniformity is suppressed in favor of a "free market in ideas." Coupled with that historically has been a sense of meritocracy -the academy is an oasis where the intellectual able, the motivated, the disciplined, can break bread, spar verbally and learn.
But that's not what our universities are like today. Campuses are filled with high-priced administrators collecting economic rents (unnecessary payments) promoting "diversity"--the favorite and most overused word of many administrators. But it's a good word that has been subverted to promote the evaluating of groups of people on the basis of some physical characteristic rather on individual merit. Thus universities in their admission policies favor blacks or Hispanics over Asians and whites. Sometimes they favor women over men. Call it the New Racism.
The public mostly does not like this and, when given a chance, they forbid it. The voters of Michigan, a state that routinely supports liberal Democrats for president, did so in the aftermath of a 2003 Supreme Court decision involving the University of Michigan in which the Court narrowly allowed for racial composition to be considered in admissions decisions. The voters of Michigan said no to racially discriminatory practices.
Farewell to the New Racism
In the next year the legal environment permitting the New Racism likely will change. Soon we will get the Supreme Court's ruling in Fisher v. Texas, challenging the University of Texas's admission policy clearly favoring racial minorities. Additionally, the Supreme Court is going to review an appellate court decision overturning the Michigan Constitution as amended by the people by referendum. At issue here not only is "affirmative action," but also whether our federalist governance structure will become even more a historical, fictitious artifact.
What is galling to me is that there are legitimate, legal, morally acceptable -even good-- ways of promoting economic diversity in universities. For example, there are arguments for giving preference to persons on the basis of socioeconomic status. If a prestigious and selective university were to say, in the interest of intergenerational income mobility, that it is reserving 25 percent of its admission slots to persons below the median in household income (perhaps adjusted for family size), a very healthy proportion of those reserved slots would go to minorities given their generally lower position in the income distribution. Under conventional racial preferences, a black kid whose parents make $200,000 a year and who ranks 20th in a high school class of 100, may get admitted while a white kid ranking 5th in the class whose parents make $50,000 a year does not. What is moral, fair or just about that?
Meanwhile, the "college for all" perspective, expressed by rich philanthropic groups (i.e, the Gates and Lumina Foundations) and powerful politicians (e.g., President Obama), scorns the notion that there some persons for whom the collegiate environment is inappropriate, that some people do not flourish there, and they refuse to acknowledge that millions of Americans are going into college-induced debt only to end up in menial jobs. Intellectual diversity to the college for all crowd means we induce persons to go to college who under reasonable criteria do not belong.
Even worse, this is combined with a marked decline in important and needed diversity, namely a tolerance and active support of disseminating vastly different ideas and ideologies both in and outside the classroom. This push for intellectual uniformity takes two forms. First, colleges try to censor and prohibit certain forms of politically incorrect expression through speech codes or related rules. I once had a culturally conservative student who was admonished when on his personal web site he showed support for traditional marriage -he was called in by dorm authorities and chastised for being "homophobic." Later, when he walked out of a mandated harangue against a gubernatorial candidate promoting traditional values, he was called before a disciplinary hearing and would have had a black mark put on his record had in not been for my threats of legal action. This is all too common.
But more damaging is the ideological uniformity among the faculty. In many academic units, all or most the faculty have a very similar leftish political/ideological perspective, and one that many are not shy about expressing publicly. I would not care if the entire engineering faculty were radical socialists if they simply talked about the principles of their discipline in class. But in the social sciences and humanities, and in the soft vocational disciplines like business and communications, policy issues often arise, sometimes legitimately, in class. Students deserve to hear multiple perspectives. Yet many survey after studies, (i.e., by George Mason's Daniel Klein), demonstrate these faculty are overwhelmingly liberal, gave many times more money to Obama than Romney, etc.
Enter worried private entrepreneurs. For years, many philanthropists have created free enterprise chairs extolling the virtue of markets. The University of Colorado recently appointed a distinguished scholar and friend, Steve Hayward, to a chair in "conservative thought." The Charles Koch Foundation has done yeoman's work supporting faculty positions, campus lectures by classical liberal speakers, and summer workshops and seminars. Other robust similar efforts exist, such as programs of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama. These people are using their resources to buy true diversity. They are reviled and fought by faculty and administrators trying to suppress this delightful form of intellectual non-conformity. I, for one, salute them and rejoice in their contribution to the academy and the furtherance of western civilization.
Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.