The Diversity Dialogues in Higher Education

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

In the early 1970s, advocates of affirmative action regarded it as a democratic principle wrapped in a moral command. (1) For years it was promoted as adhering to the policy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (2)--to eliminate discrimination by making it illegal to deny or award opportunities on the basis of race, color or creed. In 1971, the Department of Labor charted a new course by issuing Affirmative Action Guidelines Revised Order No. 4, (3) which stipulated that affirmative action obliged companies to create timetables to increase hiring of minority workers. (4) College admissions officers quickly interpreted the order to mean that race-conscious preferences were now acceptable. (5) Later, affirmative action was met with resistance as the growing, and often secretive, (6) practice of using racial preferences confronted core American values like equality, (7) fair play, (8) and individual opportunity. (9)

The use of race-based preferences preceded the multiculturalism movement (10)--a movement embodying the egalitarian efforts of administrators, faculty, and students to "diversify" campus life. Today the "diversity" mantra is invoked on seemingly any occasion. In inauguration addresses, for example, new college presidents not only speak of "diversity" as a personal commitment but virtually proclaim it as the most compelling value of the university. (11) Of course, our universities, especially our public universities, are responsible for serving increasingly diverse constituencies. We too often witness, however, the celebration of diversity as if it rested on a set of basic assumptions shared by all groups. Diversity has become a universal good presumed to be so self-evident that it need never be defined or can conveniently be redefined according to the occasion.

Not surprisingly, black and white students have concerns when they hear university officials extol tolerance and diversity. Black students appreciate that while diversity sounds good, white administrators will ultimately make all the decisions. (12) In the early 1970s, a group of black undergraduates seeking affirmation of their identity and self-esteem, asked Stanford University to house a substantial number of black students in one "concentration" dorm. (13) The proposal was accepted. (14) In the name of diversity, blacks wanted to create a "comfortable home" where they could be "free to be black," a haven distinguished by its separation from "white Stanford." (15)

Prior to this fundamental change, Stanford's policy (and that of many other universities) had been to scatter black students as widely as possible among the various campus residences. (16) The idea was to give the maximum number of white students a chance to get to know black students and black culture and to encourage black students to learn about white culture as well. (17) College administrators felt that this was the goal of integration. But times were changing. Official race barriers began to fall at colleges and universities during the 1960s. (18) Only a few years later, however, black pride, black power, and black nationalism were in the air. (19) Black students were now demonstrating (sometimes violently) to help define "black consciousness." (20) College was a period of cultural shock for many black students who felt isolated and inadequate upon arriving at a predominantly white campus. (21) Universities across the country, meanwhile, committed themselves to greater minority-group representation. They firmly believed an ethnically diverse student body would benefit students of different races and backgrounds by enabling them to study and learn together. (22)

Perhaps due to my years as president of San Jose State University, I can sympathize with efforts to put a good face on the unexpected consequences of "forward-looking policies" on diversity. (23) But we also need straight talk about how these policies have been administered. …