Balance needed in weighing diversity, inclusion and merit

I am recently retired from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, but I still get university emails announcing various events. Recently, I received an email containing an attached flyer publicizing a panel discussion on “Considering National Security in the 2020s.” 

As a former international-politics professor, I was naturally curious to learn what issues would be discussed. I was expecting new takes on U.S.-China relations, the war on terror, Middle East conflicts, and topics one normally associates with national security.

Silly me. The flyer listed “Reparations as an Issue of National Security, Health in Our Youth as an Issue of National Security, Exploring the Military’s Transgender Policies, and More.” 

I am guessing the “more” referred to assorted racial, gender and other disparities that now preoccupy American academia, no matter the discipline.  

It is an obsession with diversity, inclusion and equity that dominates the discourse not only in academia but in much of society. One cannot get through the day without coming across these buzzwords repeatedly.

As just one example, at Washington University, the university’s website The Source recently trumpeted “Annual Day of Dialogue and Action Explores University Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.” The announcement stated: “The mid-February event, initially sparked by the Ferguson uprising in 2014, has evolved into an annual opportunity for students, faculty and staff to come together to … reaffirm our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

This is not a one-day event but a 365-day, 24/7 happening across America, fueled in part by ever expanding, bloated, million-dollar bureaucracies on and off campus charged with planning these feel-good programs. Witness the University of Michigan, which has 93 diversity and inclusion administrators, of whom more than two dozen make an annual salary of over $100,000, according to a blog post by Mark Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan-Flint and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that diversity, inclusion and equity are bad things. Indeed, who can object to promoting these values, especially as antidotes to longstanding historical discrimination against different groups? The problem is that they have taken on meaning and importance that  overrides other worthwhile values.

In particular, under the contemporary diversity, inclusion and equity regime, merit has become a four-letter word. If race-based and sex-based decision-making in years past undermined merit, today it is a new kind of racism and sexism that is having that same effect.

There has been a collapse of standards.

The prejudice against merit begins early in life with the familiar “every child gets a trophy” syndrome, even if you barely register a pulse in the classroom or on the ballfield. It continues with the ongoing, relentless pressures to open up admission to K-12 gifted education and honors/Advanced Placement courses to everyone lest we otherwise damage self-esteem and, more importantly, not meet diversity bean-counting quotas. 



It extends to college admissions, where many schools have eliminated standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT exams, claiming they are biased against minorities, even if they remain the most objective measure of cognitive ability and academic potential, far superior to teacher-friendly letters of recommendation and grade point averages compiled at high schools with differing degrees of rigor. 

Anti-merit practices increasingly shape hiring decisions in various job sectors. One should not be surprised to see humanities and social science departments at universities heavily affected by diversity pressures in their faculty hiring, but one might assume that this would be less so in the hard sciences. However, even here, we see slippage. 

Note, for example, the recent “Initiative to Advance Faculty Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Life Sciences at UC-Berkeley,” which calls for basing a first-cut screening of job candidates “solely on contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Think about it: We may be foreclosing the hiring of a future path-breaking cancer researcher because that person, whether male or female, black or white, did not adequately demonstrate the right liberal attitudes to rate a second interview.

Do you not find it absurd that the University of California has a website that cautions faculty to refrain from uttering such “microaggressions” as “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”? Even if an employer uses the most objective, fairest evaluation methods imaginable in hiring, such as a “behind the curtains” type audition as used by symphony orchestras to select the most talented musicians, this may not be enough to satisfy the diversity purists, for whom merit is, after all, a secondary consideration. 

Is it equitable to consider merit relatively unimportant? How nutty is it?  I am personally not interested in having a heart surgery team or airplane cockpit crew that is “rainbowlike,” that “looks like America.” I would much rather have the best surgeons and pilots serving me, whether all white or all black or whatever. Where competence is most important, merit should clearly trump diversity, no? 

Actually, I think we should always treat people as individuals more so than members of a certain group, since the latter invites stereotyping, an abominable behavior. Yet under the diversity paradigm, we are increasingly fixated on group identity. I value my Judaism, but that is not all that defines me.

The irony is that the diversity folks themselves tend to fall short when it comes to promoting arguably the most important type of diversity, namely diversity of ideas. This is especially so in academia, where the free exchange of competing ideas is critical and where numerous studies show an overwhelming ideological homogeneity among the faculty, exemplified by the ratio of campaign donations to Democrats relative to Republicans being 95-to-1 (Mitchell Langbert and Sean Stevens, “Partisan Registration and Contributions of Faculty in Flagship Colleges,” Jan. 17, 2020). 

The same liberal hegemony and bias can be seen in the movie industry. At the Academy Awards ceremony last month, the few conservatives and Republicans in the audience must have felt as isolated — marginalized — as Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten who were blacklisted for their alleged associations with the Communist Party during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. So much for inclusion. 

Explaining the new multiculturalism during his 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore misspoke when he mistakenly reversed the translation of the national motto E Pluribus Unum as “out of one, many.” Sadly, the diversity promoters seem unaware of how they have not only devalued Americans as individual human beings but also as a common community.

Now, that’s a national security issue worth considering.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the  University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and  American politics.