A U of C prof and his colleague damn DEI initiatives in Newsweek, comparing such initiatives to the race obsession of Nazi Germany

August 13, 2021 • 9:15 am

This is a sad tale, because academics with an argument to make about diversity have scuppered themselves by comparing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (DEI) in American universities to the “race obsession” of Nazis, which led to the gutting and degradation of German universities before and during World War II. They argue that we are in danger of the same thing because, like Nazis, we’re “obsessed with race”. You can already see the fallacy of that comparison, but I’ll discuss this below.

But let’s back up. Last year one of the big fracases at the University of Chicago was the case of Dorian Abbot, a tenured associate professor in Geophysical Sciences, which I described on November 29. It’s also been recounted by Pamela Paresky in her article for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE): “‘Moral pollution’ at the University of Chicago: The case of Dorian Abbott.”  As I wrote at the time,

. . . . this is a pretty serious conflict between, on the one hand, a professor who takes issue with his department’s policies about diversity and inclusion, and, on the other, students and alumni, who, outraged by the professor’s opinion, have taken steps, in a letter/petition, to get the professor severely punished for expressing his views on YouTube.

The whole issue is concisely summarized by my law-school colleague Brian Leiter on his website Leiter Reports (click on the screenshot):

The (associate) professor is Dr. Dorian Abbot in our Department of Geophysical Sciences, who posted four YouTube videos, with slides, taking issue with some initiatives about diversity and inclusion. His talks emphasized the need for a meritocracy rather than “quotas” of minority applicants, and as well as asserting that it’s not the business of universities to promote social justice. Unfortunately, although I watched the videos earlier, Abbot has taken them down, though his slides are still online [see here,  herehere, and here].

Abbott believes, and still believes (see his Newsweek article below), contra the Zeitgeist, that merit should trump everything in hiring, and one shouldn’t give extra preference to candidates based on sex, gender, or ethnicity.  I disagree with him to some extent in that I think we should give some advantage to groups previously handicapped by these factors—not because there is an inherent academic quality conferred by diversity itself (i.e., different “ways of knowing”), but as a form of reparations for previous bigoted behavior. That is, I accept a limited form of affirmative action. Abbott did not and does not. Ultimately, though, we need deep and expensive and laborious social intervention to give everyone equal opportunity from birth. That is the only long-term solution to assuring equality.

One can disagree on this (for example, how long should affirmative action last?), but that doesn’t matter. The point is that one should be able to debate these issues, particularly on the University of Chicago campus where freedom of speech trumps just about everything.

Sadly, Abbott didn’t get his debate, which he wanted, but rather outrage from his department and calls for punishment.  Here’s more from what I wrote:

Have a look especially at the letter to Abbot’s department from 162 people affiliated with the University of Chicago and Geophysical Sciences (their names are unfortunately blacked out, though I think signers should make their names public). The letter demands all kinds of accounting and punishments for what Abbot did.  These including giving Abbot’s graduate and undergraduate students a way to opt out of his mentorship and teaching, making a departmental statement that Abbot’s videos were “unsubstantiated, inappropriate, and harmful to department members and climate” (the exact “harm” that occurred isn’t specified), and measures like this:

[The department should] Implement accountability measures to address patterns of bigoted behaviour in both the department’s hiring/promotion/tenure process and teaching opportunities. For example, faculty who persistently engage in bigoted behaviour should be prevented from taking on teaching roles, new graduate students/post-docs/staff, and committee responsibilities.

This being the University of Chicago, the President, Bob Zimmer, refused to countenance any of these punishments, as Abbott was merely exercising his right to give a public opinion. So Abbott wasn’t officially punished, though he may have been shunned by faculty and students in his department.  And even this resolution leaves something wanting, for, as Paresky says in her FIRE piece:

President Robert J. Zimmer is peerless in his staunch advocacy for a culture “where novel and even controversial ideas can be proposed, tested and debated.” The Chicago Principles (also referred to as the Chicago Statement) have been adopted in some form by more than 75 colleges and universities, largely with the help of FIRE. But if students and newly minted PhDs even at the University of Chicago ask the administration to sanction a professor whose ideas they believe “undermine Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives,” and even feel unsafe because his views run contrary to the prevailing view on campus, it demonstrates that even the most robust protections offered by a university administration are not enough. It takes more than just administrative leadership to create what Zimmer calls “an environment that promotes free expression and the open exchange of ideas, ensuring that difficult questions are asked and that diverse and challenging perspectives are considered.”

Abbot’s own account of the controversy can be found here. Note that he isn’t completely opposed to all DEI efforts, feeling that if there is implicit bias (something almost impossible to ascertain), it should be rooted out, and also supports expanding applicant pools, as do I—not because different groups have different “ways of knowing,” but because the bigger the applicant pool, the greater the chance of getting more talent and letting people know their applications are welcome. However, he also damned himself to the woke by adding this (from his statement):

I also strongly support expanding applicant pools as much as possible. I believe that diversity is healthy and good for a university because it tends to lead to more perspectives and debate that fully explores intellectual issues. That said, I would tend to emphasize a larger variety of types of diversity, including political, religious, and viewpoint diversity, than are currently being emphasized in most DEI efforts. What I am against is setting up systems where group membership is a primary aspect of a candidate’s evaluation.

Abbot, along with co-author Ivan Marinovic (an associate professor of accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business) are courting further disapprobation by publishing a piece in yesterday’s Newsweek that basically says that merit must always trump diversity and inclusion. (Newsweek, of course, is on the Right; no left-wing venue would publish a piece like this. Click on screenshot to read:

Here’s a short summary of their point:

DEI violates the ethical and legal principle of equal treatment. It entails treating people as members of a group rather than as individuals, repeating the mistake that made possible the atrocities of the 20th century. It requires being willing to tell an applicant “I will ignore your merits and qualifications and deny you admission because you belong to the wrong group, and I have defined a more important social objective that justifies doing so.” It treats persons as merely means to an end, giving primacy to a statistic over the individuality of a human being.

DEI compromises the university’s mission. The core business of the university is the search for truth. A university’s intellectual environment depends fundamentally on its commitment to hiring the most talented and best trained minds: any departure from this commitment must come at the expense of academic excellence, and ultimately will compromise the university’s contribution to society. This point is particularly urgent given that DEI considerations often reduce the pool of truly eligible candidates by a factor of two or more.

It’s certainly true that if one hews to traditional considerations of merit, then yes, taking non-meritocratic factors into account will mean hiring candidates that are less academically “meritorious”. But, as I’ve emphasized, if there was a history of non-hiring based on sex and ethnicity, then there will be an underrepresentation of some groups, and, in my “reparations” view, one can start opening the door to more people by a bit of affirmative action, ensuring, of course, that hired faculty and accepted students are qualified for the position. (You would not, for example, hire at the expense of a serious reduction of merit.) Although we still have few blacks in evolutionary biology and ecology, the trend to hire women has been salubrious, for the performance of women faculty, a large and important part of our own department, shows that previous biases against them were misguided, and some preferential hiring to get the ball rolling was a good thing. It was such a good thing that we’re now at the point where the ball is rolling on its own.

Abbot and Marinovic also cite a recent Pew Poll showing that most Americans, while favoring diversity and its promotion, don’t think it should be taken into account in hiring and promotion. That is, most Americans seem to favor meritocracy, even if it erodes diversity. Here are the data from Pew:

But an issue like this is not one that should depend on the results of polls; it is an ethical issue, and a complicated one.

At any rate, the authors propose an alternative strategy:

We propose an alternative framework called Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone. Crucially, this would mean an end to legacy and athletic admission advantages, which significantly favor white applicants, in addition to those based on group membership. Simultaneously, MFE would involve universities investing in education projects in neighborhoods where public education is failing to help children from those areas compete. These projects would be evidence-based and non-ideological, testing a variety of different options such as increased public school funding, charter schools and voucher programs.

I of course am also against legacy and athletic admissions, which are done for pecuniary rather than academic reasons, but I still retain a tentative hold on some forms of preferential hiring based on group membership. That is not a “quota” system, but gives some weight to group membership. It simply does not redound to academia or its history to have all-white departments, or departments in which people from Spain are forced to count as “people of color” to maintain the fiction of diversity.

Sadly, at the end, Abbot and Marinkovic sabotage their entire program by comparing American DEI initiatives and their “obsession with race” with another regime, also “obsessed with race”, whose obsession destroyed academia in that country. Yes, it was the Nazis. The authors play the Hitler card! That is a really bad move, and one that undercuts their thesis, since the comparison is not at all valid, if for no other reason that the “obsession with race” went in the opposite direction in Germany: they wanted less diversity. By getting rid of a previously oppressed group (Jewish professors), they lost a huge amount of talent. But DEI initiatives in the U.S. are not trying to get rid of oppressed groups; they’re trying to include them. Whether that will affect academic quality is debatable, but the histories are not at all comparable.

But here: see for yourself. Had I seen this op-ed, I would have said, “For crying out loud, take out this damn paragraph!”:

Ninety years ago Germany had the best universities in the world. Then an ideological regime obsessed with race came to power and drove many of the best scholars out, gutting the faculties and leading to sustained decay that German universities never fully recovered from. We should view this as a warning of the consequences of viewing group membership as more important than merit, and correct our course before it is too late.

Oy gewalt!

h/t: Cate

14 thoughts on “A U of C prof and his colleague damn DEI initiatives in Newsweek, comparing such initiatives to the race obsession of Nazi Germany

    1. There’s got to be some exception when it’s so incredibly accurate though. I can’t help but think of Nazism over and over when confronted with the race essentialism, ancestral guilt, calls for group punishment and firm rejection of evidence and empiricism which underlie such initiatives.

      Is it still Godwin’s Law when it’s just the most obvious parallel?

  1. As you note, the Hitler card is a serious problem with the piece that will make it far less credible than it could have been. It’s too bad, because one line in particular stood out to me:

    “That said, I would tend to emphasize a larger variety of types of diversity, including political, religious, and viewpoint diversity, than are currently being emphasized in most DEI efforts.”

    Every DEI effort with which I have experience has no concern at all with viewpoint diversity. In fact, I strongly suspect that the proponents don’t want that. They all claim to support greater diversity because more perspectives result in better outcomes. Some even give a nod to “intersectionality” where white men from Appalachia may be less “privileged” than black women who are the daughters of doctors and lawyers. At the end of the day, though, all of their programs focus solely on race and gender.

  2. I am not sure that the comparison with Nazi Germany is wrong. Kendi has said that the only cure for past discrimination is present discrimination. There comes a point where increasing representation for one group mean exclusion of another group. Remember, the Nazis didn’t just want racial exclusion, they wanted viewpoint exclusion.

    1. (No edit): Oh, and an interesting quote I came upon from the Italian author Ignazio Silone in 1945: “The Fascism of tomorrow will never say ‘I am Fascism.’ It will say: ‘I am anti-Fascism.'”

  3. “[W]e need deep and expensive and laborious social intervention to give everyone equal opportunity from birth. That is the only long-term solution to assuring equality.”

    Thanks for saying this regularly, and in posts on different topics. A lot of people read this site, and benefit from reading that argument about how best to get to meaningful and fair equality.

  4. I think we should give some advantage to groups previously handicapped by these factors—not because there is an inherent academic quality conferred by diversity itself (i.e., different “ways of knowing”), but as a form of reparations for previous bigoted behavior. it’s not just that; it’s because “merit” is rarely completely objective or clear cut, there may be many more qualified applicants than spots, and in cases where humans have to select from a field of equally qualified candidates (such as identical resumes or identical writing samples), they tend to show bias.
    So I would argue that these groups are <I.still handicapped by bigoted behavior. It may be unintended. It may be subconscious. It’s not necessarily an indictment of the characters or principles of the people doing the selecting. But it’s still there. Thus the need for rules or guidelines that work against the bias. Blinding is one way, and is probably the best way when we can do it. However it’s sometimes impractical. So thus the need for affirmative action type efforts. So that of identical-resume-Bob and identical-resume-N’gala, Bob doesn’t keep getting picked.

    It’s certainly true that if one hews to traditional considerations of merit, then yes, taking non-meritocratic factors into account will mean hiring candidates that are less academically “meritorious”.

    Following my argument above, I would respond to this by saying we already take non-meritocratic factors into account. Name and gender seem to influence selection, even though they shouldn’t! So the question is how do we remove or counter-balance the non-merit biases we already (accidentally, unintentionally) employ.

    1. That’s more or less what I wanted to say. How do we define merit? No matter how objective we think we are, we’re all influenced by our biases and our judgment of merit is far more subjective than we might believe.

      We can point to SAT scores as an objective measure of merit, and standardized testing is about as objective as it gets, but it presumes that “merit” is strictly defined as ability to perform well on standardized testing. There are so many other things that differentiate smart people from exceptional people. (I should know – I’m a smart person who is completely unexceptional!)

      I really like Eric’s point that given a surplus of qualified applicants something has to tilt the balance, and usually that is bias, unconscious or not. Why not be deliberate and strive to select applicants from less privileged backgrounds?

  5. They are right however that the woke are so obsessed with race that their level of obsession exceeds that of literal Nazis. Though it is probably because the original Nazis mostly operated in a society where other races were scarcely present.
    Nevertheless, it is probably not a good a tactic to say it openly in such a debate, especially since the nuance that they make the comparison only in a certain limited aspect will be lost even on some of the non-woke readers.

    BTW, professor Coyne wrote in the past that on principle he supports affirmative actions. I have the very least ambivalent feelings about this. And I am now proceeding to make a reductio ad Hitlerum, sorry. In Hungary, before WWII, the very first anti-jew move the fascist government made was the so called Numerus Clausus. It was a law that limited the ratio of Jew in colleges. The determined ratio was close to the ratio of Jew in the population (although they were not exactly generous with the rounding…). It is commonly referred here in Hungary as an odious dirty Nazi law, the first among many. I asked myself the question: setting aside the context provided by later events, on principle what is the difference between the Numerus Clausus and the affirmative action? I could not find a fundamental difference.

  6. “The “obsession with race” went in the opposite direction in Germany: they wanted less diversity. By getting rid of a previously oppressed group (Jewish professors), they lost a huge amount of talent. But DEI initiatives in the U.S. are not trying to get rid of oppressed groups; they’re trying to include them.”

    I find it hard to take seriously the idea that racial minorities in the United States are oppressed. What laws are holding them back? They are not prohibited from traveling, voting, establishing their own businesses, or holding public office. They exist at all levels of government. They are given preferential treatment in higher education and numerous corporations have diversity programs designed to recruit them and advance their careers.

    Racial disparities exist, but have many causes. In light of the Civil Rights Act, Affirmative Action, and the above mentioned, not to mention the success of certain minority communities (e.g., Jews, Asians) in America, perhaps it is time to discard the oppressed minority narrative unless someone can point to a government policy that is holding them back.

    1. Not legally, but that is not the only thing that matters. Suppose someone kills you. Do you care whether it is because you belong to a group which was legally disadvantaged, or because the person was stupid?

      As Barack Obama said, “If you don’t think I’m black, watch me try to get a taxi on the south side of Chicago.

  7. The academic letter denouncing Professor Abbot illustrates a point I have made here before. The present academic atmosphere of lynch-mob MaoCarthyism is far worse than anything experienced in the supposedly terror-ridden “McCarthyite” 1950s. It will not escape independent observers that the present hysteria on behalf of the catechism of DEI emanates from the Left; nor that it exemplifies the
    rule of purportedly anti-fascist fascism that Ignazio Silone (a founder of the Italian Communist Party who was expelled from it in 1930 for the heresy of opposing Stalin) predicted.

    In fact, independent observers cannot avoid noticing another comparison. Attempts by the political Right to reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election were laughed out of court in the US
    judicial system; and present Republican attempts to slightly restrict voting are subject to fierce controversy and will be challenged in the judicial system. At the same time, regimes purportedly dedicated to Socialism, in Venezuela and Nicaragua, are directly outlawing opposition political candidates. Benito Mussolini, who in the 1920s often insisted that Fascism was part (the superior part) of the Left, may have understood something profound.

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