Here’s an example of the kind of comment I put in the trash. It was from a potential commenter named “Thunderstruck,” responding to another reader’s query about the diversity of the Art Institute of Chicago’s board, administrators, and curators:
The mainstream media never shows us the ugly side of “diversity” (assuming there’s an upside somewhere that I’m not yet aware of).
Get that: “I’m afraid.” How sad that the Jews are in charge of DEI—even though I know of little evidence that they are. And how ugly this fact is!
If you essay the 104-minute movie (I’ve watched only snippets), you’ll see that the movie is rabidly anti-Semitic, arguing that the incursion of “multiculturalism” in Sweden was a very bad thing, eroding a monolithic society of those with Swedish ancestry.
It then blames the Jews for making Sweden multicultural, ergo creating ethnic conflicts. I was too disgusted to watch enough to learn why the Jews want to make Sweden—and, according to Thunderstruck, everywhere—more diverse, but you can watch for yourself. (I suspect it’ll be a nefarious Jewish plot to get the Jews accepted in Sweden!)
This odious film surely documents some of the increasing anti-Semitism of Europe. And the filmmakers were clever: the movie starts out describing the advent of multiculturalism in Sweden in the Sixties, why it was bad; and the Jews are mentioned first only at 7:12. But then the anti-Semitism comes thick and fast.
This is a story that, for obvious reasons, has gotten almost no airplay in Chicago, and none nationally, with no reporting in the major media. So let me tell you about it.
The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), one of the world’s finest art museums, harbors (or rather, harbored) 122 highly skilled docents, 82 active ones and 40 “school group greeters.” All are volunteers and are all unpaid. Their job is to act as guides to the Museum’s collection of 300,000 works, which they explain to both adults and schoolchildren. I’ve seen them in action at the Museum, and they’re terrific.
Despite the lack of remuneration—they do this to be helpful and because they love art—their training to be docents is extremely rigorous. First, they have to have two training sessions per week for eighteen months, and then “five years of continual research and writing to meet the criteria of 13 museum content areas” (quote from the docents’ letter to the Director of the AIC). On top of that, there’s monthly and biweekly training on new exhibits. Then there are the tours themselves, with a docent giving up to two one-hour tours per day for 18 weeks of the year and a minimum of 24 one-hour tours with adults/families. Their average length of service: 15 years. There are other requirements listed by the Docents Council in the ChicagoNow column below (first screenshot).
Many of the volunteers—though not all—are older white women, who have the time and resources to devote so much free labor to the Museum. But the demographics of that group weren’t appealing to the AIC, and so, in late September, the AIC fired all of them, saying they’d be replaced by smaller number of hired volunteers workers who will be paid $25 an hour. That group will surely meet the envisioned diversity goals.
This is entirely a matter of race and “optics,” though you wouldn’t easily discern that by reading the back-and-forth communications between the AIC and the docents. The latter, of course, strenuously object to being let go, and in their letter to the AIC point out their many contributions to the Museum. (The AIC, in a hamhanded gesture, offered them two-year free passes to the AIC as a measly “thank you”.)
The lack of ethnic diversity apparently comes from the fact that this is volunteer work that takes a ton of time, and disadvantaged minorities aren’t often blessed with the time or resources for such work. The AIC says they’ve tried to diversity the docents but have apparently failed (listen to the radio show below).
It’s all a mess, but I know this: it’s grossly unfair and inimical to the education of museum-goers. More than 1200 years of work put in by the current docents, and all that expertise: gone in an instant. Ask yourself first, do they need to diversity? I don’t know the answer, though surely some minority docents might have different points of view about art, a reason implied by the AIC’s response in the Tribune. (But ask yourself what the reaction would be if all the docents were black or Hispanic and they hired whites to get a “white point of view”? Personally, I’m not sure race is crucial in giving expert talks about the Museum’s exhibits.) But the AIC did try to diversity the docents—and failed. They’re to be commended for that because, after all, surely it would look better to have a diverse group of docents. They just weren’t able, given the demographics, to accomplish that.
What can they do? My own suggestion is to keep the docents, but as they retire replace some of them with members of minority groups. The problem with that, though, is that they tried doing this already, and apparently couldn’t find appropriate docents. I think the solution of replacing the docents with a smaller and more “diverse” group of paid guides, however, is not only insulting to the docents, but a bad move for the Museum’s reputation and especially for the education of those who go to the AIC. There will have to be many fewer tours, and with a much less well-trained group of guides.
If readers have a solution to this problem, assuming it is a problem pressing enough to fire every docent, then please give your suggestions below.
The curious thing about all this is that it wasn’t reported as a primary story by either the Chicago Tribune or WBEZ (the local Public Radio Station), and yet the Trib ran a strong editorial excoriating the AIC for its firings, and WBEZ had a show giving the views of the the President of the Docent Council versus those of of a VP of the AIC. Much of the fallout eventually appeared in the Tribune, but it is likely paywalled for you.
You can read the salient details in the column at ChicagoNow by Dennis Byrne(click on screenshot below). Byrne pulls no punches in his sympathy for the docents and ire at the AIC, but he also includes two documents pivotal in this fracas: the September 3 letter from the AIC’s Woman’s Board Executive Director of Learning and Public Engagement Veronica Stein firing the docents, and the long response of the docent’s council, sent not to Stein but to AIC director James Rondeau. (The AIC didn’t even have the decency to get Rondeau to give the docents their pink slip.)
If you want to read the Tribune’s two pieces on the story, they’re here (but probably paywalled): the paper’s long editorial excoriating the AIC for firing the docents (I guess the Trib isn’t all that woke), called “Shame on the Art Institute for summarily canning its volunteer docents,” and a response from Robert Levy, chairman of the AIC board, who argues that the times are a’changing and they need a new demographic, but then dances around the issue of race. He claims that the AIC’s editorial makes serious mistakes, but there’s no smoking gun there.
The link below will take you to WBEZ’s free 16-minute show in which a moderator interviews both Sarah Guernsey, deputy director and senior vice president for curatorial affairs of the AIC, and Gigi Vaffis, president of Docent Council at Art Institute of Chicago. Again, Guernsey doesn’t have the moxie to explicitly discuss the reason for the firing, and comes off to me as being a weasel.
I could write a lot more about the waste of resources, experience, time, and the dignity of the docents involved in this decision, but you can come to your own conclusion. There are better ways to get diversity than what the AIC did, I’m sure. I can’t say what they are, but I know that this decision not only makes the AIC look really bad, but will in the long run cost it a lot of money in withheld donations. And that’s not to mention the loss in educational potential that goes along with the firing of the docents, thoroughly trained to present and discuss the art.
Today’s sermon, from Inside Higher Ed, draws a distinction between what schools are supposed to be for—education—and what they’re doing to train students about proper ways of thinking about diversity, especially when they enter college. (Click on the screenshot to read.) The authors’ mini-bios are at the bottom of the post:
And here are their premises:
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, colleges and universities across the country have enthusiastically embraced training as a tool to promote racial justice. These trainings go by different names, including sensitivity training, diversity training and antiracism training.
Here are some things training is good for: customer service, Excel and CPR. One thing it’s not good for: diversity, equity and inclusion.
At a time when trainings are proliferating across institutions of higher learning, people could be forgiven for confusing training with education. But they are vastly different and should be seen as such especially when it comes to issues of diversity. The purpose of education, bell hooks reminds us, is critical thinking. Requiring “courage and imagination,” the “heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know — to understand how life works.” With hooks’s words in mind, here are 10 ways to tell training and education apart.
Training makes assumptions; education challenges them.
Training is packaged; education cannot be contained.
Training tells you what to think; education teaches you how to think.
Training answers questions; education poses them.
Training is generic; education all about context.
Training simplifies the world; education reveals its complexity.
Training promotes conformity, education independence.
Training is performative; education is transformative.But training is woefully inadequate when it comes to confronting social problems such as poverty, discrimination and racism. These are long-standing, knotty and complex issues that defy ready-made solutions. Any serious effort to address them must start with education, a process for which there are no shortcuts.
Consider these two hypothetical examples of a college trying to deal with issues of race and diversity. The first is a prototypical training module; the second takes an educational approach.
You can peruse these two forms of training in the article; the “prototypical training model,” probably found more often in secondary schools than in colleges is a bit exaggerated for most institutions (it’s certainly not applicable to mine), but bits of it are par for the course in many colleges.
The second approach will not be used because it involves discussion and thought, and things that might offend people. But in the end, I have to agree with the authors, for I think discussion is unifying and propaganda is divisive. And what better way to start one’s college education with an educational agenda?
Often proven to be superficial and ineffective, diversity training should not be the default response for institutions. Instead, colleges and universities should invest in the most powerful tool of all to combat racial injustice: education.
Authors (from the article):
Amna Khalid (@AmnaUncensored) is associate professor in the history department and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (@JeffreyASnyder) is associate professor in the educational studies department at Carleton College. Their writing on education, censorship, diversity and social justice has appeared in CNN, The Conversation and The New Republic.
Every time I say I favor affirmative action for minorities as a form of reparations, someone makes a counterargument that makes me examine my position. I haven’t changed it, but this new piece by John McWhorter, while also favoring affirmative action, favors affirmation based not on race but on “disadvantage, not melanin.” Further, he argues that diversity as an “innate good” that improves universities turns out to be an unproven assumption, and in fact has been disproven, depending on your definition of “improves”. Only a black man could get away with writing such a column, but it does make one rethink one’s views, and points to some research that I didn’t know about.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Here are McWhorter’s two points, and his quotes are indented.
1.) Affirmative action should be based on the disadvantages faced by a student, not by their ethnicity. Fifty years ago race-based affirmative action was a useful thing; now it’s not.
I do not oppose Affirmative Action. I simply think it should be based on disadvantage, not melanin. It made sense – logical as well as moral – to adjust standards in the wake of the implacable oppression of black people until the mid-1960s.
When Affirmative Action began in the 1960s, largely with black people in mind, the overlap between blackness and disadvantage was so large that the racialized intent of the policy made sense. Most black people lived at or below the poverty line. Being black and middle class was, as one used to term it, “fortunate.” Plus, black people suffered open discrimination regardless of socioeconomic status, in ways for more concrete than microaggressions and things only identifiable via Implicit Association Testing and the like. In a sense, black people were all in the same boat.
Luckily, Affirmative Action worked. By the 1980s, it was no longer unusual or “fortunate” to be black and middle class. I would argue that by that time, it was time to reevaluate the idea that anyone black should be admitted to schools with lowered standards. I think Affirmative Action today should be robustly practiced — but on the basis of socioeconomics.
A common objection is that this would help too many poor whites (as if that’s a bad thing?). But actually, brilliant and non-partisan persons have argued that basing preferences on socioeconomics would actually bring numbers of black people into the net that almost anyone would be satisfied with.
I’m no odd duck on my sense that Affirmative Action being about race had passed its sell-by date after about a generation. At this very time, it had become clear, to anyone really looking, that the black people benefitting from Affirmative Action were no longer mostly poor – as well as that simply plopping truly poor black people into college who had gone to awful schools had tended not to work out anyway. It was no accident that in 1978 came the Bakke decision, where Justice Lewis Powell inaugurated the new idea that Affirmative Action would serve to foster “diversity,” the idea being that diversity in the classroom made for better learning.
McWhorter has a point, for “black” or “Hispanic” is almost automatically acquainted with “disadvantaged” these days, but the correlation is not perfect. However, if you conceive of affirmative action as reparations for centuries of race-based oppression, as I do, then “disadvantage” becomes less important, as there are advantages in divers in sociopolitical views, life experiences and the chance to know people from different backgrounds that provide compensatory advantages. Whether this warrants McWhorter’s recommended change in affirmative action is a question above my pay grade. Remember, the Bakke case approved a form of non-quota affirmative action based on the inherent advantages of racial diversity, not as a form of reparations.
2.) But does affirmative action really “make for better learning”? McWhorter says that the evidence is thin. And again, I must plead ignorance of the literature and let you follow McWhorter’s references. He does cite one recent case that seemed to show a genuine educational advantage to diversity, but rushes past it, counterbalancing the data with other references claiming to show that diversity has no substantive effect. To wit:
Of late, we hear that when standards are “adjusted” to be more “holistic” (ahem) to get more black law students editing law schools’ law review journals, the journals’ articles are cited more widely – i.e. that diversity among the editors creates a better publication. This is a weird result but we must accept it – while still asking whether even this justifies basing Affirmative Action on “diversity” overall. Law review editorship is but one thing. How will diversity enhance learning how to do differential quotients or mastering the mechanics of immunology?
Our question is whether diversity is important enough, to enough classes, to justify lowering standards for black kids. To never really ask that question is terribly, terribly fake, and is much of why the nation never comes to any real conclusion about Affirmative Action despite endless starry-eyed perorations about diversity.
And his data:
Students themselves do not seem to find diversity terribly important to their classroom experience. Minority graduates of the University of Michigan law school from 1970 to 1996 were surveyed as to what aspects of their education they most valued. Of the seven aspects given as choices, “ethnic diversity of classmates” was at the bottom. Mitchell J. Chang examined whether diversity affected GPA, social self-image, intellectual self-image, likelihood of graduating, general satisfaction, whether one talked about race, and whether one spent time with people of different races. Surprise – only the last two mattered. The first five are the kind of thing diversity is supposedly so good for – but this study showed that they apparently aren’t. Stanley Rothman, Seymour Lipset and Neil Nevitte showed that on 140 campuses, the more diversity there was, the less satisfied students were with their college experience.
So maybe the idea is that these students are just naïve, or closet racists, or closet self-haters if black, and we must impose diversity upon them as a kind of medicine because it makes them learn better? But the thing is, it does not seem to. Alexander Astin compared degree of racial diversity with grades, test scores, graduation rates and admission to graduate programs at 184 schools. Diversity had no effect on these things.
Or, remember when the University of Michigan was on the griddle about racial preferences for undergraduates and in its law school twenty years ago? You might recall a certain “Gurin Report” that supposedly proved that diversity enhances learning. There was an Amen chord on the soundtrack whenever this Gurin Report was brought up. But did you ever actually read the thing? It was, frankly, a joke.
It asked students whether they exhibited 11 traits which, in fact, no sentient member of human society would disavow having — such as whether they thought about the influence of society on other people, whether they thought they had a greater desire to achieve than the average person their age, etc. Patricia Gurin scored positive answers as evidence that “diversity” had made the subjects “better students.”
The National Association of Scholars rightly answered:
Nowhere in society – not in graduate school admissions, college rankings, job recruitment – do we measure a student’s academic success by asking him how much he personally values artistic works or whether he enjoys guessing the reason for people’s behavor. Very few parents would be likely to accept a transcript that reported not grades but their child’s self-rating of his abilities and drive to achieve.
And finally, black undergrads regularly bridle at the idea that they are on campus to be “diverse.” I recall a good line in an undergrad-penned Black Guide to Life at Harvard a generation ago — “We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy before they go out to take over the world.” Yes, that was a while ago, but black students’ feelings about this have not changed about who we might now call Chloe and Jacob.
I’m not sure that last paragraph makes sense, as black students want to be on campus not to be a component of “diversity”, but because they feel they deserve to be there. Yes, we often hear minorities say that they don’t want to enact the “emotional labor of anti-racism—though they don’t seem to tire of that readily—but that’s irrelevant to McWhorter’s point.
McWhorter’s article didn’t change my mind, though I can see that one could add to affirmative action a “hardship” score independent of race. I think some schools already do that, using criteria based on poverty, first-generation status as college students in a family, and so on.
McWhorter’s book, to be published by Portfolio, will be out October 26; click on the screenshot to see the Amazon site.
An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Amna Khalid has some information about the “diversity and inclusion racket,” and also some solutions that may help achieve real equality beyond the ubiquitous “diversity training” known to be ineffectual.
Chronicle is a much better venue than, say, Inside Higher Education, and it’s worth paying attention to their pieces. The author of this one is Amna Khalid, Associate Professor of History at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
Khalid descries the expensive expansion of deans and administratiors involved with diversity and inclusion, which have burgeoned at the expense of other administrators and faculty. It’s not that they aren’t addressing a problem, but are doing so in an expensive and largely useless way, and eating up huge amounts of cash that could go to genuinely advance equal opportunity and affirmative action. Seriously, is “yoga for women of color” a way to achieve equality?
Have a look at the dosh involved here:
. . . . the University of Virginia scholars Rose Cole and Walter Heinecke applaud recent student activism as a “site of resistance to the neoliberalization of higher education” that offers a “blueprint for a new social imaginary in higher education.”
But this assessment gets things backward. By insisting on bureaucratic solutions to execute their vision, replete with bullet-pointed action items and measurable outcomes, student activists are only strengthening the neoliberal “all-administrative university” — a model of higher education that privileges market relationships, treats students as consumers and faculty as service providers, all under the umbrella of an ever-expanding regime of bureaucratization. Fulfilling student DEI demands will weaken academe, including, ironically, undermining more meaningful diversity efforts.
We’ll get to the “more meaningful diversity efforts” in a second, but Klahid has other fish to fry, including the largely performative acts undertaken by colleges to satisfy what they perceive as the public demand for a response to perceived “structural racism”:
The rampant growth of the administration over the years at the expense of faculty has been well documented. From 1987 to 2012 the number of administrators doubled relative to academic faculty. A 2014 Delta Cost Project report noted that between 1990 and 2012, the number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by roughly 40 percent. This administrative bloat has helped usher in a more corporate mind-set throughout academe, including the increased willingness to exploit low-paid and vulnerable adjuncts for teaching, and the eagerness to slash budgets and eliminate academic departments not considered marketable enough.
College leaders, for their part, have been more than happy to comply with the recent demands for trainings and DEI personnel. Nothing is more convenient from an institutional perspective than hiring more administrators and consultants. It simultaneously assuages angry students and checks the box of doing the work of improving campus inclusivity, without having to contend with the sticking points of university policies and procedures where real change could be achieved: tenure-review processes, limited protections for contingent faculty, and student admission and aid policies that produce inequities.
Instead of tackling those challenges, institutions can rally behind quixotic rhetorical goals such as eradicating systemic and structural racism on campuses. They can, as Portland State University has done, pledge to apply “an antiracist lens to every signal we send, every model we create, and every policy we enact.” Or, like the University of Louisville has done, they can announce their aspiration of becoming “a premier anti-racist metropolitan university.”
We all know the money that is going to these efforts is often useless; as Khalid notes,
“The vast majority of college administrations have simply genuflected to student demands for trainings. The most galling aspect of institutional responses, one that is conspicuously neoliberal and anti-educational, is the embrace of the-customer-is-always-right attitude. Evidence and research suggest that diversity-related trainings are not effective. According to the sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, diversity training has“failed spectacularly” when it comes to reducing bias. To the contrary, these trainings can reinforce stereotypes and heighten bias. Yet colleges and universities across the country have chosen to disregard the evidence and instead pander to the “customer.”
The fact that colleges are indeed responding to public pressure rather than fulfilling their mission to educate is nowhere more evident than in the investment in diversity training, which actually furthers divisiveness, afflicts “majority” students with deep guilty and “minority” students with a sense of being permanent victims. If diversity training doesn’t work, do not use it.
Oh and there’s also the money to be made by administrators and the doyens of anti-racism, for example Kendi and DiAngelo:
Hiring executive DEI officers is the primary way in which many colleges have signaled their commitment to antiracism and diversity. More than two-thirds of major universities across the country had a chief diversity officer in 2016. Even in lean times, institutions of higher learning appear to have continued appointing executive diversity officers. Consider the University of California system, where in 2010 faculty and staff had to take up to three and a half weeks of unpaid leave due to a $637-million cut in state funding. Later the same year the San Francisco campus appointed its first vice chancellor of diversity and outreach with a starting salary of $270,000. In 2012, faced with the threat of a $250-million cut in state funding, the San Diego campus nonetheless hired its first vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion, with a starting salary of $250,000.
The other chief beneficiaries are diversity trainers and consulting firms. Diversity training is a billion-dollar industry. A one-day training session for around 50 people can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $6,000. Speaking fees for Ibram X. Kendi, the antiracist scholar at Boston University, are $20,000, and Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility,charges $50,000 to $75,000. Some colleges, I’ve been told, are forking out north of $140,000 for multi-session antiracism and diversity training for faculty and staff.
Imagine charging $50,000 to $75,000 for a lecture that you can skip by paying $8.16 for her book!
So what does Khalid recommend in the place of this cash-bloated waste of time? Here are her solutions:
But instead of asking for bureaucratic solutions such as trainings, students would be better served if they insisted that colleges redirect resources towards things such as increasing financial aid, providing better academic support systems for underrepresented students, and instituting educational initiatives.
A good example is the University of Pittsburgh’s multidisciplinary course “Anti-Black Racism: History, Ideology, and Resistance” introduced in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and which all first-year students are required to take. Drawing on the expertise of Pitt faculty from the humanities, social sciences, public health, sciences, and the arts, as well as Pittsburgh-area activists, the course focuses on the Black experience and Black cultural expression, and it considers the interplay of race with ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and nationality.
Alas, such thoughtful responses have been few and far between. The vast majority of college administrations have simply genuflected to student demands for trainings.
First and third paragraphs: I approve completely with her solutions, along with more efforts aimed at affirmative action. Since so many students are roughly equally qualified for admission to universities, especially elite ones, why not choose those who have, by virtue of past racism, deserve a form of educational reparations? But discussion must be free, open, and not guided to achieve certain ends. That isn’t education, but social engineering.
As for the “educational initiatives” like Pitt’s required course in “Anti-Black Racism”, this sounds more to me like propaganda than a real learning experience. It is an attempt to imbue students with a particular ideological attitude, as you can see on the course’s webpage. To wit: it is a precis of Critical Race Theory, and just as likely to be as divisive and ineffective as is diversity training. The objectives:
After meaningfully engaging with the content in this course, students should be able to:
Describe and explain key ideas and concepts concerning the social construction of race and ethnicity
Identify historical and current structures of power, privilege, and inequality that are rooted in Anti-Black racism
Explain how anti-Black racism acts individually, interpersonally, institutionally, and structurally
Identify and describe the contribution of scholars and experts on anti-Black racism at Pitt and in the larger community
Articulate and criticallyexamine personal beliefs and opinions about race, antiracism and antiblackness and describe the weight these beliefs and opinions carry.
Explain how institutions and policies contribute to and enable Anti-Black racism
Identify some of the many existing organizations that provide anti-racism programming and opportunities
Does anybody think that these “goals” will be achieved by free and open discussion among the students? No, this is indoctrination pure and simple, and is required of all first-year students. (I, for one, would object to the idea that “ethnicity” is purely a social construction.) The first thing they learn, then, is not to think for themselves, but what to think, and how to keep your mouth shut if your opinion isn’t an approved one. I’m curious why Khalid things this is palpably superior to diversity training.
Still, there are useful solutions to the problem of inequality, and Khalid limns some. And, if nothing else, she highlights how corrupted American colleges and universities have become by what they see as societal demands.
In the end, I fear there is no going back here. Even my own University is gradually becoming imbued with social justice philosophy to the extent that dissent from received opinion is chilled: something absolutely new to our unique University tradition, in which all discussion is welcomed, even if not agreed on.
In my worst nightmares, I fear that colleges are no longer places to explore ideas, discuss them no matter now contentious or unpopular, and learn how to think and argue. They are instead becoming instruments: instruments of social engineering by administrators who want to turn out students like themselves, with a liberal bent. Not that there’s anything wrong with liberalism—I adhere to it—but you must arrive at it by cogitation, not indoctrination.
I know virtually nothing about Tablet, but they’ve done what looks to me like some good reporting over the past few years, including the revelations about anti-Semitism among the leaders of the original Women’s March. I don’t know anything about its political stand, if it has one—only that they usually (but not always) write about things of specific interest to Jewish people. Bari Weiss used to write for them.
In 2012, questions by Michael C. Moynihan, writing for Tablet, led to Jonah Lehrer’s resignation from The New Yorker: Lehrer had invented and cobbled together quotes attributed to Bob Dylan for his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.
In 2017, Tablet hired Gretchen Rachel Hammond, a Chicago journalist fired from her job at Windy City Times after breaking the news of Jewish activists being expelled from the Chicago Dyke March.
I’ve written about both of those issues; the Lehrer exposé pretty much discredited him for good, as his plagiarism and propensity for fabrication were widespread beyond the Dylan thing.
Here’s another Tablet article that looks pretty substantial, and it’s about what I call the “diversity racket”—the lucrative business of selling “diversity and inclusion training” to public schools and colleges. That business is not only lucrative, but, sadly, ineffectual, as author Sean Cooper reveals. And it’s also invidious in how it goes about “training” people.
Cooper also profiles two programs, “Roses in Concrete”(an ethnic studies program) and “Pollyanna” (a diversity training company), but I’ll leave the details for your own perusal. Do realize that diversity training is connected to ethnic studies, as implementing the latter is almost an inevitable result of implementing the former. And often the same people, both teachers and administrators, promote both. I’ll mostly discuss the training, but have a few words on curriculum:
Click on the screenshot to read:
I’ll just give their (and my) take on a few of the questions involved. Quotes from the article are indented.
a.) Do we need such training? If there are problems in schools or the workplace caused by racism, then something needs to be done about it. The problem is that what is being done about it is what you might expect: selling a narrative of oppressors vs. the oppressed, unconscious racism, the identification of one’s persona with one’s race and pigmentation, and the pervasiveness of systemic racism: in other words, the essence of Critical Race Theory. And, as the article emphasizes, it not only fails to work, but makes the problem worse. It’s above my pay grade to answer this first question myself, but if there were non-divisive ways to quash bigotry, it would be worth investigating them. Do teachers and students need that kind of training? That’s a different question.
b.) What does it cost? As you might expect based on the ginormous fees charged by people like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo for a single talk, diversity training is expensive. Remember, it’s done by private consultants who make a living from it. Here are details from one program:
Soon, according to pricing documents obtained by Tablet, Pollyanna was charging upwards of $1,750 per hour to schools that contractually committed to “incorporate racial literacy content in the classroom,” $6,000 for a half-day presentation on how to bring administrators up to speed on the basics of anti-racism, and $21,000 plus travel expenses for a three-day Internal Curriculum Review and Development for schools exploring the possibility of implementing a full-scale DEI overhaul of their entire administrative and classroom playbooks.
Here’s a program run by an ethnic-studies professor at San Francisco State:
Professor Tintiangco-Cubales herself co-runs a consultancy called Community Responsive Education Corp., which billed $11,000 for teacher training at Poway Unified School District, $65,000 for a keynote address and a professional development workshop series for the leadership team of Chula Vista Elementary, and $40,000 “to facilitate the development of Ethnic Studies units and lessons” at the Jefferson Elementary School District, south of San Francisco. Tintiangco-Cubales, who did not respond to Tablet’s request to discuss her consultancy, works outside California as well, notably as a lead trainer for a Boston consortium of educators in a project funded, in part, by Peter Buffett’s NoVo Foundation.
c.) How does it work? The report from Tablet describes one curriculum for students that’s especially invidious, but I suspect most of them use boilerplate CRT stuff. This report, however, angered me:
The Racial Literacy Curriculum begins in kindergarten with 5- and 6-year-olds using Pantone Color Charts to match their skin tone so that they might start to see themselves and one another by skin color. “Recognizing and categorizing color is a foundational skill for early grades, and will be used as a platform for upcoming lessons that discuss skin color.”
This curriculum includes a unique view of nearly every educational discipline, such as in sixth grade history where children discover that the essence of Nazism was not the destruction of European Jewry but the rise of “whiteness.” Pollyanna’s main coverage of the Jewish experience is reduced to an odd and passing reference to the “Eastern European Hebrew” race.
By eighth grade, the curriculum’s goal is to create “social justice” action plans that address how “systemic racism provided social, economic, political, and legal advantages to White Americans.” Students devise plans and launch campaigns that seek to overturn white privilege in the “community or city of the student body, or may reach broader, such as to the national level and beyond.”
Color charts to see how much of a “person of color” you are? Right off the bat–in kindergarten–students learn to self-classify BY PIGMENT. And if you look up California’s proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum, it’s largely along these lines as well, though there don’t seem to be pigment charts.
d.) Does it work? There are two questions here. Does diversity training make people less bigoted and workplaces and schools more harmonious? Second, do ethnic studies curricula improve student performance?
The Tablet article goes into some detail about both of these, and the answer is the same for both: NOPE. While some promoters of the programs claim they work, examination by both Tablet and outside academic reviewers say otherwise. Here’s for workplace training:
Workplace DEI practices, on the other hand, have been studied by a variety of researchers, who have found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that employees who spend their mornings in a conference room calling each other racist and oppressive often struggle to return to work as colleagues.
Indeed, rather than reducing bias, improving morale, increasing opportunity for minority groups, or boosting productivity and workplace satisfaction, DEI training initiatives are frequently ineffective and, despite intentions, counterproductive. Agrowingbody of quantitative research has shown that DEI training can make workplaces more biased, atomized, discriminatory, and hostile, even or especially for the very minority groups it’s intended to help.
One group of researchers from Arizona State University and Columbia University investigated the efficacy of bias-reduction training and found that after workplace hiring managers were taught to combat various stereotypes, they were more likely to apply those stereotypes in hiring practices. Another recent study determined that “white privilege” training increased hostility towards a variety of groups, including a significant decrease in sympathy for the plight of “poor white people,” as they had failed to properly leverage their inherent privilege. A 2018 experiment concluded that exposure to DEI practices strengthened stereotypical views, concluding that “well-intentioned efforts to portray the value of differences may reinforce the belief that fixed, biological characteristics underpin them.”
DEI may also be enflaming gender tensions. Another review of corporate workplaces found that female employees “were less supportive of sexism litigation when the company offered diversity training,” because the training itself increased the false belief that the workplace had become less biased.
Ethnic studies programs seem to be equally ineffective in improving student performance, though one could argue that improvement in performance is not their goal. (I would claim that they should boost performance by improving morale and academic climate.) Regardless, there are several programs that have been ditched by school systems because they’re either ineffective or detrimental in helping students do better academically. Here’s one:
Incubated at San Francisco State’s Ethnic Studies Lab, the Roses in Concrete project began piloting a new K-8 ethnic studies curriculum implemented by the Oakland School Board in its district in 2015. But in 2019, when Duncan-Andrade’s top deputies appeared before the school board on the matter of a charter renewal for Roses in Concrete, the district staff explained to the board that Roses in Concrete should not receive a three-year contract renewal because of the continued occurrence of “significant negative outcomes.” In the final year of the curriculum, in fact, 88% of students failed to demonstrate proficiency on California English exams, a number eclipsed by the 98% of students who failed to pass the proficiency threshold for math. The new program had also sent families fleeing, with more than 100 students leaving before the 2018 academic year.
e.) If the programs are expensive and don’t work, why are they proliferating? You know the answer as well as I. Given the Zeitgeist and the pervasiveness of Wokeism in schools, schools have to look like they’re doing something, that they’re tackling the problem. Hiring companies to train your students is an investment you can point to: “We’re spending money getting reputable companies to help us become diverse and inclusive.”
Many university faculty and staff have taken mandatory training in human resources during their tenure. For example, not long ago I took a required module in sexual harassment training, even as an emeritus professor (well, I do interact with other faculty, students, and staff). These modules proceed by giving a didactic overview about how to proceed in various situations, followed by a number of questions to determine if you understood the procedures. I didn’t think anything of it, nor did I think the training was out of line, as sexual harassment is illegal and creates a bad environment on campus for the harassed and everyone else.
But training in diversity issues is different, as you’ll see below. So far, the University of Chicago hasn’t instituted required diversity training, and I wouldn’t be happy if they did—not if it was like what the University of Oklahoma’s (UO’s) mandatory training involves. For, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), OU’s training does not let you pass the required modules unless you give certain approved answers. These answers don’t seem to involve obeying the law, but rather force you to agree with the University’s views on diversity. Click on the screenshot below to see a summary of the issue from the FIRE site:
It came to FIRE’s attention that in these modules, UO was forcing the trainees to agree with certain viewpoints—a form of “compelled speech” which, according to the Supreme Court, is illegal in public universities (these must obey the First Amendment). That’s because it may “compel students, faculty, and staff to agree with concepts that may violate their freedom of conscience”. FIRE notes the Supreme Court precedent that prohibits compelled speech:
Famously, in ruling that schoolchildren cannot be compelled to salute the American flag, the Supreme Court held in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) that it’s unconstitutional for the government to require a person “to declare a belief [and . . . ] to utter what is not in his mind.” The Court, correctly, held that compelled speech “would strangle the free mind at its sources.”
How did FIRE know that compelled speech was likely taking place in UO’s training? A letter from FIRE to UO last November (pdf of letter here), reports the experiences of Elizabeth Owen, a (brave!) graduate student and staff member who had access to the diversity training materials. Owen was required to take three commercial diversity-training modules, which presented several hypothetical situations and then asked trainees to provide their “best choice”. Here are two examples of how Owen’s “best choice” was not the University’s. This one is from the FIRE article:
In one of these hypothetical situations, Owen was required to communicate with a fictional colleague named Michael. It showed a video of Michael saying he was “tired of all this transgender stuff” and gave Owen options to select in response. When Owen selected the response that she felt was most similar to her feelings (“I agree. Political correctness can be so tiring”), she was told that her opinion was not the “best choice.”
Had the video simply proceeded, there would arguably be no abridgment of Owen’s rights: She had chosen the answer she thought was best, the university disagreed, and the training would continue. That is similar to how an in-person training would likely work. (Assuming, of course, that the university did not find some other way to take adverse action against those giving “wrong” answers.)
Instead, however, the video automatically rewound, forcing Owen to select the answer choice that OU preferred — “You seem upset. What’s the matter?” — in order to continue. Owen was required to select the preferred answer in order to complete the mandatory training. In doing so, the university, an agency of the state, compelled Owen (and who knows how many others) to express a viewpoint with which she did not agree.
The modules are required, remember, so you have to agree with the University’s views to pass them.
And this example is from the letter that FIRE sent to OU.
Another example was a question about accommodations for an employee with fibromyalgia. The question states:
Anya has fibromyalgia and feels drained and in immense pain by the end of a workday. She sneaks in a few breaks when she can, but her work responsibilities can keep her from getting the rest she needs, and sometimes her efficiency suffers. What should Anya do?
Although Owen originally selected the response that most closely reflects what she would do were she Anya (“Nothing. She takes multiple breaks when she can to help with her disability, which is already more than her peers”), the training program required her to repeat the process, giving her an explanation about why OU did not select this as the proper answer. When Owen selected a second response that she believes would also be appropriate (“Talk to her supervisor about switching to part-time, or a less demanding position”), she was again required to repeat the process. Finally, when Owen selected the response that OU has marked as the correct choice (“Talk to her supervisor about what reasonable accommodations can be made for her”), she was permitted to move on.
On these and other questions, Owen disagreed with the mandatory OU-selected answer but was forced to affirm OU’s preferred response rather than the response that reflects her own conscience. Failing to do so would render her unable to complete the mandatory training and thereby subject her to adverse action by the university.
FIRE concluded its November letter this way, drawing an analogy between being forced to salute the flag—at the time a West Virginia law, which violated the conscience of Jehovah’s Witnesses—and to adhere to the University’s views about what is “appropriate” behavior. (Legal behavior is a separate issue.):
OU’s diversity trainings—however well-intended—require students, faculty, and staff to express the “correct” response and profess their agreement with the ideas that the university disseminates. While, as in Barnette, there would be no constitutional issue or burden on the freedom of conscience if the university’s administration simply shared its own views on the correct response to hypothetical situations, the requirement that students and faculty affirm the “correct” view is similar to the requirement in Barnette that students salute the flag.
If forcing schoolchildren to salute the flag with the goal of building national unity amidst the destruction of World War II did not make the cut for an exception, then neither does diversity training, however well-meaning, permit such an exception now. FIRE again calls on OU — and any other public college or university that uses similar training materials — to immediately remove any requirement that faculty or students agree with the university’s viewpoints and to commit to protecting its students’ and faculty’s rights.
Before FIRE can go further, like instituting a lawsuit against OU (which would probably succeed), it needs access to the modules themselves. After asking for them under the Freedom of Information Act, OU said, well, yes, FIRE could see them, but they’d have to travel to the University itself to see them in person!:
The university’s March 23 response — more than four months after our request — said that FIRE would be permitted to view the training materials, but only in person on OU’s campus in Norman, Oklahoma. In other words, in order to view public records, the University of Oklahoma would require a FIRE staff member to fly across the country (FIRE is based in Philadelphia) during a global pandemic. That’s not exactly a transparency-friendly approach to public records, and it all but ensures that public records remain private.
This is ridiculous, for these models could be made available to FIRE online. That is, in fact, how we take them: we register and then are given a code to access the test. OU is trying to prevent FIRE from coming down on the University for violating the First Amendment.
And it is this which made many of us worried earlier when our Provost suggested that the University of Chicago might also institute mandatory diversity training. The objection is that such training, as at OU, is not to determine if you understand your legal obligations, but if your own opinions conform to a preferred point of view—probably the tenets of Critical Race Theory. That would never fly at this school—at least I don’t think it would. At any rate, the University of Chicago seems to have dropped that suggestion.
But the University of Oklahoma, a public university, is digging in its heels. It really should do what FIRE suggested: stop using forms of training that require the trainees to agree with the University’s own views.
A letter to the editor appeared in the latest issue of Nature, decrying the political uniformity of scientists (click on screenshot below to access though I’ve put up the whole thing). And the link to the Nature poll described in the letter’s first line is here, but the survey was not of Americans but of Nature readers from throughout the world.
However, there’s no doubt that, among American scientists, Democrats still greatly outnumber Republicans. The latest data I can find are in a 2009 Pew poll showing that not only are American scientists mostly liberal, but that there’s a huge disparity between the politics of scientists and of the American public in general. I suspect that, given what’s happened under Trump, this disparity has only increased. The data in 2009:
Most [American] scientists identify as Democrats (55%), while 32% identify as independents and just 6% say they are Republicans. When the leanings of independents are considered, fully 81% identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 12% who either identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP. Among the public, there are far fewer self-described Democrats (35%) and far more Republicans (23%). Overall, 52% of the public identifies as Democratic or leans Democratic, while 35% identifies as Republican or leans Republican.
This disparity exercised Andrew Meso, a British computational neuroscientist (he’s also black), who wrote this letter:
Now Dr. Meso is mistaken that the Nature poll was of “US scientists”, but it doesn’t matter, for the “misalignment” he describes is still true. As an academic, I have long been aware of this, for the disparity exists not just in science, but in academia as a whole.
Meso’s implicit argument that we need to increase political diversity doesn’t carry near as much weight as an argument for greater gender and ethnic diversity, for there’s not a good argument that Republicans were oppressed in the past, nor that there is discrimination against Republican students being accepted to grad school or being hired as professors—at least in science. I’ve been on many hiring and student-acceptance committees, and not once have I ever heard of a candidate being touted or dissed because of their politics. Indeed, we never even know their politics! (This may not hold for faculty in areas like economics or sociology.) And I’ve never heard of a scientist being denied promotion or tenure on the grounds of their politics.
So it’s hard to make an argument that the dearth of Republicans in American science is due to bias or discrimination. Nor does the ideological slant seem likely to affect science: as I read somewhere (but can’t lay my hands on the reference), scientists’ politics don’t affect the nature or quality of their research.
Why the disparity between scientists and the public, then, if it’s not bigotry? Well, perhaps it’s preference.
For reasons we can speculate about, perhaps those with a conservative bent are less likely to go into science, or remain in science if they start studying this. Perhaps those with a liberal bent are more attracted to the empirical method and the techniques of science. I have no idea if this is right, but feel free to speculate. But I’ll make one point: if people think that the differential representation is due to preference rather than bias, and it’s a preference based on political affiliation (which may be correlated with other traits), why are we so eager to assume that other differential representations, like those involving gender or ethnicity, are based solely on bias and bigotry rather than preference? As we know, this kind of representation is automatically assumed to be based on prejudice, but I’ve always said that we can’t assume that without the needed research.
Finally, is Meso right in raising the alarm that the Democratic “elitism” of American scientists could turn other Americans—many of whom are Republican—against science or against going into science? (He conflates “judging science” with “going into science” in his final paragraph.) If he were right, this in itself would be a form of preference, but could also involve bigotry if conservatives sense that scientists don’t like their politics. And yes, Republicans are more anti-science than Democrats, though the difference has been exaggerated, but not to the extent that would explain the differential representation in science. To me, it seems more likely that the disparity is based on a preference connected to political affiliation, but that’s just a guess.
Finally, Meso’s conclusion—that liberalism in scientists turns others against science and against going into science, presumes that the public actually knows how liberal scientists are. But they don’t seem to, at least according to that Pew report:
Most Americans do not see scientists as a group as particularly liberal or conservative. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say they think of scientists as “neither in particular”; 20% see them as politically liberal and 9% say they are politically conservative.
If there’s no evidence in science of bias against Republican scientists or students, then there is no need to engage in affirmative action to bring them on board—unless they somehow bring a scientific point of view absent among more liberal scientists. But I can’t see one. (It’s not that evident amongst ethnic or gender groups, either.) But the reason I’m in favor of affirmative action is not so much to bring a diversity of ideas as to act as a form of reparations for those who were denied equal opportunity. And the reparations view, while holding for women and people of color, doesn’t seem to hold for conservatives.
But my dislike of affirmative action for Republicans in science doesn’t hold for college students, for I think ideological and political diversity is an innate good among undergraduates, as it stimulates discussion and exposes students to other ways of thinking. So while I can’t support a case for “affirmative action” for more Republicans in science, I can do so for college students. As for professors outside of science, I’m not so sure. It’s useful for students to be exposed to various political views, or lines of thought, from their professors as well. I can’t see hiring professors because they’re Republicans, but I can see making an effort to incorporate conservative points of view into academic departments. Since we scientists are supposed to keep our politics out of the classroom, though, we don’t need to make this effort.
Actually, the word “kerfuffle” may not be appropriate here, as 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 the first sentence of Leiter’s excerpt below). Here’s one slide that was guaranteed to cause problems for him:
Here’s another of Abbot’s slides. (The “Holdomor” refers to the Soviet genocide by famine of the kulaks (rich peasants) in 1932-1933 in Ukraine.
This stuff is guaranteed to anger those who see social-justice work, at present, as one of the most pressings things a university can do in its official capacity. Further, criticizing identity politics, when they’re the predominant kinds of politics on campus, is just not on. The backlash against Abbot was strong and severe (and probably predictable), and is summarized by Leiter below.
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.
Below is part of Leiter’s post about the issue, and I have to say that I agree with much of it. I don’t agree with everything Abbot said on his videos or in his slides (as I’ve repeatedly said, I favor some form of affirmative action in hiring professors or accepting graduate students), but neither do I agree that Abbot, for exercising his free speech as a professor, and raising issues that do deserve some discussion, should be demonized and punished in this way.
My preferred response, were I a student or faculty member who took issue with Abbot’s claims, would be counterspeech: rebutting them. The anger evinced in the letter to his department seems to me a huge overreaction, but in line with many responses to “anti-woke” stuff on college campuses. But of course the letter-writers have every right to say what they want about Abbot and demand that he be punished. I don’t think he should suffer demonization in this way, as it represents a chilling of speech: if you oppose the au courant ideology, you will be attacked big time, and who wants to undergo that?
I recommend you look at the links. From Leiter, and note that there’s a petition supporting Abbot’s freedom of speech that you can sign:
You can see the slides that formed the basis for his presentations to his colleagues here, here, here, and here; his own account of events is here. I agree with some of what he has to say, and disagree with other parts. But his views are not “hateful,” “harmful” or out of place in a university that values free discussion on important issues.
For dissenting from “diversity” orthodoxy, Professor Abbot has now been subjected to a disgraceful public denunciation by postdocs and graduate students in Geology (and other UChicago science departments (complete with fictitious claims about “aggression” and “safety”). The public version of the letter omits the names of the benighted grad students and postdocs. But some faculty and postdocs have gone public with their delusional responses: for example, Assistant Professor Graham Slater’s Twitter thread is here (do review the actual slides to see how unhinged this take is), and the reaction of a geology postdoc at Chicago, Michael Henson (also here).
There is now a petition in support of Professor Abbott here which I encourage readers to sign.
Leiter adds this:
There’s very little extramural speech that ought to have any bearing on hiring or promotion decisions in universities, but open contempt like that above for academic freedom and lawful expression–which are foundational to the academic enterprise–probably should count against someone. (We’ve touched on this issue before.) If people like Slater and Hanson carry on like this now, what kind of damage will they do to their departments and disciplines once they have tenure?
I don’t like anyone being punished or demonized for exercising freedom of speech, but the people who will suffer from this are not those who came out against Abbot, but Abbot himself. Perhaps he didn’t realize what a beehive he was entering with his YouTube videos, for much of the country is simply unaware of social-justice conflicts. But freedom of speech is paramount, and if people don’t like what Abbot said, they can avoid him, leave his mentorship (but not his classes, I think!), or criticize him. And that’s as far as it should go. We needn’t call for his head on a platter.
The New York Times recently had a piece by their new and woke science reporter, Katherine J. Wu, which is basically an indictment of science journals for not keeping track of the “diversity” of authors and reviewers of the papers they publish or reject. The implicit message is that science journals are racist, discriminating against papers by minoritized authors.
Click on the screenshot to read the article:
Wu’s implicit assumption is twofold. First, that a paucity of diversity—which of course means ethnic diversity, but minus Asians since they are surely overrepresented among authors—reflects racism on the part of scientific journals and reviewers. There is no consideration of whether a lack of diversity may represent simply a paucity of minority authors and reviewers. That itself may reflect racism, past or present, that narrows the opportunities of would-be scientists, but the article implies that it’s racism acting on Ph.D. authors trying to submit papers.
The second assumption is that more ethnic diversity in journals means better science. Well, that’s true in the sense that the more people who get the opportunities to become scientists, the higher the average quality of the science that is published. But I’m not at all convinced that members of any group, be they groups involving genders, religions, incomes, or ethnicity, have a special “point of view” based on their group identity that makes them do science differently. Science is science, and I don’t feel that Hispanics, say, have a different “way of knowing.” (There may be one exception here, that I’ve mentioned before: I think women scientists are responsible for shifting the focus in sexual selection from male traits alone to female preferences as well. But many men were also involved in this shift). In the end, the best science comes from giving everybody equal opportunities, not practicing remediation based on race at the publication level.
But the question is whether journals should be publishing more papers by members of minority groups. That is, is there a bias against, say, black or Hispanic authors that needs to be rectified by that form of “affirmative action” on the publication level—taking steps to accept more papers by minority authors?
It’s my opinion that the answer is “no”. This presumes that a paucity of papers by such authors is prima facie evidence for bias, when it may reflect only a paucity of minority-group members in the field, or of minority scientists submitting papers, or submitting fewer papers,—rather than reviewers deliberately discriminating against papers by minority authors.
It may be worth investigating this issue, but I consider it hardly worthwhile for two reasons. First, figuring out whether a paucity of papers from minority group members is due to racism at the reviewing level is very hard to do, though not impossible (see below). More important, it’s certainly true that the disparity between the proportion of minority-group members in the population and the number of papers published by members of that group is due largely not to racism but to an underrepresentation of Blacks and Hispanics in science. Figuring out why that disparity exists is the best way to achieve more proportionality in science, if that is your goal. And that’s really where our efforts should be going.
Here are the data given in the NYT piece from two scientific organizations showing disparities between population proportions and publication/reviewer proportions. The article makes the point that most journals, though, do not keep records of the ethnicity of authors and reviewers. (To clarify for non-scientists, when scientists submit papers to a journal, those papers are sent to several reviewers—usually two or three—who are experts in the area of research. Based on the reviewers’ assessment of the paper, the editor then decides whether or not to publish it. If the decision is “yes,” there is often some revision of the paper required, either in the discussion or the scientific analysis.)
I’m going to discuss authors here, not reviewers, because it is the quality of authors‘ work that, by and large, constructs the quality of the journal. How do we know if a journal is discriminating against minority authors? You can’t simply use a difference between the proportion of people in the field, or the proportion of people submitting papers on the one hand, and the proportion of papers published on the other, as a criterion for bias. That’s because members of different groups may submit papers less often, or of lesser quality, and that this would lead to differential representation that would not reflect racism. Bias must be proven, not assumed.
There are two ways to solve this problem. The first is the equivalent of doing “blind” auditions for orchestras—auditions in which those seeking an orchestral chair perform behind a curtain. That “blind” system removes all bias against sex or race. To do this with a paper, you simply remove the names of the authors, their institution, and the acknowledgments from the manuscript, so the reviewers don’t know who wrote the paper. (There are, of course, ways to guess, like if an author cites herself repeatedly, but in many cases this will indeed lead to quality appraisal ignorant of the author’s race or gender.)
I hit upon that system in the late 1970s when I was a postdoc, full of piss and vinegar and concerned that papers were getting preferentially published not because of race, but because of reputation. My idea was that famous people had an easier time publishing their papers than small fish (like me!). I wrote letters—real letters—to the editors of about 30 journals in my field, proposing that manuscripts be reviewed blind this way. I got only one response, and that was from an editor who said that he preferred knowing the authors, because famous authors were more likely to submit better papers! That may be true on average, but it’s not the best way to ensure the quality of papers in a journal! In fact, famous authors may get by more easily with shoddier work because of their reputations.
At any rate, some journals have now wisely decided to adopt the blind-author technique, and more power to them! It seems to me a step in the right direction to eliminate animus not just against groups of people, but against your scientific “enemies” or in favor of your scientific “friends”. (Believe me, this kind of bias is rife in science.) While you can get around this system by guessing, I think it does help ensure objective reviewing and thus higher-quality papers. (I should add that the NYT music critic opposed blind auditions because he said that while it increased the proportion of women in orchestras, it didn’t eliminate racial inequities; his view was clearly that equity trumped orchestral quality.)
The other way would be to do an experiment submitting identical sets of manuscripts with fake names that give clues to the gender or ethnicity of the authors. If manuscripts with women or minority authors are rejected more often than the same manuscripts with “white” or “male” names, that surely indicates bias. This was what was done in a laborious study of grant reviewing, using made-up “black”, “white”, “male” and “female” names on identical proposals. The study showed no evidence of racial or gender bias in grant evaluation. Needless to say, you don’t hear much about this study, even though it was a good one, as the results went against people’s certainty that there must be sex and gender bias in reviewing.
That experiment could be done with paper reviewing too, and really must be done before you can start making implicit accusations of bias. But I favor the blind-reviewing technique. You don’t have to do any experiments to see if that one makes things more equitable because, by eliminating a source of bias from the outset, it almost has to. It is my feeling that a “fake name” study wouldn’t show evidence of bias in pubication, but that’s my feeling alone. Better just to practice blind reviewing rather than speculate or do experiments.
In the end, my feeling is that affirmative action should not be applied to reviewing papers by people who already have doctorates, and, while I believe in affirmative action, I think it has to stop at some point in the hierarchy. My point comes after faculty hired hiring. I think it’s okay and useful to take race and gender into account when hiring junior faculty, as well as in college and grad-school admissions, but that’s where it stops. Ethnicity and gender should not be a consideration in getting tenure, full professorships, or in getting papers published—areas where merit alone should be the only criterion. Again, this is my view, and others may disagree.
Some of those who disagree think the whole system of a scientific meritocracy is flawed—that there isn’t even a scientific meritocracy. The NYT article says that:
Publishing papers in top-tier journals is crucial scholastic currency. But the process is deeply insular, often hinging on personal connections between journal editors and the researchers from whom they solicit and receive manuscripts.
“Science is publicized as a meritocracy: a larger, data-driven enterprise in which the best work and the best people float to the top,” Dr. Extavour said. In truth, she added, universal, objective standards are lacking, and “the access that authors have to editors is variable.”
To democratize this process, editors and reviewers need to level the playing field, in part by reflecting the diversity that journals claim they seek, Dr. Kamath said. “People think this is a cosmetic or surface issue,” she said. “But in reality, the very nature of your scholarship would change if you took diversity, equity and inclusion seriously.”
This whole section is to imply that there is little correlation between the merit of a paper and the chance of its being published. I think that’s a foolish conclusion, with the caaveats that Wu gives meant to imply a weak correlation at best. This is not my experience in reviewing papers or assessing published papers. Yes, sometimes a terrible paper gets published in a good journal, and a great paper gets rejected by a good journal, but there is surely a correlation between the quality of a paper and the chance that a. it will get published, and b. that it will get published in a prestigious journal.
No, to democratize the process, just do blind reviewing. That will go a ways toward eliminating bias. But even in the absence of that procedure, journals would be hard pressed to construct a system that would give preferential publication to papers by ethnic minorities. Regardless of what Katherine Wu thinks, science largely is a meritocracy, at least when it comes to publication, and I don’t think it would be good for science as a whole to bump papers up or down based on the race of their authors.