Freddie deBoer has written a commentary on equal opportunity, a situation that I’d much like to obtain in America. Sure, it’s got problems, but isn’t it better than what we have now? What if every kid had access to a good school, and the chance to take music, algebra, and a culture that didn’t discourage education?
For reasons I can’t understand, deBoer doesn’t like it. Why? Because if there is equal opportunity, there would be losers as well as winners! Read for yourself by clicking:
I’m also particularly not a fan of the concept of equality of opportunity. This has always been the standard liberal saw against socialism and other kinds of radically egalitarian politics – we don’t want everyone to end up summatively equal in all respects, but we want everyone to have an equal chance to be all that they might be thanks to their abilities and work ethic. I think that the equality of opportunity/equality of outcomes distinction actually falls apart with a moment’s inspection, as I’ll get to. But even if we accept the concept on its own terms, it has a remarkably dark side that nobody ever wants to engage with.
And what’s the dark side?
The part that never gets discussed is the obverse: what happens if someone reaches their potential by becoming a D+ student who just barely graduates from high school and ends up a ditch digger making $24,000 a year? What if a life spent in material deprivation and constant financial insecurity is the outcome of a genuinely equal opportunity? What if someone’s potential is correctly fulfilled when they end up in a life that’s barren of wealth, stability, and success? If equality of opportunity means anything, then it must include such outcomes. I constantly have to make this point when discussing education, a field where failure is seen as inherently a matter of injustice and yet one where there will always be a distribution of performance – a distribution with a bottom as well as a top. What if someone faces a completely equal playing field and, through the full expression of their talent and hard work, ends up totally ill-equipped for the job market?
There’s more, but one more bit:
But the person who gets all of the required opportunity and still struggles his way to a life of destitution is just as much a story of equal opportunity as that one.
As I said, even beyond that, there’s basic problems. Core to that whole conception of justice is the notion that talent and hard work are something inherent to the individual or under the control of the individual. But if we accept that there’s any sort of genetic component to talent at all, and we certainly should, it’s hard to see how rewarding talent falls under a rubric of distributing resources to people based on that which they can control. Talent, however defined, has always looked like just another fickle gift of nature, to me, and thus using it to hand out scarce goods is no more just than hereditary nobility. If someone suffers from complications during their birth such that they have a severe cognitive disability that prevents them from flourishing, few people would see their impoverishment as a just example of equal opportunity. But if someone is born with a genetic makeup that predisposes them to do very poorly in school and meritocracy, how is that any different?
deBoer doesn’t discuss “equity” (representation of all groups by their proportion in the population), but I have a few things to say about deBoer’s piece.
First, what would he replace “equality of opportunity” with? Sure, some people would fail, and others succeed, and in the end that all depends on the laws of physics. But rewarding success and talent, even if it be through no “will” of the person alone, manages to rewire the brains of other people who also want rewards, so rewarding merit is a rising tide that lifts all boats. The person born with a bad genetic makeup or cognitive disability may not do that well, but there’s a solution for that (see below). And, of course, our desire to “do better” is a product of natural selection, assuming that status and “stuff” are proxies for reproductive success.
Second, no society that functions well will ensure that everyone gets exactly equal amounts of goods and services. Those are limited, and if you can’t strive to do better than you’re doing, you now only lose incentive, but also lose incentive to invent something that you think might be popular. But in the main, what about a society in which you afford people not only equal opportunity, but guarantee them a minimal amount of income, housing, and healthcare so that they don’t suffer. This, I think, is the Scandinavian model. It combines equality of opportunity with just enough “equity” to ensure that nobody starves to death or has a useless life. Except for the severely disabled, there’s a job for nearly everyone, though yes, not all those jobs are satisfying.
Here are the world’s ten happiest countries for 2023. I don’t know about social welfare in all of these places, but six of them are in Scandinavia. All of them, as far as I know, have a free and open economy with lots of opportunity, but also good social welfare systems. And all of them, also as far as I know, have free government healthcare (correct me if I’m wrong).
10. New Zealand
The big problem with this article, unusual for a piece by the thoughtful deBoer, is that he makes the perfect the enemy of the good. What is his alternative to equal opportunity? Strict communism? Hasn’t worked!
→ Make algebra illegal! Progressives have been waging a long battle against accelerated math courses in middle and high school, and they are winning. A lot. First they won San Francisco, where Algebra I was banned in public middle schools. Now this week, they basically got that to be the new California math policy. And it’s been spreading: Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other school districts have followed suit. Basically, white parents are 1) convinced that black kids simply can’t learn algebra and the only possible solution is to ban the class, and 2) alarmed how much better the Asian kids are at this class and worried it might hurt little Miffy’s prospects. For now, just read this great takedown by economics writer Noah Smith: “Refusing to teach kids math will not improve equity.”
Well, of course you have to check the references for yourself, but by and large they do check out. Remember that in America “middle school” is all secondary school from grade 6 up to the beginning of high school, which is grade 9—students from about twelve to fifteen years old. Nellie’s explanation for the banning of algebra, however, is undoubtedly correct.
First, let’s check out her three claims, which I’ve put in bold below. Two of them are accurate, and one is semi-accurate:
1.) San Francisco bans algebra in public middle schools: This appears to be true: go here or here.
2.) New California math policy bans algebra in middle schools: This appears to be questionable. The source above says this (my emphasis):
Critics, including many parents of high-achieving students, worried that students would be prohibited from taking appropriately challenging courses—and that delaying Algebra until 9th grade wouldn’t leave students enough time to take calculus, generally viewed as a prerequisite for competitive colleges, by their final year in high school.
That language has since been revised. The approved framework still suggests that most students take Algebra I or equivalent courses in 9th grade, through either a traditional pathway or an “integrated” pathway that blends different math topics throughout each year of high school.
But the framework notes that “some students” will be ready to accelerate in 8th grade. It cautions that schools offering Algebra in middle school assess students for readiness and provide options for summer enrichment support that can prepare them to be successful.
This implies that algebra will be optional (as other sources say) in the 8th grade, the last year of “middle school” (“junior high school” as mine was called). It’s possible that some schools won’t offer it, though.
HOWEVER, the new California standards don’t appear to ban algebra, though I haven’t read them carefully. What they seem to offer up to grade 8 is a form of optional algebra: “algebra lite”. Perhaps that’s why Nellis said “basically” that is the new California math policy. From a FAQ on the state’s website:
Chapter 8 of the draft Mathematics Framework notes that: “Some students will be ready to accelerate into Algebra I or Mathematics I in eighth grade, and, where they are ready to do so successfully, this can support greater access to a broader range of advanced courses for them.”
The framework also notes that successful acceleration requires a strong mathematical foundation, and that earlier state requirements that all students take eighth grade Algebra I were not implemented in a manner that proved optimal for all students. It cites research about successful middle school acceleration leading to positive outcomes for achievement and mathematics coursetaking, built on an overhaul of the middle school curriculum to prepare students for Mathematics I in eighth grade, teacher professional development and collaborative planning time, and an extra lab class for any students wanting more help.
To support successful acceleration, the framework also urges, in chapter 8: “For schools that offer an eighth grade Algebra course or a Mathematics I course as an option in lieu of Common Core Math 8, both careful plans for instruction that links to students’ prior course taking and an assessment of readiness should be considered. Such an assessment might be coupled with supplementary or summer courses that provide the kind of support for readiness that Bob Moses’ Algebra project has provided for many years for underrepresented students tackling Algebra.”
Cambridge Public Schools no longer offers advanced math in middle school, something that could hinder his son Isaac from reaching more advanced classes, like calculus, in high school. So Udengaard is pulling his child, a rising sixth grader, out of the district, weighing whether to homeschool or send him to private school, where he can take algebra 1 in middle school.
Udengaard is one of dozens of parents who recently have publicly voiced frustration with a years-old decision made by Cambridge to remove advanced math classes in grades six to eight. The district’s aim was to reduce disparities between low-income children of color, who weren’t often represented in such courses, and their more affluent peers. But some families and educators argue the decision has had the opposite effect, limiting advanced math to students whose parents can afford to pay for private lessons, like the popular after-school program Russian Math, or find other options for their kids, like Udengaard is doing.
Now getting rid of the algebra option in middle school, which is where I took it, is about the dumbest thing I can imagine, even if you buy the rationale: to “level the playing field of knowledge” so that the variation in math knowledge is reduced among all students, providing a kind of “knowledge equity”. Because minority students don’t do as well in algebra as white students or especially Asian students, by eliminating algebra you reduce the disparity in achievement among groups. But preventing advanced students from taking algebra before high school only punishes those students, including minority students, who have the ability and desire to handle algebra. It prevents those students from going on to calculus, and perhaps other advanced math classes, early in high school. The result: a impediment in the way of students who want to and have the ability to go onto STEMM careers. This may be the craziest move I’ve seen done in the name of “equity”: removing the ability of capable students to access classes they want and can handle.
But Noah Smith’s column, cited by Nellie above, gives a much better summary, underlining the sheer lunacy of this policy. Click to read:
A few days after Armand’s post, the new California Math Framework was adopted. Some of the worst provisions had been thankfully watered down, but the basic strategy of trying to delay the teaching of subjects like algebra remained. It’s a sign that the so-called “progressive” approach to math education championed by people like Stanford’s Jo Boaler has not yet engendered a critical mass of pushback.
And meanwhile, the idea that teaching kids less math will create “equity” has spread far beyond the Golden State. The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts recently removed algebra and all advanced math from its junior high schools, on similar “equity” grounds.
It is difficult to find words to describe how bad this idea is without descending into abject rudeness. The idea that offering children fewer educational resources through the public school system will help the poor kids catch up with rich ones, or help the Black kids catch up with the White and Asian ones, is unsupported by any available evidence of which I am aware. More fundamentally, though, it runs counter to the whole reason that public schools exist in the first place.
The idea behind universal public education is that all children — or almost all, making allowance for those with severe learning disabilities — are fundamentally educable. It is the idea that there is some set of subjects — reading, writing, basic mathematics, etc. — that essentially all children can learn, if sufficient resources are invested in teaching them.
. . . When you ban or discourage the teaching of a subject like algebra in junior high schools, what you are doing is withdrawing state resources from public education. There is a thing you could be teaching kids how to do, but instead you are refusing to teach it. In what way is refusing to use state resources to teach children an important skill “progressive”? How would this further the goal of equity?
. . .Now imagine what will happen if we ban kids from learning algebra in public junior high schools. The kids who have the most family resources — the rich kids, the kids with educated parents, etc. — will be able to use those resources to compensate for the retreat of the state. Either their parents will teach them algebra at home, or hire tutors, or even withdraw them to private schools. Meanwhile, the kids without family resources will be out of luck; since the state was the only actor who could have taught them algebra in junior high, there’s now simply no one to teach them. The rich kids will learn algebra and the poor kids will not.
That will not be an equitable outcome.
In fact, Smith cites a fairly well-known study from Dallas Texas in which students were all put into honors math classes and were forced to opt out instead of opt in. This policy was implemented in 2019-2020, and the result was a dramatic increase in ethnic diversity in honors math classes in the sixth grade (students about 12 years old). The rise is stunning. This is what we could have if we challenge students rather than accept their deficiencies. But no, that’s not the “progressive” way, which is to dumb down everything to the lowest level.
, , , , How did we end up in a world where “progressive” places like California and Cambridge, Massachusetts believe in teaching children less math via the public school system, while a city in Texas believes in and invests in its disadvantaged kids? What combination of performativity, laziness, and tacit disbelief in human potential made the degradation of public education a “progressive” cause célèbre? I cannot answer this question; all I know is that the “teach less math” approach will work against the cause of equity, while also weakening the human capital of the American workforce in the process.
We created public schools for a reason, and that reason still makes sense. Teach the kids math. They can learn.
I’m not even going to get into the debate about those who suggest that math class could be a way (surprise!) of teaching social justice. That’s also part of the revised California standards, and is summarized in this article by the Sacramento Observer (click to read):
A short excerpt:
The state of California is under scrutiny for its release of a math framework that aims to incorporate “social justice” into mathematics, despite calls from parents for improved education. The California Department of Education (CDE) and the California State Board of Education (SBE) unveiled the instructional guidance for public school teachers last week.
One crucial section of the framework [JAC: go to chapter 2 of the link] emphasizes teaching “for equity and engagement” and encourages math educators to adopt a perspective of “teaching toward social justice.” The CDE and SBE suggest that cultivating “culturally responsive” lessons, which highlight the contributions of historically marginalized individuals to mathematics, can help accomplish this goal. The guidance further advocates for avoiding a single-minded focus on one way of thinking or one correct answer.
It’s clear from reading the California standards (especially Chapter 2 above) that “equity” means not just equal opportunity, but equal outcomes. I want to take a second to address that because a few readers have maintained that “equity” simply means “equal opportunity”. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need the word “equity,” would we? No, equity is understood, in all the discussions above, to mean equal outcomes: children of all ethnic groups should be on par in their math learning.
That this is the standard meaning of equity (i.e., “groups should be represented in a discipline exactly in proportion to their presence in a population”) is instantiated in this well known cartoon:
Now this cartoon has a valid point: “equality” means little if groups start out with two strikes against them. But it’s also clear that “equity” means “equal outcomes” (more boxes) not equal opportunity (everybody gets a box). I’m completely in favor of equality of opportunity for all groups, recognizing at the same time that this is the “hard problem” of society, one that won’t be solved easily. But it has to be solved if you believe in fairness.
I’m not a huge fan of equity, simply because it’s often used as proof of ongoing “systemic racism”, when in fact there are many other causes for unequal representation. Further, it’s the single-minded drive for “equity” that has led to to ridiculous actions like removing algebra from middle school.
Glenn Loury now calls himself a “conservative” (I think he said for a while that he was a liberal), and of course Heather Mac Donald, infamous among ideological authoritarians, is a senior fellow of the conservative Manhattan Institute. Does that mean that I shouldn’t put up this 100-minute video? I don’t think so, because this is the kind of conversation—involving the tradeoff between merit and ethnic diversity—that we need to hear, even if we oppose Mac Donald’s views. (Remember Mill’s arguments in On Liberty for listening to such discussions.) I’m betting that many people are worried about whether DEI initiatives will erode quality, particularly in fields like medicine. It does us no good to sweep our thoughts under the rug; we should be able to air them, and discuss them, without fear of being tarred or slurred as bigots.
This conversation is also relevant to our recent paper (Loury and 28 other people are authors), “In Defense of Merit in Science”. Mac Donald—and Loury, I believe—never think that merit should be sacrificed to equity. I, however, am one of the authors of our paper who thinks that at least some form of affirmative action should still be practiced in college admission (but probably not in admission to medical school).
Note that Loury “pushes back” at some points, but he may just be playing the devil’s advocate or trying to clarify what Mac Donald is saying. At 34:35, Loury proposes his own solution to the problems of inequities. which involves tasks far harder than affirmative action.
Does anybody know the difference between “equality” and “equity” any more? Until recently, the difference, as used in politics and sociology, was clear: “equality” meant “equal treatment of everyone regardless of what group they belong to”, while “equity” meant “representation of groups in government, business, academia, and other organizations in proportion to their existence in the general population.”
These are not the same thing, of course. People can be treated equally now but there can still be inequities for a variety of reasons: the residuum of historical discrimination, difference in preferences due to culture, socialization, or different propensities due to biological differences. The conflation of the two terms has led to a lot of mischief and confusion, the most prominent being that the observation of inequities means the current existence of unequal treatment (“structural racism or sexism”).
That document uses the word “equity” 63 times and “equality” only four. One would think, then, that the plan is designed to ensure proportional representation of groups in the federal government.
But if you look in section 10, you find “equity” defined this way:
Sec. 10. Definitions. For purposes of this order:
(a) The term “equity” means the consistent and systematic treatment of all individuals in a fair, just, and impartial manner, including individuals who belong to communities that often have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, Indigenous and Native American, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander persons and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; women and girls; LGBTQI+ persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; persons who live in United States Territories; persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality; and individuals who belong to multiple such communities.
If you used this as a goal in your DEI statement, you’d never get a job!
In other words, Biden’s plan defines “equity” as “equal treatment before the law”. That isn’t equity but “equality,” and one wonders not only whether Biden apprehends the difference, and, crucially, which one he’s affirming as the goal of his administration’s policy. In such cases, the definition of the term is crucial in how the government will act.
This difference is the subject of Peter Boghassian’s Substack column this week. The “gaslighting” to which Peter refers is seemingly an attempt to make us forget that “equality” means “equal treatment”, or to sow confusion in minds about whether there’s any difference between “equity” and “equality.”
Click on screenshot to read the article; it’s very short.
Peter reproduces a tweet from Cenk Uygur (whatever happened to him?) that’s badly misleading:
I don't even know if "equity" is a real thing that anyone outside of twelve leftists and the entire right-wing believe is real. The overwhelming majority of progressives agree with @BernieSanders (and me) that equality of opportunity is the right standard.
No, Cenk is dead wrong here: progressives want equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity, and they’re always pointing to the former, not the latter, as evidence for bigotry. The same day I found a similar tweet by Cenk:
The right-wing thinks the fact that the word "equity" exists proves something, but it doesn't. If you're on the right and you think "equity" means equality of results, I think you're wrong. But if you're on the left and think it should mean equality of results, you're also wrong.
No, it’s Cenk, the big blustering self-assured newsman, who is wrong, at least in how “equity” is currently used. It’s true that if you look at the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll find that “equity” means this:
1. The quality of being equal or fair; fairness, impartiality; even-handed dealing.
but also this:
2. What is fair and right; something that is fair and right.
If you parse that with a “progressive” frame of mind, you can (barely) construe that proportional representation is indeed the result of fairness and equality of treatment. But it need not be: not if groups have different preferences or cultural backgrounds.
And it’s also not necessarily true that “equal opportunity” means “equal opportunity at the present time.” If you’re born poor in an environment that doesn’t provide equal opportunity, then you’ll get inequities as a result. But I can tell you one thing: when Ibram Kendi says “equity”, he doesn’t mean “equality of treatment”.
Bernie Sanders, when pressed by Bill Maher, does seem to appreciate the difference, and he comes down on the classical definition of equality as “equality of opportunity”.
Bill Maher asked Bernie Sanders to explain the differences between ‘equality’ and ‘equity’
But I think it’s clear that the extreme Left, which I and others call “progressives” (though they’re actually illiberal), clearly construe equity as meaning equality of outcome. Here’s the reason I think why.
There are ways of measuring equity, of course: determining whether there’s proportionality in outcomes: women, for example should be half of all CEOs (they’re not). But it’s easy to measure.
Equality of opportunity is harder to measure, but for some things it can be guaranteed. The most obvious case is determining who belongs in an orchestra: simply audition prospective players behind a screen so that the only thing that can be judged is their playing. Their sex, race, or ethnicity cannot be discerned. And to me that seems eminently fair.
It’s a procedure employed by many symphony orchestras. But it didn’t produce the diversity of sex and race that people envisioned when they put this procedure in place! There was equality but no equity.
Ergo, the New York Times‘s classical music critic switched gears and wrote a piece called, “To make orchestras diverse, end blind auditions” (subtitle: “If ensembles are to reflect the community they serve, the audition process should take into account race, gender, and other factors”).
Here the critic, Anthony Tommasini, clearly knew the difference between equity and equality of opportunity, and favored ditching the latter to get more of the former. (Another way he could achieve more equity in orchestras, if he thinks that disproportional representation reflects historically unequal opportunities—an orchestra “pipeline”—is to provide equal opportunities for people of all groups to both hear music and have a chance to play an instrument.)
I’m not going to judge whether orchestras should reflect merit or demographics; my point is that your goal will determine the methods you use to achieve it. And that is why it’s critical that people understand the difference between “equity” and “equality.”
Here’s how Peter ends his post:
Almost overnight, equity has become the North Star of public and private intuitions. One would think that someone of Sander’s stature and experience would know the difference, and if Sanders has to think about it, imagine the average American trying to make sense of these terms. I have long asserted that confusion over the meanings of words is one of the primary ways people have been hoodwinked by Social Justice ideology—they do not understand the policies they are institutionalizing.
If you want a 60-second explanation of equity, go here. If you want a 60-second explanation of other words in the woke lexicon, go here.
In December the White House released a longish plan to “transform” STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine) in the U.S. It turns out that the main goal—if not the only one—is equity, and there’s precious little mention of making science more “excellent”. Click to read:
I don’t want to go over this line by line, but I’ll give a few extracts to show you that this initiative has virtually nothing to do with improving excellence, but everything to do with improving equity: i.e., ensuring that the proportion of members of the two sexes or of diverse ethnic groups who are funded, who get jobs, or who go into the STEMM pipeline are roughly equal to their proportion in the U.S. population.
Further, the present inequities in STEMM are automatically assumed and loudly ascribe to ongoing “structural racism”, bigotry, and so on. That assumption, of course, is not only unwarranted, but anyone in science knows that graduate schools and hiring programs are doing everything they can to bring women and ethnic minorities into the field. Sure, there may be some bigots here and there (I’ve never encountered any scientist trying to deny opportunity to someone because of their sex or ethnicity, but that’s just my lived experience); but I simply can’t discern features of the field itself that have been put in place to perpetuate inequities.
This proposal, in other words, is identical to the “progressive” editorials appearing in every science journal around. I didn’t think Biden and his administration would capitulate to the woke demands for equity (I favor equal opportunity, not proportional outcomes), but at least they have in STEMM. The administration is much more “progressive” than I thought, though had I know that I still would have voted for Biden, as there’s simply no way I’d mark a ballot for Trump. (“Progressive” is my synonym for “woke,” since every time I use the “w” word I get Pecksniffs writing me to say, “I would have read your post but then you said ‘woke’ and I stopped reading.”)
Can you increase excellence by increasing equity? That seems to be the tacit assumption of this program, but one for which there is very little evidence. (The classic paper supporting the idea that diversity itself increases net excellence is this 2004 PNAS paper, arguing that diverse groups do better at solving math problems than groups of high achievers. But this it was a mathematical model with no empirical data, and was later found to be fatally flawed.) There are no strategies in this document intended to increase excellence by itself, though plenty to increase equity by itself. Excellence is just seen as an inevitable byproduct of equity (my bolding below):
To achieve these urgent priorities, people across all sectors must meet the President’s call to confront and overcome the challenges that prevent us from having a science and technology ecosystem defined by both equity and excellence.
The national vision for STEMM equity and excellence calls for bold concerted leadership, focusing our national efforts and synchronizing cross-sector initiatives across five core action areas. Each action area proposes promising practices, sources over the course of OSTP’s national engagement, to focus interventions:
At least insofar as affirmative actions are concerned, those are predicated on the view that there is an antithesis between excellence and equity, ergo you must sacrifice excellence (at least in terms of formal scientific achievements or qualifications) to achieve equity. Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for more diversity (although I think it’s misguided to try for “equity”), but we need to recognize that that is a social goal, in which diversity is seen as an inherent good (as in Powell’s crucial opinion in the Bakke decision) or as a form of reparations.
Here are some bits of the paper, the first one seeming to indict science in an unfair way. And I would contest the first sentence (bolding mine):
Despite this track record of national leadership, history has shown that new investments in science and technology rarely translate to equitable results for all peoples and communities without sustained, intentional effort. Indeed, such advances have often served to deepen inequality and reinforce systemic barriers, with the benefits of science and technology not reaching all communities equally. Further, our science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine ecosystem shuts out and diverts away too many talented individuals, limiting opportunities for discovery and innovation, and our national potential for the greatest impact.
Do such inequities fall on science’s doorstep? I think not. If minority communities didn’t get their Covid vaccines equitably, that can be due to a host of other factors, though of course anyone who wanted to get vaccinated could do so.
As the paper notes (their bolding), “Bias, discrimination, and harassment plague the science and technology ecosystem, from school to workforce and beyond. Systemic barriers—including bias, racism, sexism, ableism, exclusion, discrimination, cultural disincentives, and chronic underfunding—deter people of all ages from considering, pursuing, and persisting in science and technology careers and limit participation in science and technology.
For some reason characterizing STEMM as an “ecosystem” irks me, as there’s a biological meaning for that word that doesn’t correspond to its usage above. Why not just say “STEMM”? The word “ecosystem” appears 27 times in this document, while there are 11 uses of “equity”, 5 of “excellence”, and none of “merit.”
Back to the document. Here’s an example they give imply structural racism. But it’s construed wrongly:
Funds and resources are unevenly available, often exacerbating existing disparities, stunting science, and building distrust of the scientific system. Many documented trends have caused these gaps to grow deeper and wider: Persistent late-career funding trends undermine the potential of early innovation, with the average age for receiving a first significant federal or equivalent grant hovering close to 45, and principal investigators (PIs) over 65 receiving twice as many RO1s as those under 36. Studies have consistently shown inequities in the allocation of research funding, including a landmark 2011 NIH study which exposed that Black PIs were funded at roughly half the rate of White PIs. These problems have early roots, with minority-serving institutions (MSIs), emerging institutions, and community colleges receiving on a small fraction of all of the science and technology research and development funds available each year. While many initiatives and programs in federal agencies and academic institutions work to advance community priorities, they are chronically underfunded.
The problem is that that 2011 study showed that the existing funding disparities were not caused by bias in grant reviewing (which a study showed did not exist), but on the fact that black investigators tended to apply for money in fields that were not well funded and also had poorer “track records” in publishing as shown on the NIH-required c.v.s I discussed this 2011 study and the problems with the bias explanation on this website. Didn’t the White House know of these explanations? Apparently not. They’d prefer to let people think it’s due to structural racism in the NIH.
Now the good stuff. After issuing a spate of accusations of how science is riddled with misogyny and racism, the document proposes some fixes to achieve equity. Some of these are fine, as they actually buttress opportunity, which is what I would go for. They also try to buttress good science teaching, which I’m always for. Here are some proposals I like (you can read the document yourself to see ones that aren’t so good):
Offer opportunities at every stage of life, education, and career to help people enter STEMM, such as clearer pathways between early- and first-exposure science and technology experiences, those that focus on middle school girls and gender non-conforming youth, and existing scholarships and research experiences at community, vocational, and four-year colleges and universities.
Create opportunities for professional learning, and leadership along with the opportunity to work collaboratively within and across schools and learning communities.
Leverage and increase access to affordable, comprehensive, evidence-based pre-service teacher preparation programs.
Support teachers in earning initial, additional, or advanced certification in high-demand areas such as computer science.
Provide resources for experiential STEMM learning and research experiences for students and teachers in classrooms and in extra-curricular settings.
Support mechanisms that provide science and mathematics teachers with living wages and help to pay off forms of educational debt.
Fund and incentivize public participation and engagement in science and make participation in science accessible to the public in spaces that are already used.
There are others I like, but you can see that some of the proposals are designed to increase opportunity rather than ensure proportional outcome, while others want to fund and support science teachers who, like most secondary-school teachers, are grossly underpaid considering what they do and how important they are. (Many of us became scientists because we were turned on by good, passionate, and charismatic teachers.)
By concentrating its plans for the future of science on achieving equity rather than equal opportunity, and by completely ignoring merit and ways to create excellence by itself, the White House document is scuppering the future of science. And by characterizing science as a roiling hotbed of bigotry, racism, and structural features designed to hold down the oppressed, the document also insults science itself.
Jesse Singal has a nice piece on racial disparities on his Substack site, and you can read it for free (do subscribe if you read often). I had to read it twice to grasp his point, for the title is a bit confusing. Now, however, not only do I see where he’s coming from, but in the main I agree with him. Our only disagreement seems to be semantic: about what “structural racism” means. But that semantic difference is important. I’ll get to that shortly.
I recommend reading it, which you can do by clicking on the screenshot below.
I’ll summarize what I think is his point. He sees structural racism not as present-day features of institutions that mandate or facilitate discrimination, but simply as racism that has persisted through American society since slavery (he counts “blacks” in his discussion as American descendants of slaves, not including immigrants from Nigeria or the Caribbean). “Structural racism,” though waning, persists because, due to racism as recently as his grandparents’ time, there’s been a persistent inequality of wealth and resources between whites and blacks. This leads to an inequality of resources available to blacks and whites—resources that help people get jobs and attain the diverse measures of success. This disparity of resources means that entry to prestigious or lucrative jobs is more limited for blacks than for whites, leading to the present “inequities” that are so visible—the subject of a lot of worry. In other words, blacks have a narrower entrance to the pipeline that leads to success.
In this way, the “structural racism”—racism beginning early in America and persisting up to our era—leads to unequal outcomes, and that’s through a restricted entry of blacks into the “pipeline” of opportunity. To Singal, it’s a matter of wealth, the lack of which limits opportunity. Ergo, if you accept “structural racism”, then you have to also accept “pipeline problems.”
If you see “structural racism” in this way, then I agree with him. My only disagreement with Singal—and it’s an important one—is that “structural racism” is usually construed as institutionalized forms of discrimination: laws, rules, or codified practices that discriminate against people of color. This construal is important (and Singal alludes to it) because it implies that present inequities reflect present-day racism, and leads to the view that we can fix inequities simply by either ferreting out the structural biases, or lowering the bar by lessening the degree of meritocracy. Singal sees this form of “structural racism” as different from his. But in the end, Singal’s solution would seem to be mine as well: assure equal opportunity for everyone from birth.
The problem is that if “equal opportunity” reflects, as it surely does, inequality of wealth, then how do you assure it without making everyone equally wealthy, or at least wealthy enough get what you need to compete for good jo? His solution to inequity, then, seems to be to drastically reduce income inequality. And that’s a tough row to hoe.
But a lot of what Singal says makes sense. I’ll give a few quotes:
First, his definition of a “pipeline problem”:
Before I unlocked this article, my copy editor pointed out that I failed to define pipeline problems, assuming readers would be familiar with the phrase. A pipeline problem is a situation where disparities in workplace or academic settings might partially reflect disparities in the pool of qualified applicantsfor these positions rather than discrimination in hiring. To take an extreme and hopefully uncontroversial example, imagine Company X lacks any Lithuanian American employees. It could be because the company’s hiring process is biased against Lithuanian Americans, but it could also be because it received few or no competitive applications from this relatively small group.
Fair enough. I think we all agree that such issues are the primary explanation for the absence of racial diversity, at least in academia.
And his construal of structural racism (or so I think):
But whatever you think of the precise way race continues to shape things today, and how much it can be fully separated from class, race has obviously shaped the transmission of wealth and opportunity across generations. Again, we’re talking just two generations ago. There is no wild conspiracy theorizing going on here. It’s just not credible to deny this. So the tl;dr version of all this can be boiled down to: “I am successful in part because my grandparents were able to accumulate wealth on an uneven playing field, and millions of other white people can say the same thing.” This is not a knock on the grandparents in question, who really did work hard. But, again, everyone knows that a lot of people work hard. People travel tens of thousands of miles, on foot, just for a chance at a slightly better backbreaking job. “Well, they worked hard!” is a cop-out that doesn’t really explain who gets what.
You’re telling me that this stuff doesn’t matter and that it can’t help explain things like the racial wealth gap?
If you think of “structural racism” as inequality of opportunity caused by racism that was pervasive as recently as our grandparents’ generation, then you plunge yourself into a convoluted argument that that (Singalian) structural racism is the main problem rather than entry into the pipeline. (Singal sees them as pretty much equivalent). His quote:
If you believe in structural racism but don’t believe that white people are better positioned than black people to produce competitive job applications, on average, think about what you’re saying:
1) White people have, over the generations and on average, been endowed with opportunities black people have been robbed of
2) This extends well past K–12 education and into the elite corners of higher education, which white people have much more realistic access to than black people, on average — and degrees from top-tier schools are much more advantageous than degrees from middling ones
3) White people are also, relative to black people, endowed with more of every conceivable sort of training, tutoring, career guidance, access to young professional networks, and other benefits associated with successful job-searching, on average
4) Despite all this, white people and black people produce about equally competitive job applications.
I don’t know how anyone in their right mind could believe this sequence of claims. To do so, you have to think that all the stuff you were (rightfully!) yelling about 30 seconds ago — the vastly unfair and discriminatory apportionment of wealth and opportunity in America over the generations — just doesn’t matter when it comes to job applications.
Ergo, if you believe in “structural racism”, you must believe in pipeline problems, for the former (again, construed as Singal does) causes the latter. And you can’t rectify the latter simply by making a few tweaks in the structure of corporations, universities, or, indeed, society. DEI initiatives won’t work: we need a fundamental shake-up of American society.
The reason that people prefer the “pipeline argument” to the “structural racism” argument is that the former absolves them not only of blame, but also pretends there is an easy fix to inequality. A couple of quotes:
And [the pipeline explanation] very beneficial to privileged people, because it draws attention away from that privilege, away from how much they have and how much other people lack, and toward the idea that whoops, some bias infected some people’s brains (coulda happened to anyone), and once we banish it, diversity will bloom within our selective institutions.
By “discrimination” below, I don’t think he means simple racism, but discrimination among those of unequal qualifications—i.e. a meritocratic approach to hiring:
. . . One more time: It is comforting to think that discrimination is what’s leading to the outcomes we don’t like. It suggests relatively easy, nearby fixes. No one wants to be discriminatory.
And this—the fact that we’re nowhere near equality of opportunity, which correlates with equality of income—is the reason why people think that weak or even virtue-flaunting solutions are going to do anything about unequal representation. Again, by “discrimination”, I think he means “discrimination based on qualifications”, not race:
What people do want — or what the sorts of people in a position to shape how companies look want, at least — is to win the meritocracy game. They want that for themselves and for their kids. That’s why the conversation will grind to a halt if you press people on the actual depth of their desire for racial and socioeconomic justice. As in, if the results you see around you aren’t generated by discrimination, but rather by a big, complicated machine, are you still going to be enthusiastic about trying to change things? What about when you reflect on the fact that this big, complicated machine has generated excellent outcomes for you and your family?
Below is his case for diversity, which I agree with. I suppose that, in the end, this is the reason I favor some forms of affirmative action (I go back and forth between the diversity-is-inherently good justification, which was the basis of the Bakke decision, and the diversity-as-a-form-of-reparations argument):
Forced to choose between the two, I do certainly prefer a meritocracy with diverse faces at the top than a meritocracy dominated by white people. I think that all else being equal, diversity is a very good thing. I know it sounds like I’m reciting a mantra, but I’m a city boy and Jewish and so much of the culture, food, and literature that has meant the most to me has been the result of different groups colliding, mixing, and creating new things. America was always built to be a diverse place — it really is in our DNA, to borrow a phrase — and we’re at our strongest when it’s a cacophonous throng of voices from different backgrounds. So I don’t want to paint too dire a picture for those simply seeking to hire more diverse workers.
But this puts him in a bind, for as I see it Singal still views the meritocracy as inevitable (I don’t know if he approves of it), and holding that view will automatically create inequities.
What is the solution? In the final section, called “The Good News (Sort Of)”: Singal has some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that things are getting better: inequalty and inequity are lessening as racism wanes. (Only someone who’s blind can deny that.)
The bad news is that not only is it nearly impossible to create a level playing field, but people don’t even want to talk about the needed fixes, much less the problem. Those fixes require too much work and too much money for those of us in a position to help, and to discuss the problem leads to accusations of racism:
What it comes down to is that if we can’t openly and honestly talk about what the problems are, they will be impossible to solve. And part of me thinks that’s the point. For a lot of powerful people, the system we have is working great for them and their kids, minus a pesky lack of diversity where they work or where their kids go to school. If they can just tweak that — and it’s certainly getting easier to do given the aforementioned burgeoning middle class of talented non-white Americans — then their world will look pretty good, pretty just. And they can get there without ever having to really question, let alone act contrary to, their own material self-interest.
Were I to grade the piece, I’d say that it’s about 40% too long. But it’s well worth reading anyway.
I often say on this site that I favor a form of affirmative action for admission to schools and colleges (not necessarily for hiring above that level), and I favor this as a form of reparations. I’ve received a lot of pushback from readers who either think we shouldn’t have any affirmative action, or, if we retain it, it should be based on class or even on “viewpoint”, not race. I keep thinking about these counterarguments and I see their merits, but I’m not yet ready to give up on affirmative action.
I do remember, though, that when it was instituted when I was younger, it was said to be a temporary expedient, perhaps lasting 50 years or so. It’s clear that that’s not going to happen, and the DEI bureaucracy that pervades universities will insure it won’t happen, for the employees would be out of a job if we achieved equity (equal representation of groups). But they wouldn’t be out of a job if they adhered to my notion of equality (“equal opportunity”), for equal opportunity, given cultural differences and preferences, will never produce perfect equity. DEI initiatives are thus aimed at achieving not equality, but equity. This ensures they’ll be permanent.
And even arriving at equal opportunity will take years and tons of money and social engineering and public will and commitment, and we’re nowhere near that. Ergo, we should get used to affirmative action as a fact of life—unless the new Supreme Court gets rid of it, which is not unlikely.
What do I mean when I say we need affirmative action as a form of reparations? I don’t mean that someone who’s African-American or Hispanic should get extra points simply because of their ethnicity. An upper-middle-class African-American, for instance, presumably has about the same advantages and opportunities as those of other ethnicity in their income group, and needs no thumb on the college-admissions scale. Rather, I favor those minorities who were disadvantaged by bigotry and racism in the past, and may not have achieved because of that racism. It’s indisputable that bigotry has held down generations of minorities, and if everyone had equal opportunity, we’d have substantially more equity than now—though perhaps not the degree of equity that people want.
I thus connect ethnicity with class, and there’s no doubt that that’s also true. Thus the race-based affirmative action I’d like to see is also class-based admission. “Why not, then,” you will ask, “don’t you just call for affirmative action based on class?” Well, I do, but even the impoverished and disadvantaged admitted to schools should, at least for a time, be weighted a bit more towards minorities. There’s something about having elite colleges almost totally lacking some minorities that disgusts me.
Asking for some race-based admission will of course mean lowering standards so long as these minorities perform less well than whites or Asians, and I admit this. I simply ask that all those who are admitted be deemed qualified to succeed at a school and be able to benefit from what a school has to offer. (John McWhorter appears to oppose affirmative action completely, and argues that “not everyone has to go to college”).
We already have affirmative action for other groups: for example older students, veterans, and so on. (I oppose preferential admission for the children of alumni—legacies—or for athletes.) This too may involve lowering formal academic standards, but you also get some students whose experiences may add to the educational experience of their fellow students. So why not throw some disadvantaged minorities into these groups? Wouldn’t their own experiences enrich the learning experience of the entire student body? I’ll admit that I have no evidence that diversity of a class makes for a better learning experience or even more learning, and I seem to recall some counterevidence, but if there’s simply a lack of evidence I’ll stick with my impressions.
Evaluating racial diversity as an inherent educational “good” was one rationale for the U.S. Supreme Court to allow preferential admission of minorities (without quotas) in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case (1978). But four of the justices (Marshall, White, Blackmun and Brennan) also wrote “”government may take race into account when it acts not to demean or insult any racial group, but to remedy disadvantages cast on minorities by past racial prejudice”. That is reparations.
Many schools like ours also have “need-blind admissions”, in which students are admitted based on their qualifications alone, and then if there are financial problems the University helps out with scholarships, jobs, and the like. This, however, is not affirmative action, for admission is still based on meritocratic criteria. Any financial disadvantages based on class are rectified after admission.
I throw this question out to readers because it’s a tough one for me. Clearly nobody wants a college in which every student is identical. How can you learn without at least a variety of viewpoints among students? (And that, of course, brings up the question of whether we need politically-based affirmative action!). Does not affirmative action help bring about that diversity, while at the same time trying to rectify historical injustice? Or is rectifying historical injustice not what universities are supposed to be doing? (I could make an argument for that view, too.)
So, weigh in below. Should we have affirmative action for admission to elite secondary schools and to colleges? If so, on what should it be based: race, class, viewpoint, experience, age, or some other criteria?
To me this question is a most important one, for it bears directly on calls for equity that are ubiquitous in America—not just in schools, but in every field of endeavor.
The article below is by H. Holden Thorpe, who is editor-in-chief of all the Science journals, and it appeared in the most recent issue of the flagship journal Science (reference below). You can read it by clicking on the screenshot, or download the pdf here (both for free).
The point Thorp is making, which is in the title itself, is so palpably false that I can’t believe he doesn’t know he’s deliberately distorting reality for the sake of ideology. This is performative wokeness on a huge scale: almost lying for ideological reasons:
Thorp asserts that improving diversity, presumably by beefing up the number of minority students in schools, does not lower the standards of the school. This, of course, is manifestly false: we all know, and schools know, that to achieve something even close to equity (equal representation of students from all groups), you must lower admissions standards. This is already being done in a big way, through affirmative action and the removal of barriers to admission. The elimination of standardized tests like the SATs is one sign of this. And, according to the Bakke decision, this is perfectly legal, although one cannot have a quota system.
The preferential rejection of Asian and Asian-American students at Harvard, for example, occurred because applying the very high usual admission standards would result in a woefully low percentage of black and Hispanic students. Instead, Harvard, like many other schools, now uses a nebulous form of “holistic” admissions that includes assessing “personality fit”, on which Asians were scored low. This case will make it to the Supreme Court, I suspect, which will probably overturn the decision that Harvard’s practices were legal.
Now I’ve said many times that I do favor a limited form of affirmative action as a form of reparations towards those who didn’t have equal opportunity in the past. So yes, I favor “inclusion,” though not to the extent of either Thorp or many colleges. But I do not pretend that affirmative action, or “inclusion” as it’s called, does not involve lowering standards. It does: the object is not to keep them the same, but to keep the bar at least high enough that people who are qualified to study at a school, or to be promoted to the next grade, are the ones who get in.
In contrast, Thorp recognizes a lack of equity, but doesn’t attribute it to cultural or environmental differences between groups. Instead, he says that it’s the educators’ fault. With the right kind of teaching, Thorp asserts, all students can master scientific material. It just needs a big reform in educational methods. I quote from his article:
It’s common to hear that improving student diversity in higher education requires lowering the bar to admission and watering down the curriculum so that all students can pass the course of study. I’m not aware of anyone who is advocating such a trade-off. [JAC: Of course they are; they’re just silent about it.] There are known methods of teaching that allow more people from different backgrounds to master scientific material without compromising the quality of education. These include a greater use of active learning methods that engage students with course material through discussions and problem solving (as opposed to passively taking in information). Making such reforms may require faculty to learn new ways of teaching. But isn’t that the job—to foster education for everyone?
Another common refrain is that understanding science requires a high degree of skill in mathematics. I’ve heard firsthand from faculty that students can’t pass their classes unless they have previously achieved a high score on standardized tests in math such as the SAT or ACT. That is a breathtakingly pessimistic view. These high scorers are often students who’ve had the opportunities and resources to prepare for pre-college exams, which vast numbers of students have difficulty accessing. Isn’t the whole point of teaching to provide a pathway to achievement?
In the end, Thorp us convinced that the teachers have simply failed the students, most notably in STEM:
Opening the doors to science for everyone requires that faculty learn the most effective methods for teaching a diverse student body. Yes, it’s more work on top of the many other faculty duties, so universities must provide resources to make the adjustments, such as revamping classrooms for active learning, providing time for faculty to redo their curricula, and doing the hard work involved in having the faculty and institution make the cultural changes that students need. And everyone should have more optimism about who can become a scientist.
It’s not the job of faculty and institution of universities to “make the cultural changes” that students need. For if differential achievement is based on different cultures, surely the differences begin making their effects known when children are very young. Creating equality of opportunity at that time is the job not of universities, but of the government, parents, and society. By the time students get to universities, it’s way too late.
The second of the three paragraphs above assumes that the difference between groups rests on test preparation, but in reality it’s based on a huge difference between groups in culture, background, and environment. (I can’t say anything about group genetics because we have no information on it.). And it’s the teachers’ fault for not finding creative ways to teach math. But in reality, they’ve tried, even using “culturally sensitive math”, but it hasn’t worked. We don’t yet know what teaching methods can work to bring deprived students up to equity of outcomes. Indeed, even in Kathryn Harden’s book on differential achievement within groups, The Genetic Lottery, although she demands that equity be achieved within whites (she doesn’t deal with different races, but assumes that inequities among white students results from their different genes), she’s at a loss to recommend what changes be made in schooling. (I reviewed her book for the Washington Post.)
The data all show, and I won’t adduce it here for fear of being called names, that schools with selective admissions or a desire to keep equity as students go through school, invariably lower standards to maintain equity. It’s clear that it is impossible not to lower standards in order to increase the representation of a severely underperforming population. Thorp knows this, but has to say otherwise lest he be called a racist. In reality, he should have just kept his gob shut. But Science, like many scientific journals, is engaged in performative editorializing in a big way.
And, as I said, teachers—our unsung heroes—have been desperate for years to not leave students behind. They’ve tried most everything, to the extent that even Harden can’t think of anything new. But equity has not been achieved. I don’t think it will until equal opportunity and resources are there from when a newborn is in the cradle. (Do they still have cradles?) And that is going to take a lot more than changing methods of educating students.
Here’s a passage from a new post on Freddie deBoer’s blog, an article called “Education doesn’t work 2.0“. (It’s free, but subscribe if you read him often.} DeBoer doesn’t mention anything about race or ethnicity here; he’s talking about a general lack of malleability of every kid towards education (perhaps only white kids). But many poorly perfoming students are white, too, so unless there is are ethnicity-specific ways of teaching that don’t apply to low achievers among whites, we’re stuck.
The brute reality is that most kids slot themselves into academic ability bands early in life and stay there throughout schooling. We have a certain natural level of performance, gravitate towards it early on, and are likely to remain in that band relative to peers until our education ends. There is some room for wiggle, and in large populations there are always outliers. But in thousands of years of education humanity has discovered no replicable and reliable means of taking kids from one educational percentile and raising them up into another. Mobility of individual students in quantitative academic metrics relative to their peers over time is far lower than popularly believed. The children identified as the smart kids early in elementary school will, with surprising regularity, maintain that position throughout schooling. Do some kids transcend (or fall from) their early positions? Sure. But the system as a whole is quite static. Most everybody stays in about the same place relative to peers over academic careers. The consequences of this are immense, as it is this relative position, not learning itself, which is rewarded economically and socially in our society.
This phenomenon is relevant to the question of genetic influence on intelligence, but this post is not about that. The evidence of such influence appears strong to me, and opposition to it seems to rely on a kind of Cartesian dualism. However, one need not believe in genetic influence on academic outcomes to recognize the phenomenon I’m describing today. Entirely separate from the debate about genetic influences on academic performance, we cannot dismiss the summative reality of limited educational plasticity and its potentially immense social repercussions. What I’m here to argue today is not about a genetic influence on academic outcomes. I’m here to argue that regardless of the reasons why, most students stay in the same relative academic performance band throughout life, defying all manner of life changes and schooling and policy interventions. We need to work to provide an accounting of this fact, and we need to do so without falling into endorsing a naïve environmentalism that is demonstrably false. And people in education and politics, particularly those who insist education will save us, need to start acknowledging this simple reality. Without communal acceptance that there is such a thing as an individual’s natural level of ability, we cannot have sensible educational policy.
Finally, I’ll give a comment from a colleague who wrote me about the Science editorial:
Not only is Thorp’s claim inconsistent with available data, but he himself resigned as chancellor of UNC because of a scheme that lowered academic standards in the African American Studies department to the point that students were given grades in classes that didn’t exist.
“In 2013, Thorp resigned from the position of chancellor amid allegations of widespread academic fraud, which were later outlined in the Wainstein Report. The Wainstein Report describes the findings of an independent investigation conducted by the former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein. It describes abuses spanning over 18 years, which included “no-show” classes that had little to no faculty oversight. Approximately half of those enrolled in these classes were athletes.”
As you know, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) statements are increasingly required by colleges and universities for both hiring and promotion of faculty. And for a long time my law-school colleague Brian Leiter has argued that they should not be used, as hiring or promotion based on them constitutes illegal “viewpoint discrimination” by deep-sixing candidates that don’t have the “right ideological views.”
Leiter’s most prominent argument against the use of these statements, and one that is cited often, is his piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) two years ago, “The Legal Problem with Diversity Statements.” His objection is this:
. . . some universities and departments are using scores on the diversity statement to make the first cuts in faculty searches. That would not be objectionable if it were only a device for weeding out candidates unwilling to work with a diverse student body: The ability to do so obviously goes to the core of a faculty member’s professional duties. The problem is that the new diversity statements go well beyond that, requiring candidates to profess allegiance to a controversial set of moral and political views that have little or no relationship to a faculty member’s pedagogical and scholarly duties.
I agree with him; it’s a form of sneaking ideology into the hiring and promotion process. To succeed we all know what we have to say, and it certainly isn’t “I have and will treat all undergraduates equally, regardless of who they are.” Nevertheless, the requirements for these statements are not only proliferating, but the weeding-out process, used most prominently by the University of California, is being used to cull those who don’t agree with the progressive view of DEI. Even here I’ve heard dark rumors that such statements are being used to cull those with unacceptable ideological views, but I don’t know for sure.
At any rate, there’s a new article in the CHE by Brian Soucek, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, that argues the feasibility of using DEI statements legally. (By so arguing this he admits that there are legal problems with these statements from the get-go, problems like those raised by Leiter.) The problem is that by rendering the statements legal, Soucek also removes the rationale for why many academics really want them: to assure that faculty conform to “a controversial set of moral and political views.”
Click to read:
You can see how the DEI statements must, according to Soucek, be “made legal”: by showing that they don’t violate academic freedom or constitute compelled speech because they do indeed require criteria necessary for a specific academic job. Further requirements for “legalization” mean ensuring that those judgments be made by the relevant scholars, not by administrators or diversity experts. Soucek:
Critics need to do more than point out that faculty are potentially getting judged on their viewpoints. What matters constitutionally is whether the views being judged are relevant to the position in question. One consequence: Prompts and rubrics that look for the same kinds of contributions to diversity no matter the job or discipline are less likely to be constitutional than those better tailored to the position at issue.
And indeed, for most academic jobs, specific commitments to forms of diversity are not relevant. Anything in science, and in most humanities jobs, are off the table; no specific views on diversity are crucial for performing those jobs well.
So who makes the requirements? Soucek:
. . . .So when critics call mandated diversity statements “an affront to academic freedom,” their accusations hit their target if and only if someone other than disciplinary experts are setting the terms by which faculty members are judged. For example, if the rubrics used to evaluate diversity statements are imposed by administrators top-down and university-wide, academic-freedom worries are going to compound the potential viewpoint discrimination concerns that arise when evaluative criteria aren’t tailored to the job at hand.
But of course nearly all such requirements come from the University, and must adhere to University standards and wording, futher rendering the statements irrelevant.
Soucek adds that there’s nothing wrong with compelled speech, and supports that by giving some ludicrous examples that are irrelevant to Leiter’s Constitutional concerns. Soucek:
Critics often say that public universities, bound as they are by the First Amendment, can’t discriminate against students and employees based on their viewpoints. This just isn’t true. Like most professors, I engaged in rampant viewpoint discrimination when I graded my student’s exams this month. (For example, if a First Amendment student expressed the view that viewpoint discrimination is always unconstitutional at public universities, I would lower their grade.) Hiring and tenure review both require judgments by applicants’ disciplinary peers about the quality of the conclusions reached in their scholarly work. And surely when a university hires someone to run an asylum clinic, or to direct its program on entrepreneurship, it can reject an immigration restrictionist for the former search, but not the latter, and favor someone who is pro-capitalism for the latter search, though not the former.
Soucek is a law professor, for crying out loud, and should know the difference between judging someone based on whether they’ve met the criteria for the job (or gotten decent grades) or whether extraneous political views are being tacked on for ideological reasons.
Soucek complains that critics “assum[e] rather than argu[e] that DEI contributions are not part of the job description for most academics,” quoting my observation that diversity has “little or no relationship to a faculty member’s pedagogical and scholarly duties.” Soucek omits, however, that I was explicitly criticizing Berkeley’s diversity requirement, according to which a job applicant’s diversity statement would get a low score if s/he “describes only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc.).” In other words, Berkeley’s diversity requirement explicitly distinguished a commitment to the diversity ideology from a faculty member’s other pedagogical duties.
Soucek suggests Berkeley and other UC campuses can avoid legal problems as long as diversity requirements represent “criteria experts within the discipline conscientiously judge to be relevant to the job.” That point would rule out most university requirements of diversity statements, which are administratively imposed. If different departments can genuinely decide on their own if actions in support of “diversity” (as distinct from the usual pedagogical duties of faculty, such as “treating all students the same regardless of background” as Berkeley put it) are relevant to the job, and if their disciplinary peers at other universities concur, then Soucek may be right that academic freedom protects such a decision.
Suppose, however, members of the economics discipline decided that actions in support of “capitalism” were “relevant to the job.” Does that mean economics departments at public universities could exclude candidates who do not demonstrate in practice their commitment to capitalism? One hopes that the courts would see through this pretextual form of viewpoint discrimination.
If you’re in academia, and able to see how these statements are being used, it’s clear that they are aimed at weeding out candidates who don’t conform to progressive Leftist ideology on race or gender (adherence to “structural racism/sexism” and so on). Needless to say, I agree with Leiter: it only weakens academics when departments in which adherence to a specific DEI requirements are irrelevant are still forced to adhere to those requirements. I’m surprised that the University of California has gotten away with these shenanigans, and I smell a lawsuit approaching from the wings.
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.
. . . . 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, here, here, 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.
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!”: