Are Jews Really an ‘Under-Represented Group’ at New York Colleges?

June 12, 2012

"Jewish" is a "new minority label" at New York City’s university system, the New York Post reported on June 3, almost accurately. CUNY recently completed a "faculty diversity action plan" that included among the usual identity-based focus groups along with a Caucasian/White/Jewish group, created in response to complaints that Caucasian/White/Jews were "not as monolithic as some believe and this lack of understanding is reflected in subtle stereotyping."

Stop and think about this: Stereotyping attributes to individuals the presumed characteristics of their demographic groups. Stereotypes treat people as members of groups instead of individuals. So do diversity initiatives that organize people into identity groups. Logic suggests that CUNY faculty who feel victimized by stereotypes imposed on Caucasian/White/Jews should probably avoid Caucasian/White/Jewish groups (although by creating this group to fight stereotypes, they may have inadvertently undermined the stereotypical assumption that all Jews are smart).

I don’t mean to join CUNY in singling out some of its Jewish faculty, who are hardly alone in seeking group identities and affiliations in order to defend against stereotyping or "unwelcoming behaviors." CUNY’s diversity study promotes the perverse belief that identity groups undermine bias and stereotyping. It also implicitly endorses stereotyping, attributing particular "cognitive styles" or "intellectual outlooks" to particular groups. This is the essential incoherence at the heart of bureaucratic diversity initiatives: They combat stereotypes by relying on them.

I’m not denying that members of particular demographic groups sometimes share common problems and obstacles to advancement that require collective, not individual. action. Civil rights laws have long responded to this need for categorical solutions to categorical discrimination against racial minorities, women, and other historically disadvantaged groups. Affirmative action reflects the belief that these formal bans on discrimination don’t ensure equal opportunity (much less equal results) because so much discrimination is inchoate and informal.

Affirmative action requires a controversial balancing of inequities, since hiring and admissions decisions are zero sum games. (Questions about its constitutionality are once again before the Supreme Court.) But affirmative action was initially justified as an essential means of remedying generations of discrimination. It was arguably less unfair than a system without affirmative action, and it was supposed to be temporary.

Instead, at CUNY and other schools, affirmative action is being transformed, expanded, and institutionalized by a bureaucratic cult of diversity. It’s not aimed at righting historic wrongs but at creating "inclusive" and "nurturing" environments for individuals, while giving universities like CUNY the benefits of "a multitude of skills, perspectives, and experiences in order to better advance its mission of research, teaching, and service."

What’s wrong with this vision? It means "affirmative action for everyone," as Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition observes, given the open-ended list of affinity groups that diversity initiatives often promote, regardless of discrimination. "Diversity denotes an understanding of difference that includes many dimensions," the CUNY report explains, "including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, age, national origin, socioeconomic status and other characteristic of social identity." CUNY apparently has this in common with kindergarten: It’s a place where everyone is special in his or her own special way.

Striving to make grown-ups feel special, welcome, included, and appreciated, CUNY also has much in common with the larger therapeutic culture. Diversity bureaucrats envision higher education, in part, as a form of therapy. They want to put everyone on the couch, to address their "unconscious biases."

How are people made aware of these biases and how are they exorcised? On campus, sensitivity training sessions, or what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rightly calls thought reform programs, are supposed to replace bad attitudes with good ones. The CUNY report recommends establishing an "Inclusive and Respectful Workplace" training program aimed at "understanding commonalities and differences of perspectives and experiences that may be affected by race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other social identities."

Civil libertarians recoil at the intrusiveness of these programs, but diversity advocates embrace their forays into amateur psychoanalysis: As the CUNY report advises, 

Even people who have strong egalitarian values and believe that they are not biased may unconsciously behave in discriminatory ways. … Becoming aware of unconscious assumptions and behaviors that influence interactions enables all faculty to minimize these beliefs and behaviors and derive maximum benefits from diversity.

In other words, if you’re a CUNY faculty member, your unconscious is New York City’s business.

It’s good business for management consultants, as well as college and university administrators. CUNY worked with Cambridge Hill Partners, which offers such profound insights as "faculty compensation is a key factor related to retention," along with the usual, soporific strategic planning and vision statement rhetoric, in a 156 page report that seems righteously unaware of its own internal contradictions. 

It suggests, for example, that under-represented groups (known as URGs) aren’t actually under-represented: "(T)he University’s URG representation is good," the report concedes. And while advising university administrators to move "beyond head counts of URG faculty," the CUNY report is filled with detailed statistics, tables, and pie charts tracing the university’s record in hiring or promoting various groups.

We learn, for example, that in 2005, "119 faculty were hired of which 1 (0.8%) was American Indian or Alaskan Native, 21 (17.6%) were Asian, 6 (5.0%) were Black/African-American, 12 (10.1%) were Hispanic/Latino(a) (not including Puerto Rican), 4 (3.4%) were Italian American, 3 (2.5%) were Puerto Rican and 72 (60.5%) were White/Caucasian." We also learn about the rates at which members of these groups were promoted, down to a tenth of a percentage point. Apparently you have to engage in "head-counting" to move beyond it.

Am I being insensitive? Perhaps; I would probably be expelled from sensitivity school. But diversity advocates who are painstakingly sensitive to what they imagine are the feelings of "under-represented groups" and "underrepresented minorities" are often grossly insensitive to the rights of people who regard their unconscious attitudes and behaviors as their own business. 

Put aside the idiocies of head-counting every demographic group along with every group distinguished by some "other characteristic of social identity." Put aside the futility of engaging in stereotyping in order to defeat it. What’s arguably most troubling about the cult of diversity is its disregard for academic freedom. The influence of therapeutic ideals on higher education is not new, and it has proven quite repressive. For years now, in the interests of creating diverse, "inclusive," and "nurturing" environments for vulnerable students, college and university administrators have created hostile environments for free speech. 

This lamentable phenomenon was entirely predictable. Intellectual development requires intellectual combat, and combat is not governed by a desire to help your adversaries feel good about themselves. "Diversity creates opportunities to engage in difficult dialogues about challenging issues," the CUNY report claims. Not really.