In early February, the debate club at Colby College in Waterville, Maine invited me to debate the role of "diversity" in higher education with, they hoped, the president of the College, William Adams, who likes to be called "Bro." President Adams declined. So did his vice president, Arnie Yasinski, the “Associate Dean for Intercultural Affairs,” Jeri Roseboro, and the “Coordinator of Multicultural Student Programs and Support,” Bernadette Buchanan. In all the debate club invited 13 members of the administration and the faculty to debate me. They all declined. President "Bro," who was given an open-ended invitation to set the date, said that he was too busy and needed more time to prepare than he had available. The other administrators, who in the words of one of the students, “make their living off of ‘diversity,’” just flat-out refused.
Colby College was one of 28 colleges that signed an amicus brief supporting the University of Michigan in the Supreme Court case. A copy of the brief is posted on the Colby College website (http://www.colby.edu/). One might think that a college administration so up-to-date on the matter of diversity to sign-on to a 30-page brief to the U.S. Supreme Court might be sufficiently prepared for an hour-long exchange on the matter with an academic arguing a different view. But one would think wrong. The Colby College's diversiphile administration and faculty members apparently saw no reason to debate.
The debate club, properly known as “The George E. Murray Debate Society,” prides itself on non-partisanship. Its president, Dennis Kuhnel, explained that it is “an objective organization. We are just trying to foster a spirit of healthy and meaningful debate on Colby’s Campus, because we believe debate is an integral part of Western society [and] democracies.”
What does a debate club in a college dedicated to free inquiry do when the powerful advocates of a position refuse to debate it? In this case, the club decided to turn the refusals to advantage by putting up flyers and table tents advertising Bro's refusal.
One side of the table tent said, "Diversity. Are you tired of the 'D' Word appearing in EVERY single document President Adams Writes? Want to hear what the other perspective is?" The other side said, "Has Diversity ruined America? Come listen to Peter Wood, writer and professor, discuss the way it hasn't been talked about at Colby. See the man President Adams REFUSED to debate. Come with an open mind."
The table tent also included a reproduction from the image on the cover of my book, a nineteenth century graphic of five men representing the "races of mankind." Chris La Putt, the Filipino-American student who produced the card and put it out on the tables told me that he had been accosted by several students for being “racist” and “insensitive.” Some of the cards, of course, disappeared. Chris La Putt, incidentally, became an American citizen two years ago and is the only non-white student in the Colby College student government’s governing body.
The event went ahead on March 5. I asked the students to provide me with an extra chair, which I set up next to the podium, and I began by explaining that the chair appeared to be empty because president Adams and 12 outspoken supporters of diversity appeared unwilling to defend their views in open debate. "But don't worry. The chair isn't empty. It is occupied by the Spirit of Diversity, or old Sod as I call him. You can see he is rather lean; perhaps even transparent; but make no mistake, he is here."
The auditorium was packed and the only interruptions came as bursts of applause on several occasions when I hit something that rung particularly true. A lot of these students were pro-diversity when they arrived and probably pro-diversity when they left too, but no longer quite so sure of themselves and certainly no longer sure that the pro-diversity side had all the arguments. President Bro and his administration, I think, suffered a considerable loss of face. Although Bro was too busy to debate, he apparently found time the following evening to spend several hours at the campus pub drinking beer with members of the senior class.
I spoke extemporaneously, but the last part of my remarked dealt with the amicus brief that Colby had joined. I pointed out several severe misrepresentations of the facts and some dubious argument. For example, the brief begins with the not so subtle suggestion that a Supreme Court decision rejecting Powell's diversity doctrine would instantly return higher education to the Jim Crow days: "The Court should consider the experience of admissions before diversity was highly valued and before race conscious approaches were employed..." I asked the students if they seriously thought that Americans in 2003 had the same attitudes towards race and the participation of members of all races that were widespread in the 1950s and 1960s?
I commented on the brief's mention of the "re-segregating effect [of rejecting Powell's doctrine], probably moving black students from roughly 5-7% of the student body to 2% or so." I asked whether these statistics at face value weren't an admission of how much the "race" was currently being allowed to distort the fair consideration of applicants to college? The cited ranges seem to imply that 3-5% of the current black students were not qualified for admission on the basis of their actual performance in high school and on tests. That means more than half of the black students at Colby and the other 27 colleges that signed the brief were below the minimum standard for admission of white students. Is that a good thing? For whom?
And I concluded by reading from a section near the end of the brief in which Colby College and its fellow amici claimed that Powell's opinion sketched out "a permissible approach (which five justices plainly supported)..." This is an outright lie, and I said so. No other Supreme Court justice supported Powell's idea of a permissible approach, not when the decision was reached and not to this day. President Adams, in signing the brief, made himself and Colby College party to an obvious falsehood, which anybody in the audience could check for himself. Bro was either intentionally misleading the students or just in way over his head.
During the questioning period, when a student asked me what I thought about the future of Colby College, I upped the ante a little more. I said I didn't know the College well enough to say much, but I would worry about the future of any college whose leadership was participating in an attempt to propagate a major historical falsehood in connection with one of the most significant legal cases of our time. Mendacity is not a good foundation for a college's future.
Colby College appears to have one of the worst cases of the disease I've ever seen. The students are taught to hector each other in an unrelenting search for "micro-aggressions"--incidents that may be too small to even describe but which are felt by members of minority groups on campus to create an unwelcoming climate and even a fear of violence. Students who go to “diversity training” get to wear buttons and have stickers for their doors to advertise their improved multicultural consciousness.
The campus was in a particularly high state of tension during my visit because someone had either poured a glass of beer or spilled some beer on a keyboard belonging to a gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered (GLBT) group, whose office is in the Pugh Center, a hive of victim clubs, next door to the campus pub. This came on top of an anonymous insult on an instant messaging system, some possible jeers in a dining hall, and some petty vandalism in the offices of the feminist club and another group. President Bro, predictably, had sent a letter to the whole campus denouncing the beer-on-the keyboard and the other alleged vandalism as a “hate crime” that would be “actively investigated by outside authorities.” I don’t know if that means the Waterville constable or the FBI. I’m also not sure exactly what other sexual persuasions are under attack, when Bro calls the Colby campus to a rally “in support of GLBTTIQ/queer persons at Colby.”
I told my audience that they need not worry about "micro-aggressions” from me; for I intended to provide the macro- kind. That got applause. These kids are waiting for some adult to give them permission to reject the utter diversiphile nonsense that their administration has imposed on them.
The debate club president, Dennis Kuhnel, tells me that some of the diversiphile students think they scored a point or two with me in their assertion that a place like Colby College can be a place apart, a little multicultural utopia in a racist society. I suppose I didn’t rise to every morsel of bait that was temptingly dangled that night. But if any of these students are reading, here’s my answer.
Far from being little utopias, liberal arts colleges in the grips of diversity are islands of totalitarianism in the ocean of a free society. I understand the attraction for some people of life in those islands: the world is arranged just so, at least in appearance, and a pleasant illusion can be sustained for a while that something real is happening.
But the illusion is an illusion. The diversiphile utopians extol the goal of all people learning peacefully from each other, but pursue policies of segregation, racial exclusion, and hair-trigger sensitivity to sleights. What the members of the "utopian" community really learn is to ache with resentment towards each other while repressing any open expression of their views. Another part of the illusion is that the little utopia is supposed to prepare people for life in the larger world. This is usually justified with the twin rationalizations that Patricia Gurin, the University of Michigan's expert witness, calls "critical thinking" and "preparation for citizenship."
The diversiphile version of critical thinking, of course, is actually its opposite: uncritical acceptance of the diversity dogma itself and determination to transform every aspect of culture into the language of that dogma. The "citizenship" diversiphiles have in mind merely means political commitment to force the dogma on everybody else. So is the campus utopia of diversity really preparation for "life"? To the contrary, it produces narrow-minded, ill-educated people full of self-conceit about their superior insight into a society they have lost touch with. It takes many of the graduates years to get re-grounded in reality and to begin to respect the good sense and decent values of their countrymen and to give up the insipid illusion that, as “liberally educated” people, they know better. The diversiphile administrations and faculty who teach this stuff have a lot to answer for. But then again, they are usually people who themselves could never thrive in the world outside their petty despotisms.
That's my report from the frontier of diversity.
Peter Wood is associate professor of anthropology at Boston University and the author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (Encounter Books. 2003).