Despite the imperiousness of president-designate Dr. Robert Birgeneau's proclamation that the University of Toronto will be "committed to diversity," i.e., affirmative action, his remarks betray considerable ambivalence or perhaps confusion. ("An Ivy League Brouhaha," National Post, Feb. 26). The trouble began when the dean of Science at MIT tried to support affirmative action by comparing the position of women and Jews.
"Dr. Birgeneau likened the position of women academics to that of Jews after the Second World War, adding that ‘when many academic institutions, both in Canada and the United States, were reluctant to hire Jewish scholars, MIT practised absolute merit-based hiring, which meant that we brought to MIT people like Paul Samuelson and Noam Chomsky’." His message: they were hired not because they were Jews but solely because of their academic qualifications and look how well it turned out. Sure, but where did affirmative action come in?
"So: Does he believe in quota-based affirmative action? ‘I believe very firmly in merit-based hiring,’ he replied. 'We attained the top scientists in the world at MIT under my leadership by an unrelenting commitment to merit-based hiring, and in the current climate, in the current world we live in, merit-based hiring automatically produces a diverse faculty." Could he be any clearer? It turned out splendidly, but a ringing endorsement of affirmative action, it's not.
"That said, he also says he believes it's critical to ‘aggressively search’ for outstanding women faculty, and that he welcomes affirmative action and quotas as a ‘temporary measure where it's necessary to correct egregiously bad historical behaviour and to help ameliorate the effects of the environment for non-majority people’."
So, Dr. Birgeneau tells us, "absolute and unrelenting merit-based hiring" did wonders for MIT. It recruited the best people; it "automatically produces a diverse faculty" and it overcame discrimination against Jews. (Could it not do the same for women, blacks and any other groups?). One might have thought, after all that, that he would be an ardent champion of the merit principle. But, it seems it's not really that good, after all. Something different is needed, something like "merit-hiring if necessary, but not necessarily merit-hiring". Mackenzie King's original phrase was designed to reassure both sides in an irreconcilable conflict of his support.1
Imposed diversity is as antithetical to the idea of a university as was the imposed uniformity of an earlier age. Both restrict access to talent.
Nevertheless, even if it's only confusion, Dr. Birgeneau’s views are not mere harmless muddle. They can have dark consequences. "Dr. Birgeneau told the Post he was misquoted in the original article (Toronto Star, Feb. 8) when he allegedly said those in leadership positions (at the U of T) who disagree with his views about affirmative action "should find something else to do". He tried to clarify matters by saying "I just do not want in my administration people who discriminate, that is, people who consistently favour one sociological sub-group over others." (Actually, there has been so little evidence of such discrimination in our universities in recent times that this sounds like a phantom foe or perhaps a straw man.)
But there it is: if you disagree with his views about affirmative action, you favour discrimination. That is, you're a racist or sexist or whatever. To say that openly would be too patently absurd or maybe even libelous so it’s turned into an insinuation or a smear. The universities - and they're not alone - are full of people so petrified by that smear that, sheep-like, they fall silently into line behind affirmative action policies. The media report the pathetic efforts of beleaguered department heads to prove the "diversity" of their staffs. As if it matters. A generation ago, another smear terrified the academic world into a similar sheep-like syndrome - the fear of being labeled a "reactionary". The faculty fell all over themselves to prove how democratic they were and how they believed in complete equality between teachers and students. That was a crock of course and it passed away but not without leaving much damage in its wake. What threat will trigger the next outbreak?
- The original phrase, familiar to older Canadians, was "Conscription if necessary but not necessarily conscription". Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, sometimes known as Wily Willie, faced a nation sharply divided by the conscription issue during the last world war. Most French Canadians were strongly opposed to it while the rest of the country was just as staunchly in favour. So King devised a policy embodied in that deathless phrase.