It has been 6-and-a-half years since the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, upheld the legality of racial discrimination in university admissions for the purpose of realizing "the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body." Long-standing precedent requires the court to apply "strict scrutiny" to any claim justifying discrimination on the basis of race. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor asserted that the court's "deference" to the "expertise" of the defendant in this case was sufficiently strict to meet this test.
But there is reason to doubt whether "diversity," as practiced by American higher education today, has any educational benefits at all -- never mind whether those benefits are sufficient to justify discrimination. Whatever its benefits in theory, diversity in practice is often anti-intellectual, replacing reasoned debate with ritualized expressions of phony emotion.
A kerfuffle at New York University (NYU) is a case in point. Last week, Tunku Varadarajan of Forbes.com wrote a column meditating on the Fort Hood massacre, which, he noted, appears to have been a religiously motivated "act of messianic violence." (Disclosure: Varadarajan is a friend and former colleague of this columnist.) In addition to his work in journalism, Varadarajan teaches at NYU's Stern School of Business, and his column set off predictable complaints from Muslim students and alumni. One alum, Haroon Moghul, wrote an essay at ReligionDispatches.orgin which he accused Varadarajan of "hate-mongering." He wrote that Varadarajan's column had caused him "pain" and "feelings of marginalization," and the headline and subheadline described him as "shocked" by Varadarajan's writing. Eventually the university president, John Sexton, was compelled to respond. While he correctly noted that it would be wrong for the university "to punish faculty officially for expressing such ideas," he also issued a declaration of disapproval:
"A journalist and NYU clinical faculty member has written a piece for Forbes that many Muslims find offensive. I understand how they feel -- I found it offensive, too. I am teaching Muslim students now, and I have taught them in the past; the portrayal of Muslims in the Forbes piece bears no resemblance to my experience; I disagree with the Forbes piece and think it is wrong.
"I say all this because as president I have not foresworn the rights I have as a member of the NYU faculty to challenge an idea that I believe is erroneous."
"This week, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of NYU's Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life sent an "URGENT Letter" to his email list:
"'I am writing to urge you to join me today in 'A Campaign Against Hate' celebrating diversity at NYU, commemorating the victims of the massacre at Fort Hood and responding to a recent article in Forbes magazine entitled "Going Muslim." The event, dubbed "Harmonyu," is being spearheaded by the Islamic Center at NYU. In my opinion, the article, written by an NYU professor, does not deal sensitively enough with the role and place of Muslims in America.'"
How's that for diversity? NYU's Jews and Muslims are ganging up on a Hindu columnist and accusing him of promoting "hate" -- an inflammatory charge anywhere, but especially on a university campus. Yet it's clear that Rabbi Sarna knows the charge is unjustified, since his actual criticism of Varadarajan's work -- it "does not deal sensitively enough" -- is so tepid.
Likewise, President Sexton's claim to have been offended by Varadarajan's article has no credibility. There's no doubt he was inconvenienced by it, and we expect he's none too happy with Varadarajan for that. But his statement "I found it offensive, too" is a ritualized expression of empathy, not to be mistaken for the real thing. And if you read the entire letter, you will find that in spite of Sexton's statement that he has "not foresworn" his right "to challenge an idea that I believe is erroneous," he offers no substantive argument to rebut Varadarajan's column.
This is how "diversity" works in practice: Intellectual contention is drowned out in a sea of emotion, much of it phony. Members of designated victim groups respond to a serious argument with "pain" and "shock" and accusations of "hate," and university administrators make a show of pretending to care.
At some campuses, administrators and faculty members actually do practice censorship. NYU, at least in this instance, is not the worst offender in this respect. But this sort of emotional frenzy is nonetheless inimical to the spirit of rational inquiry that universities are supposed to encourage.