The Magazine


Mar 25, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 27 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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A 58-page report from the president of Harvard on "Diversity and Learning" may not seem like hot stuff -- and it isn't, really -- but it shows where American education is today. Since Harvard is run by liberals and has been for some time, it is no surprise that Nell Rudenstine should write a defense of the liberal policy of affirmative action. What is striking is that he calls up the names of old-time liberals from the days when dead white males were men, and proud of it.

Rudenstine's report has not received as much attention as it deserves. It has not aroused much controversy among students, and the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, found it lacking in fresh ideas. But the report was not meant to offer new ideas, and it has perhaps received as much attention as Rudenstine wanted. President since 1991, Rudenstine has kept a low profile, and this is his first venture into a hot political topic. Although he refers to controversy over diversity, he writes dispassionately, raises no new questions, and tries not to add to the controversy. He claims that since the 19th century, Harvard has sought diversity as can be seen in quotations from its best-known presidents -- Charles W. Eliot, A. Lawrence Lowell, James B. Conant -- all of whom actually used the precious word. Like an administrator ably deflecting public anxiety, and wary of increasing what he means to allay, Rudenstine reassures any skeptics that, with affrmative action, Harvard is merely doing what it has always done, which surely was done, and is still being done, for good reason.

Rarely these days does Harvard praise its tradition, and it is welcome to see some respect for the good done by dead white males. But in this case (as often happens), tradition is praised so as to cover a departure from it. Affrmative action is not the continuation of a long-time search for diversity at Harvard. When it was instituted in the late 60s, it was a fundamental change, and that is what it remains. In the past, diversity was sought for the sake of academic excellence; now it is sought at the expense of excellence.

It would be wrong to suggest that Harvard has abandoned its "commitment to excellence" or the attempt to assess "individual merit" in admitting undergraduates, for Rudenstine proclaims the institution's devotion to these things. The trouble is not that individual merit is denied, but that it is compromised-and the need for compromise is then denied. The report says that along with individual merit, the applicant's contribution to the whole community is weighed, so that students will be challenged and enriched by being with others unlike themselves. The student body should consist not only of future professors but should comprise in all its "diversity" the future elite (elite is my term, not Rudenstine's). But the question the report ducks is this: Should race be a category in the diversity along with musical, athletic or literary talent, or political ambition, or scientific promise? Should the title for admission for some students be the color of their skin?

Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, set out to transform a college into a university, and to do this he sought to attract students of diverse religions and from diverse regions of the country. But by "diversity" Eliot meant a diversity of talents, not a mere variety of backgrounds, much less proportional representation of racial groups. Diversity was subordinated to the ruling principle of academic excellence and made to serve it.

Rudenstine, quoting his predecessor Derek Bok, tries to give the impression that recruiting black students for Harvard is a mere extension of a policy of diversity from geography to race. But there is a big difference he does not mention: the stubborn and unwelcome fact that blacks do not perform as well as other groups on standardized tests. I do not know whether this fact is inherited or acquired, so I will just call it stubborn. It certainly is unwelcome, and all the more because the difference is not small. For classes entering Harvard in 1991 and 1992, the difference in SAT scores between blacks and whites was 95 points (out of a total of 1600); and this was the smallest discrepancy in any of the colleges reporting to the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, which made the survey. At the University of California, Berkeley, the difference was 288 points.

Without considering -- or rather focusing on -- this discrepancy, no discussion of affrmative action can claim even to have begun. For the difficulty is here; it is not recruitment and it is not racism. Rudenstine in cautious terms rebuts the argument that affirmative action stigmatizes blacks, but he shows by his silence on the crucial point that he is afraid of stigmatizing blacks. Affrmative action prevents its defenders from speaking frankly about what they have done, about what they had to do, to bring diversity. They should not think their silence goes unnoticed by students, by the general public, or by blacks. Their refusal to discuss or even identify the central difficulty is stigma enough by itself.

The liberals (including those at Harvard) who instituted affirmative action took a big risk when they made race an avowed category of diversity. They may have hoped that race would cause no more trouble than geography, that finding able blacks would be as easy, or as hard, as finding able Californians. The risk was that nothing untoward would emerge, no awkward fact calling into question the association of diversity and merit. Unfortunately, once race is on the list of things to look for, it is hard to take it off unobtrusively.

A further sign of Rudenstine's embarrassment is his failure to mention the great influx of Asians at Harvard in the last two decades. Here is a large addition of diversity (and there are, moreover, varieties of Asians) from those who arrived without fanfare and, above all, without the benefit of preferences. If anything, Asians have been victims of affirmative action. But to consider this obvious event, at which partisans of diversity ought to rejoice, might call attention to the stubborn and unwelcome fact of black underperformance, which needs to be buried.

Somewhere in the course of Rudenstine's report (about p. 45) the idea of diversity as inherited from the past is suddenly transformed into the new, multicultural idea of representation. The liberal heroes he quotes in support of diversity -- John Milton and John Stuart Mill -- had no thought that diversity might require proportional representation of ethnic groups. Certainly not! For them true diversity was above all diversity of opinion, and that was the product of a few strongminded, even eccentric, individuals -- the sort of people who stand on their own feet, who do not bow to public opinion, or look to role models, or need the support of a critical mass of other individuals like themselves.

The few conservatives on the faculty at Harvard might serve as an example of the sort of diversity that Milton and Mill had in mind. They are a mere sprinkling in the dull mass of liberals in ridiculous disproportion to their number in the general population. True diversity comes from those who challenge the liberal orthodoxy to which Rudenstine gives voice. Harvard has no program to recruit them.

Rudenstine says that he rejects quotas, but anyone who uses the word " underrepresentation" encourages quotas. That term sets up a moral expectation that each group is entitled to its proportionate share of the best positions of every kind. Perhaps the expectation will not be made specific or will not be strictly enforced, but it will exert constant pressure against an unbiased concern for merit. Indeed, that pressure is just what proponents of affrmative action say they want to maintain. They do not want quotas, but they want the disposition to quotas that makes the formal requirement unnecessary -- and keeps it concealed. Representation has to do with political power, not with academic excellence.

The harm done by "diversity," nee affirmative action, is not to the quality of the students, at least at Harvard. Harvard's black students are capable and self-reliant, and they do not need to be fussed over. The harm is to the morale of the institution, which depends almost entirely on its devotion to academic excellence. As things stand, that devotion is cornpromised by the desire for diversity -- and the extent of the compromise is indicated by the fact that it is not admitted.

Nowhere in his report does Rudenstine allow that diversity might pose a problem for excellence. A reader would have to infer that possibility from Rudenstine's avoidance of it. In his thinking, the goal of diversity is on a par with excellence or above it. lie says that "the need to sustain rigorous academic standards is clear." But he adds that "the more difficult and genuine challenge" is to secure diversity.

The truth is just the opposite. It is easy to indulge "other significant values" than excellence and to pretend that nothing has happened and that our patron saint John Stuart Mill would smile on us. What is hard is to sustain excellence against the temptation of other values that appear to be more significant.

The other value most in evidence in American education today is self-esteem. Instead of holding students to "rigorous academic standards," our schools and universities aim to make their charges feel good about themselves and their ethnic identities. Harvard, where the average grade of all courses is above B plus, is a full participant-no, a leader -- in feel-good education

It would be pleasing to think that President Rudenstine wants to oppose this noxious trend and to replace diversity for the sake of self-esteem and group identity with diversity for excellence. That is what Harvard's tradition, properly understood, would endorse. But he simply does not discuss diversity as usually seen on the agenda of multiculturalism. He does not appreciate, or fears to say, that it takes an effort, indeed a battle, to recapture and restore diversity as an instrument of excellence. So he leaves it unclear whether Harvard's purpose is to educate blacks or represent them proportionately and improve their self-esteem. The result is not only to confirm the ascendancy of self-esteem but also to give it the legitimacy of seeming excellence, as if the two were the same. A more full-hearted, forthright defense of affirmative action might carry conviction. This one helps me to conclude that the policy is probably, and rightly, done for.

Harvey Mansfield is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of government at Harvard.