The Magazine


Mar 25, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 27 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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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.