If you were to examine any speech made by a university president forty years ago, you would find that the word “Excellence” occurs with great frequency. That concept was the guiding light of the academy. If you made the same examination now, you’d find that the word “Diversity” has taken its place. That change has altered both the relationship between administration and faculty, and the pecking order within the faculty. The arbiters of Excellence, those who defined it and judged it on any campus, were those members of the faculty who by common consent had achieved it. These were the faculty whose original thought had earned them national prominence in their fields. They were the natural campus leaders because they most embodied the core values of the academy. Administrators knew that they were mainly answerable to this faculty group, and appointments to the administration were made from its ranks. But with Diversity it was quite a different story. The arbiters of Diversity are not the intellectual giants of the campus, but instead the politically radical new appointees. They are the ones who embody it, judge it, and who can demand that their judgments be the basis of policy. And so, when Diversity replaces Excellence as the ruling idea of the academy, the constituency to which administrations are answerable also changes. Where formerly they needed the confidence of their most distinguished faculty, now they need to keep the Diversity lobby happy, and it is never satisfied. Thus faculty leadership on campus passes from those who are most committed to the academy’s core values to those who least embody them, from the academically strongest to the weakest.Strong stuff, but not completely wrong. Some responsibility must also rest with the business types who view enrollment as analogous to market share and perceive as customers the students rather than the older adults whose ranks the students will graduate to, as better citizens or as employees.
The get-rich-quick hustlers of the dot.com and real estate and hedge fund sort are now getting their comeuppance, even though everybody is helping pick up the pieces. This is as good a time as any for the sub-prime sectors of higher education to get theirs.
The regime of preferences is a test case of how politics corrupts the academy, and why it needs protection from politics. The first step in getting the academic world back to a healthy state will be to persuade everyone that a first-rate educational system, just by being that, does more for social change and for upward mobility than any other institution can possibly do. But that can happen only if it stays away from the corrupting effect of direct involvement in political or social causes, and sticks to its exclusive concern with knowledge and inquiry. This may seem a slower path to social equality, but the attempted instant fix of preferences turned out to be a great deal slower, if it ever gets us there at all, and it has turned the academic world inside out.It's stuff like this that encourages me to keep posting.