How the Diversity Agenda 
Corrupts Higher Education: 
An Interview with Heather Mac Donald

Spring 2019 Insider

How the Diversity Agenda 
Corrupts Higher Education: 
An Interview with Heather Mac Donald

Jun 10, 2019 13 min read

How the Diversity Agenda 
Corrupts Higher Education: 
An Interview with Heather Mac Donald
Protestors rally against conservative Ben Shapiro speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, Sept. 14, 2017. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For Heather Mac Donald, no belief about current affairs is too comfortable, too convenient, or too crowd-pleasing to go unrefuted by the facts. The Bradley Prize-winning writer has examined the welfare bureaucracy and found that it enables the very behaviors that keep people in poverty. She has examined law enforcement practices and shown how claims of racist policing are both incorrect and a threat to the gains in public safety (not least for minority communities) produced by data-driven policing. Her latest book is The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture (St. Martin’s Press, 2018). As the subtitle states, things are afoot on college campuses. We talk we her about what’s going on. 

The Insider: If you sample news from college campuses lately, you are likely to read about conservative voices being shut down, professors harassed for deviating from Leftist orthodoxy, restrictive speech codes, obsessions over microaggressions and privilege, bungled sexual misconduct investigations, and coursework that does more to promote political activism than transmit knowledge. You’ve written a book, The Diversity Delusion, that offers an explanation for these phenomena. What do you think is going on? 

Heather Mac Donald: In a word: the trashing of Western civilization. I have identified three major principles that are driving the destruction of humanistic learning on college campuses. The first principle is the belief that the most important thing about any individual is his race or sex. Second, the belief that discrimination based on race and sex is the defining feature of America in particular and in Western civilization in general. And third, that any disparity in proportional representation of females or so-called underrepresented minorities—that is, blacks and Hispanics—in any institution is by definition the result of racism and sexism. Alternative explanations—such as differences in academic or cognitive skills, career preferences, psychological disposition, and behaviors—are simply not allowed. Those three principles, I think, are the core foundational ideas behind the diversity delusion. And they are driving this insane push to reduce all of human experience to racial and sexual oppression. This push denies students the opportunity to lose themselves in the greatest works of Western civilization. 

TI: From where does this delusional worldview come? 

HM: I can describe its trajectory better than I can be confident about its origin. In the 1970s colleges were under the reign of a very odd form of literary theory called deconstruction or post-structuralism. It held that language was fatally ambiguous and that linguistic meaning was impossible to pin down. Moreover, the human self was a mere play of language, a trope. Deconstruction’s mannered rhetoric quickly spread throughout much of the humanities and social sciences, including fields like anthropology and history. 

But at least in the 1970s students were still allowed to read the great books without being taught to complain about the authors’ gonads and melanin. Deconstruction did very weird things with the Western canon—claiming, for example, that literature was always about its own failure—but it still read that canon without the trivializing overlay of identity politics. I absorbed deconstruction uncritically, but I read Wordsworth, Milton, Spenser, and Wallace Stevens, without thinking to whine that they were all dead white males. 

That all changed in the 1980s. Multiculturalism and academic feminism started disparaging works of genius on the basis of their authors’ sex and race. And students were encouraged to reject works that they had not even read simply because those works were written by dead white males. This was the era of the infamous protest at Stanford University led by Jesse Jackson: “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go.” Students were protesting Stanford’s modest core curriculum that tried to expose students systematically to some founding works of Western thought. Faced with such protests, few faculty dared to defend the Western canon. And ever since then the humanities have been infected by the idea that students should study primarily themselves and their own oppression. 

This is complete nonsense and idiocy. But you have a massive diversity bureaucracy and much of the faculty that encourages students to believe in their own victimhood. 

What drives this? I think that some part of society is worried that the racial achievement gap is not going to close. And so we’ve become obsessed with trying to find instances of racism to explain it. And many young women are determined to see themselves as victims rather than the freest individuals in human history. I’m still puzzled by it because it is so counterfactual. 

Students regularly act out little psycho-dramas of oppression before an appreciative audience of diversity deanlets who use the occasion to expand their dominion.

TI: The diversity bureaucracy itself has an incentive to spread these ideas to make students feel that they need the bureaucrats to protect them, right? 

HM: That’s absolutely correct. There is a co-dependency between these narcissistic students and the diversity bureaucracy. Students regularly act out little psycho-dramas of oppression before an appreciative audience of diversity deanlets who use the occasion to expand their dominion. Every time there’s some hysterical protest about phantom racism the response is: “We need another vice chancellor of equity, diversity, and inclusion. We need more separate facilities for minority students. We need a curriculum that is devoted to identity politics.” And most fatally, and faithfully, the argument is: “We need a larger critical mass of minority students.” 

Now the problem with that is that colleges are already employing vast racial preferences to engineer diversity because of the academic skills gap. Between blacks and whites that gap is about a standard deviation in SAT scores—about 200 points. That has not changed for decades. And when you admit students with lowered academic standards, whether they’re female or minority, you’re putting them at a competitive disadvantage. They are unable to compete with their peers. I’m not saying that blacks should not go to college. I’m saying that they should have the same chance of success as any other type of student and go to a college for which they are prepared—rather than being catapulted outside of their skillset into an environment where their peers are more advanced. 

What happens to the so-called “beneficiaries” of racial preferences? On average, they can’t compete. They end up at the bottom of their class in terms of GPA. They then have two explanations available to them. They can say: “I was put into an academic environment for which I was not prepared.” Or they can say: “I’m surrounded by systemic bias and micro-aggressions and structural racism.” Many students, not surprisingly, choose the latter explanation. So when a school responds to these outbreaks of hysteria over phantom racism by saying “we need more minority students” they have to dig down even further into the underqualified minority applicant pool and the achievement gap only widens. It becomes a vicious cycle. 

2019_04_0127_Spring2019Insider_05_Interview02.jpgAt the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston, college students rally for legislation to stop sexual assault on campus, April 10, 2018. credit: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

TI: Could you give us some sense of the scope of the problem? How much money is being spent on diversity bureaucracy? Is the obsession with diversity happening at most colleges? Half? Some? Are there particular kinds of schools that have embraced this agenda? 

HM: It’s everywhere. The ideology and the bureaucracy are not confined to the elite schools. People want to reassure themselves with the thought “well this is just Middlebury, or Yale, or Harvard.” No—it’s now seeping down even to the community college level. There is a community college in the San Diego area—Mira Costa College—that has gone completely all-in on the diversity idea, transforming its curriculum to focus on identity politics, hiring bureaucrat after bureaucrat to teach students to think of themselves as victims. Nobody has ever done a nationwide tally of what is being spent on diversity bureaucracy, but I can give you some examples. The University of California Los Angeles, a publicly funded school, has a Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion who makes over $400,000 per year. That is several multiples above what your average junior faculty member makes. It could subsidize the tuition of dozens of students. The Berkeley diversity apparatus is about $20 million per year. So this is very serious money that is being taken away from, say, buying more library books or more professors in German literature or more French language instructors. It also takes away from efforts to lower the obscenely expensive tuitions that are now the norm. 

TI: Why are schools spending so much money on diversity bureaucracy and administration? How do they benefit from that? 

HM: The bureaucracy is growing everywhere. The explicitly labeled diversity bureaucracy is part of a larger student services bureaucracy, which encompasses all sorts of programs for retention and first generation students. Even those, however, are driven by racial preferences, which bring in students who are not academically competitive. This growth in academic administration has been going on for decades and may be in part simply a feature of Western societies in general that are also experiencing seemingly endless bureaucratization. Somehow there is always enough money sloshing around to keep the academic bureaucracy expanding. 

Why the faculty don’t put their foot down is a mystery to me, since the growth in college administration far outpaces any growth in faculty numbers. I think their acquiescence is in part a devotion to racial preferences. Colleges, including their faculty, fight tooth-and-nail against any suggestion that admissions be based on color-blind academic merit alone. They fight for preferences in the Supreme Court, they fight in the court of public opinion, in part out of self-love. Professors and administrators think of themselves as providing the only safe haven in America for “people of color,” who otherwise face endless discrimination in Red State MAGA country. 

Yet at the same time, there is nothing you can say to a college that will be more fiercely resisted than: “There are no bigots on this campus.” It’s the weirdest thing. Many American institutions today are determined to proclaim themselves racist. I go around to colleges and I tell the students: You are the most privileged human beings in human history. And you are not surrounded by racists. The faculty here are not racist. They want all of their students to succeed, in particular history’s oppressed groups. 

And when I say: “This is not a racist institution, it is tolerant and open-minded (at least when it comes to non-conservatives),” I am met with such rage. A diversity bureaucrat at the University of Colorado Boulder got up and said: “How dare you come to this school and say there is not racism here. I’ve been the subject of racism myself.” It is absolutely perverse that it is an insult to say that an institution is fair and equitable. 

There is nothing you can say to a college that will be more fiercely resisted than: 'There are no bigots on this campus.'

TI: What role do federal money and mandates play in the growth of the diversity bureaucracy?

HM: Well, federal money that goes into student loans is driving a huge part of the tuition increases and those in turn keep the bureaucracy growing. And Title IX has led to the creation of completely unnecessary offices in every university. We all know the stories of the decimation of male athletics in order to have a 50-50 funding level for female athletics that simply do not have the student demand, much less audience demand. There are many people who do argue that a lot of this is driven by government regulation. I’m less persuaded by that argument. I think that this is fundamentally an ideological issue and that the bureaucracy merely follows. This is driven by something much deeper, which is a hatred for Western civilization.

TI: If a doctor prescribes treatments that make his patients sicker, then he is going to lose patients. If a carmaker sells vehicles that have malfunctioning parts, then it is going to lose its car-buying customers. Do you think higher education is ever going to face a reckoning for giving its students—i.e., its customers—ideas that are harmful to them? 

HM: It’s a race against time. People have been predicting the collapse of the academic-industrial complex for decades, and it just never seems to happen. And it is a race against time because students now carry these ideas into mainstream society like a virus. They infect the world at large. The Democratic Party now is dominated by identity politics. A Democratic politician will typically preface her comments with a statement such as “well, as a woman ... “ or as a black woman ... ” as if there’s any kind of necessary relationship between her “identity” and what she is about to say, which there isn’t. 

The “real world” now features the same insane search for its own racism and sexism. We saw it in the one-sided reporting of the encounter between the Covington, Kentucky, kids and a Native American activist, with the press jumping on the false narrative that the encounter demonstrated heteronormative patriarchal white supremacist privilege. We saw it in the hoax by the actor Jussie Smollett, who allegedly paid two men to attack him shouting “this is MAGA country!” We saw it in the effort to bring down Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh based on the “believe survivors” mantra, which is a direct import from campus rape tribunals and Gender Studies 101.

These ideas are transforming the world and even the tech sector. The tech sector now is dominated by feminist ideology. 

And there is another problem. I am not sure that a lot of American parents are particularly interested in whether their kids actually learn the fundamentals of Western civilization in college, so long as they emerge credentialed with a high-status diploma. And unfortunately even conservatives treat college as simply a jobs program. Does it raise your salary? That’s the metric. And I think that’s a very misguided one. 

TI: Clearly there are students who are embracing a victimology mindset. Do you think they are representative of college graduates today? Or are they merely the ones creating the controversies that make the news? Do you have any sense of the overall attitudes of today’s college graduate? 

HM: I think there is a large proportion—I don’t know if it’s a majority or not—who are jaundiced about the diversity agenda and are keeping their heads down. The degree of self-censorship on college campuses is impossible to overstate—whether it’s on the part of students or those few remaining faculty who have not bought into identity politics. Nobody dares speak up. But all it takes is a small percentage of vocal believers; they’re the ones who go out and transform institutions. From my experience talking with younger generations, I would say people in their 30s or 40s—including conservatives even—have been brainwashed to a certain extent by identity politics. 

I’ve had a conversation with a very, very prominent conservative-intellectual, and he was adamant that there is a campus-rape epidemic. Now he might be closer to the situation than I am, but if this rape epidemic were happening you would have had a stampede of females out of colleges rather than into them. But the fact that he was so reluctant to write this off, to me, is a sign that even conservatives are having their worldview changed, and I would say the same thing with the role that alleged white racism plays in determining social outcomes today. I think even conservatives, younger conservative students, are more open to the view that gross systemic bias is still a significant problem in American society. I look at the data and do not think it is.

Surely, nobody thinks that physics has a color. But unfortunately the STEM fields are now under enormous pressure to hire by race and gender.

TI: How does the diversity agenda affect the quality of intellectual output at universities? In particular, how does it affect entrepreneurship, innovation, and science?

HM: For a long time optimists said there was going to be a cordon sanitaire around the STEM fields. Surely, they thought, nobody’s going to make the argument that math is a heteronormative masculinized space. That’s a phrase that I’m taking directly from a math professor herself. Surely, nobody thinks that physics has a color.
But unfortunately the STEM fields are now under enormous pressure to hire by race and gender. The idea of meritocracy has been under attack in the sciences for a long time, but the attack has reached a greater intensity now. 

Science education is being slowed down and watered down in the hope of graduating more females and underrepresented minorities. Teaching methods are being changed, and the federal government, through the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, is putting enormous pressure on chemistry departments and engineering departments to hire by gender and race—above all, gender. 

It’s hard to find a faculty search committee that hasn’t been told by its dean to tear up its laboriously produced short list for hiring and start over because there were no females among the finalists. I know an engineering professor who was involved in a faculty search; his dean ordered the search committee to bring in a less competitive Israeli female engineer and interview her. They still didn’t vote for her. The dean said: “Go back; start over; do it again right.” They still didn’t vote for her. And finally, that time, the actual engineers won, but choosing candidates based on merit is happening less and less. And so the diversity agenda is putting our scientific competitive edge at risk. China, at least in the sciences, seems to care about one thing, which is qualifications. 

TI: What can we do to address these problems?

HM: Conservatives have to talk about universities not just as economic engines. The discourse tends to be exclusively about free markets and economic liberty, all of which is very important. Free markets make possible all of the prosperity that we take for granted. But I think conservatives need to start talking also about culture and about learning as an end in itself, to see the purpose of education as the passing on of an inheritance from one generation to another. There is a movement in K-12 of classical academies. Hillsdale College is taking a lead role in trying to encourage that movement for parents who want their children exposed to classical learning, to the highest works of literature and poetry and music and art. That’s an encouraging sign. I think donors should notice this development and try to give that movement  more steam.