October 10, 2012

The irony of "critical mass" in the pursuit of academic diversity

After the Grutter / Gratz cases of 2003 legalized racial/ethnic preferences in college admissions to ensure a "critical mass" of minorities on campus, a lawyer complained to me that I had introduced the concept of "critical mass" to the debate in my 1995 National Review article "Where the Races Relate." I am extremely doubtful that I was the first to use the term "critical mass" in regard to college admissions quotas, but it would be ironic since I pointed out why the pursuit of diversity works against the achievement of a critical mass:
What could colleges learn from the Army and from their own athletes about race? 
(1). Selection 
(1A). Specialization and Critical Mass -- One little-appreciated reason for the impressive record of accomplishment by blacks in the Army (e.g., after Desert Storm there were 26 black generals) is their lack of success in the Navy (only two black admirals). Achievement in one field naturally breeds more success in that same field. Initially arbitrary variations self-perpetuate. Successful immigrant group like Asian Indians rise to affluence precisely by dominating niches of the economy like motel-keeping. As Adam Smith pointed out on P. 1 of The Wealth of Nations, specialization is the road to riches. 
According to Charles Moskos of Northwestern, the leading sociologist of military life, one key to the strong performance of black Army officers has been a widespread self-help organization for black officers called Rocks. In it, senior officers mentor younger men in how to live up to the demands of being an officer and a gentleman. In the Navy, however, a lack of critical mass hampers similar efforts: if, say, you are the only African-American officer on your nuclear submarine, you can't turn to another black man for advice for your entire cruise. Thus, it continues to makes more sense for an ambitious young black to join the Army than the Navy. 
On campus, however, the automatic reaction whenever an embarrassing shortfall of blacks in any field is pointed out is another affirmative action campaign. For example, architecture schools have been attempting for years to recruit more blacks and Hispanics. Now, I commend a career in architecture to any young person with a trust fund, but the less privileged should remember that architecture pays wretchedly for the first decade or two (or three or four). 
Conservative critics of quotas often argue that lowering entrance standards for minorities is Bad, but that more intensely recruiting minorities is Good. Yet, seldom does any race-based recruitment campaign stem from a hardheaded analysis of what's in the best interest of the minorities. Instead, affirmative action is an automatic response by white leaders to their discomfort over their Black Lack. African-Americans have enough problems of their own without taking on this new Black Man's Burden of helping whites feel better about themselves. 
Before affirmative action, unpopular but "unprotected" minorities tended to initially congregate at certain congenial schools: e.g., Mormons at Brigham Young, Catholic ethnics at Jesuit colleges, lesbians at Smith, or free-market economists at the University of Chicago back during the Keynesian heyday. At these havens, the minorities could be confident of ample role models, freedom from snubs, fair shots at leadership positions, courses addressing their interests, responsive audiences for their ideas, and opportunities for their future leaders to meet. The most striking example of this occurred during the Depression when the Ivy League enforced anti-Semitic quotas. So, brilliant Jews concentrated at City College of New Yorks (e.g., three Nobel Prize winners came from the class of 1937 alone). This critical mass of talent set off chain reactions that energized American intellectual life for decades. 
Today, though, a black high school senior looking for universities where blacks comprise a significant fraction of the best minds on campus would end up with the same list as his grandfather: the historically black schools like Howard. In fact, these colleges still appear to produce a disproportionate share of black high achievers, despite debilitating competition from far richer colleges for the brightest black minds. 
Why can't wealthy mainstream universities afford the critical mass of top black talent that would make them nurturing environments for black students and professors? Paradoxically, the lock-step obsession of elite colleges with appearing "diverse" has scattered the finest black thinkers in a homogeneously thin and lonely diaspora across every college town in urban and rural America. Consider the career path of the outstanding scholar of African-American literature, Henry Louis Gates. A few years ago he publicly mused about going to Princeton, where he could have teamed with Nobel Laureate Toni Morison, philosopher Cornel West, and other leading black humanists. But hiring Dr. Gates is a quick (though not cheap) way for a school with few first rate black professors to advertise its Commitment to Diversity. Bidding wars have thus carried Dr. Gates instead from Yale to Cornell to Duke to Harvard.


Anonymous said...

I still don't understand how the top Black studies universities are Ivy League and not places like Tuskegee, Wilberforce, and Fisk. Shouldn't the critical mass be at Black universities?

TGGP said...

You wondered before oral argument if they would focus on African Americans & whites. David Bernstein now has an extended complaint that precisely that happened at an academic conference he attended. Who do we expect to have a more nuanced take on race/ethnicity in America: judges or academics?

Veracitor said...

I think GLPiggy (accidentally?) explained why UT is so eager to use race preferences to admit "upper class" minorities even though the "10% plan" already puts plenty of visible minorities on campus: too many of the 10% contingent flunk out or drop out!

The UT wants some minority alums to guest star at fundraisers and help pad the USN&WR type survey scores. Upper-class minorities are more likely to graduate, even if they rarely achieve the intellectual heights that students chosen by merit do.

Anonymous said...

"Consider the career path of the outstanding scholar of African-American literature, Henry Louis Gates."


Anonymous said...

"Thus, it continues to makes more sense for an ambitious young black to join the Army than the Navy."

Could be cuz they can't swim.