For most of its history, the majority of American higher education has been segregated by law or custom on the basis of gender, religion, national origin or race and ethnicity. The reason is simple: Americans on the whole have never believed that everyone should be educated. This is true even of our sad public education system, and so despite the remarkable changes of the past 50 years, it is no surprise that higher education remains as much a system of stratification as of democratization.
Our discussions of diversity, however, tend to overlook that history. Diversity is often expressed as a no-fault remedy for an unacknowledged crime. The idea of diversity has become a marketing tool. Like wi-fi, fitness centers, sushi bars and on-campus arenas, it is an amenity of the modern college. For some, it has become a strategic means to a practical end — an essential component in training an elite manager class for a global economy. Yet still, after 30 years of effort, its advocates must confront resistance ranging from the glassy-eyed indifference of most college students to the affirmative-action opponents who will bring the battle once more to the U.S. Supreme Court this year.
Resisters tend to see diversity as a contrived impediment to the natural order of things, which is a system that reinforces privilege for the more affluent. Any presumably neutral process in which the winners were predominantly poor and colored would be immediately dismissed as flawed. The game, in other words, is so thoroughly rigged that we are all trained to believe that the losers could not possibly win. The preferences are so entrenched that it is difficult to discern how much the system supports the status quo, from the way knowledge is conveyed and assessed to the way education is paid for.
A fair competition would reward the smart and talented according to their natural distribution among the population pool — regardless of where they come from. This would be a natural diversity that would not depend on adding weight to scales that were built to be imbalanced. And this would require a radical rethinking and repurposing of education.
In a public forum on affirmative action more than eight years ago, University President John J.DeGioia mused aloud that perhaps it was time to reclaim the language of social justice in the diversity debate. To do that would be to recognize that diversity is not a noble act of charity. Segregation is something that Georgetown practiced for nearly 200 years while alumni built up considerable advantages in status, wealth and educational opportunities that benefit their progeny today.
Diversity is what “we” as the majority do for ourselves to make us better people. In the process, we make room for some of “them” so we can learn from them and feel better about ourselves. Justice is what we do because it is the right thing to do, especially if that means we end up sacrificing power.
If you believe that Georgetown exists to maintain the social status of the one percent, then diversity can be just a program, something that some people do while the rest of us go on about our business. On the other hand, if you believe that a Georgetown education should be for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity, then it is a blessing to be shared by anyone with the talent, the dedication and the heart to acquire knowledge for that end.
Dennis A. Williams is the director of the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access.