By George Leef

Ever Since Bill Clinton announced in 1993 that he was determined to have a Cabinet that “looked like America,” the idea that it’s more important that every group be diverse – where diverse means a mixture of people from different racial backgrounds and roughly equal numbers of men and women – has gripped the country.  Or at least it has gripped those parts of the country where political correctness holds sway.  And nowhere does political correctness dominate as much as in the academic world.

For many years, our colleges and universities have insisted on diversity in student admissions, faculty, and administrative personnel by giving preferences to women and people from certain racial and ethnic groups. Now we are getting demands that academic conferences must also be diverse, as exemplified by this call by feminist law professors to boycott conferences unless they have a sufficient number of women on the panels. This amounts to saying that group diversity is more important than the ideas expressed by the individual scholars. Having “too many” men (or whites, or Christians, or any other “over represented” group) is so offensive that the conference should be shunned.

The way for conference organizers to avoid trouble with these aggressive Social Justice types is to make certain to have a “diverse” event.

One academic who thinks this is a very bad development is Northwestern University law professor John O. McGinnis. In this recent post, “How Preferences Expand at the Expense of Academic Truth,” he argues that the demand for diversity must come at a heavy cost. That cost is the loss of expertise.

He writes, “Setting aside the general morality of selecting people by considering race and gender, the hard fact is that the more specialized the topic, the less likely the ideal participants are going to reflect ‘diversity.’ There is no reason to believe that the pool for a panel on banking or antitrust law, subjects I teach, will contain the right proportions of academics as measured by ‘diversity’ categories.”

Just as the demand for student body or faculty diversity necessarily means rejecting some of the best qualified individuals so as to achieve the “right” group balance, so the demand for conference diversity means rejecting some of the most knowledgeable individuals to make the group sufficiently diverse. Nothing is gained by doing that, although it makes PC professors feel empowered.

Strangely enough, one of the foremost advocates of group diversity recently spoke out against it – Barack Obama.  In a speech he gave in South Africa in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, he said that it’s important that everyone “get inside the reality of people who are different than us. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you – because they’re white or because they’re male – that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”

That is excellent counsel.  Obama is saying that we need to stop focusing on what group an individual is part of and instead focus on what that is in that individual’s mind. We should judge people by their own thoughts or actions rather than pigeon holing them as group representatives.

Perhaps when professors who organize conferences come under fire for not having enough “diversity” among the speakers, they will quote the former president’s sensible words and proceed to get the best individuals possible, whether the resulting group is racially and sexually diverse or not.