The City University of New York has carried the principle of group classification in the pursuit of “diversity” into new—or perhaps very old—territory. CUNY’s 2011 and 2012 Diversity Action Plans include a new category, “White/Jewish.” The category appears on page six of the 2012 report, and on pages 1-2 and 61 of the 2011 report.
Apparently the new category sat there unnoticed for a year but has now begun to attract attention. On June 3, the New York Post ran a story headlined “New Minority Label at CUNY: ‘Jewish.’” The Post quotes several CUNY professors who take umbrage at the classification. Hershey Friedman, deputy chairman of the finance and business management department at CUNY’s Brooklyn College said the category was “an insult and idiotic.” Another of the critics quoted by the Post is David Gordon, a professor of history at CUNY who also is treasurer of the National Association of Scholars’ CUNY/New York affiliate. Via David, I have some of the back story.
“White/Jewish,” according to footnote 8 in the 2012 report, “was added because a number of faculty, who would be categorized as White for federal reporting purposes, noted that a Jewish category would better represent their identity group.” The Postreports that the label emerged from the work of a steering committee that “ran faculty focus groups based on ‘identity.’” The committee came up with at least one other categorization that looks a little outside the usual run of “diversity” identity groups: “Italian-American,” added–by court order stemming from “lawsuits alleging bias.”
Diversity, of course, is a kind of spoils system. It is the rubric under which an identity group that claims to be the victim of past or current discrimination can lodge a claim for preferential treatment in admissions, hiring, promotion, and access to other social goods within the academic enterprise. The controversy in Massachusetts over Senatorial candidate Elizabeth’s Warren’s claim to be 1/32 Cherokee turns on whether she used this identity group affiliation to gain a leg up in her job applications for faculty positions at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987 and Harvard Law School in 1992.
But identity group labels seldom work as their proponents hope. They can have the unintended consequence of stigmatizing members of the designated groups; they can result in “mismatching” individuals to educational opportunities and thereby undermining their academic performance; they can expose individuals such as Elizabeth Warren to harsh criticism for manipulating rules to personal advantage; and they can be used as tools of exclusion if a group is judged to be “overrepresented.”
At least some of CUNY’s faculty members see the new “White/Jewish” category as rife with the potential to become one of those tools of exclusion. In early February, CUNY’s associate director of workforce diversity and compliance programs, Kam S. Wong, Esq., asked professor Robert Bell, chair of the finance and business management department at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, for (Bell’s words) “a list of either who were the Jews or the number of Jews in our department and in the School of Business in general.”
Bell immediately told Wong that he had “tried to keep questions of religion, and discussions about one’s religion, away from the Department, since it could only be divisive, or worse. My exact words were, ‘there’s no profit in that discussion.’”
But afterwards Bell reflected that the question “seemed truly sinister.” He wrote a follow-on note to Ms. Wong saying he had no list of Jews and “I don’t know how to get it, I don’t know where to get it, and I have never had any previous request for such information.” Wong replied (in writing, so there is no ambiguity) that she indeed asked Bell for that information and “I had stated that to the extent that it was public or common knowledge that a faculty member observed the Jewish faith, that such information may be helpful for me to know.”
There is, to say the least, a certain cultural tone-deafness on display in Ms. Wong’s inquiry. I don’t think anyone seriously believes CUNY is contemplating a pogrom of Jewish faculty members, or that Workforce Diversity and Compliance Programs would create active disincentives for hiring Jewish faculty members. But what then? As the CUNY affiliate of the National Association of Scholars points out, the requests grounded in CUNY’s Diversity Action Plan “resuscitates a divisive issue of no relevance to the education of our students.” Elsewhere CUNY maintains a non-discrimination statement that, like those of most secular institutions, declares that the university will “recruit, employ, retain, promote, and provide benefits to employees . . . without regard to race, color, creed, etc.” It is hard to square an effort to count Jews by the officewhose very purpose is to advance some identity groups at the expense of others with adherence to the principle of not discriminating on the basis of religion.
I imagine it is possible that the category “White/Jewish” did in fact emerge from deliberations in that steering committee on group identity in which someone rashly proposed the classification as a way of affirming a group. But good intentions can go astray. The last chapter of 2 Samuel tells of King David’s ill-considered decision to “Go, number Israel and Judah.” But as soon as the census is complete, David realizes he has sinned and repents. The passage is a little mysterious in that it does not explain why the census is a sin. Was David glorifying himself? Not trusting the amplitude of God? In any case, the numbering brings down a pestilence on Israel.
We don’t have to be quite so literal in reckoning the consequences of assigning people—any people—to identity group categories for the purpose of advancing “workforce diversity.” Whether it is Elizabeth Warren, Italian-Americans, or those conscripted to other favored or disfavored categories, the classifications compound bad judgment with worse action.
This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on June 5, 2012.