Sustainability is the New Diversity

Peter Wood

I have pending one of those duties that make the academic life so difficult. This summer I am giving a paper at a conference in southern Switzerland, at Monte Verità. This particular hill of truth now holds seminars sponsored by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, but it has a storied past. At the beginning of the last century it was the site of a commune that celebrated “an outdoor way of life, a vegetarian diet, simplicity, nature and free love.” It then attracted other free-spirited movements. Otto Gross brought his brand of anti-authoritarian psychoanalysis to the hill. An art school sprang up, and an Isadora Duncan-style dance school. A spiritualist movement called Eranos that reveled in symbolic archetypes held its meetings there in the 1930s. Monte Verità also became the site of a famous hotel that catered to a who’s who of European writers and thinkers of the interwar period.

My own pilgrimage to the hill of truth requires that I give a paper on “The Role of the University in our Time,” which will connect with the contributions of Joseph Ben-David (1920-1986), a sociologist best known for his examination of the social conditions that make scientific inquiry possible. My paper will be on the rise of the “sustainability” movement in American higher education and deal in particular with the effect of the sustainability movement on the conduct of academic science. 

In attempting to explain this to the Swiss academic who is one of the conveners of the conference, I mentioned that as a campus ideological movement, sustainability is rapidly displacing the diversity ideology, which has been dominant since the mid-1980s. My correspondent was not sure what I meant by “diversity,” hazarding that I might be referring to something affecting “the student body.” 

My first response to this was to think how pleasant it must be to live in a Swiss canton so remote from the American obsession with “diversity” that the word itself is opaque. My next thought was to send him a copy of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, but much as I like to circulate copies of my book, brevity is sometimes the better choice. So I offered a brief account of the phenomenon.   I said:

Prior to 1978, the English word "diversity" had many applications.  In American higher education, however, it almost always referred to the great variety of colleges and universities:  public and private, secular and religious, research-oriented and liberal arts focused, single-sex and co-ed, large and small, etc.  But in June 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Bakke v. The University of California.  Alan Bakke was a white student who had been denied admission to a medical school, despite an outstanding application, in favor of a poorly qualified minority student.  The University defended itself on the grounds that it was seeking to compensate for the long legacy of inequality in the U.S.  By a five to four decision, the Court said that the University of California had no right to engage in its own policy of racial discrimination to make up for perceived inequities in American society.  One of the five member majority, Louis Powell, however, went further.  He wrote an opinion of his own in which he suggested that, if the University of California had instead justified its use of racial preferences as a way to achieve "intellectual diversity" in its classrooms, then that worthy educational goal would have made the practice acceptable.  No other justice agreed with Powell, and his argument was definitely odd, in its equation of skin color with intellectual outlook and its assumption that intellectual diversity might flow from racial quotas.

Nonetheless, in the ensuing decade, the American campus Left discovered in Powell's opinion the foundation for a new ideology—one that went far beyond the question of who should be admitted to college.  "Diversity" became the rubric for transforming the curriculum (to make it more reflective of the alleged viewpoints stereotypically belonging to oppressed minority groups), for re-organizing student activities (increasingly divided up into ethnic identity groups, and then other kinds of identity groups founded on claims of historical victimization), and for making faculty appointments (as only members of an identity group possessed the innate capacity to teach other members of that group; and as individuals of minority groups could be classified as “diversity providers”).  By the end of the 1980s the diversity ideology escaped from the universities and became part of how American business spoke of its priorities, how the American military conceived its policies, and how churches conceived their missions.  The racial element remained the sine qua non of "diversity," but the ideology moved well beyond that to embrace a kind of ontology in which people were defined by the degree to which their ancestors (literal or metaphoric) had suffered oppression and social injustice.  Implicit in this, and sometimes explicit, was an account of American history as primarily a long succession of injustices and oppressions that could be atoned for only by embracing "diversity" as a permanent value, supervening better-grounded Constitutional values such as liberty and equality. 

While the diversity movement spread far beyond the university, the university remained its deepest reservoir of support—and still is.  But there is a palpable sense that the movement has exhausted itself.  I no longer hear or find the extraordinary professions of faith in the ideology by students who have adopted it as a substitute religion with its own vision of salvation.  That earnestness seems to be transferred to "sustainability."  There are, to be sure, those who are trying to reconcile the two faiths.  The "social justice" wing on the sustainability movement pronounces "diversity" as one of its goals.  But that is to say, the sustainability advocates see "diversity" as a goal that can be contained within a more encompassing vision.  Ten years ago, that would have been arrant heresy.  Back then, no other idea was large enough to contain diversity.  Diversity itself did the containing.

The term "diversity" still has some capacity to confuse intellectuals and academics, who sometimes think that the robust celebration of diversity has something to do with the university being a place where the best arguments in favor of differing ideas can contend in open debate.  The trajectory of the actual diversity movement is exactly the opposite.  It aims to prevent or shut down any debate that might touch on the sensitivities and political priorities of the identity groups it has fostered.  Those groups, of course, are now well institutionalized within the university, and in that sense the diversity movement isn't going to wither away.  It has done incalculable damage to the basic standards of free inquiry within the university and will go hindering the exploration of ideas and the fair-minded examination of evidence for a long time to come.  But it has, so to speak, become an established church, rather than an evangelizing sect.

On the matter of science, the diversity movement to a fair degree left the scientific enterprise alone.  The relative rigor of scientific inquiry gave it some immunity from the compromises enforced by the diversiphiles.  That immunity, however, is beginning to slip.  In the U.S., we now have a brand-new movement by feminists to apply a section of federal law called "Title IX" (of the Higher Education Act) to science departments in universities.  If this succeeds, it will involve quotas for female students and academic appointments, as well as attempts to redefine research priorities.  Academic feminists long ago discovered in the diversity ideology a rhetoric that they could use tactically for their advantage.  This isn't their first assault on science justified as a way of advancing diversity, but the new effort has broad backing from the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences.  That's new, and ominous.  My sense is that many university sciences are buying into the idea because it comes with the promise of additional funding.  Moreover, they are blind to how the movement will really play out, since they spent the last thirty years protected from its ravages in the rest of the university.

*    *   *

The sustainability movement is displacing the diversity ideology as the dominant campus dogma, not eliminating it. The contest is for king of the hill, the Monte Menzogna of higher education. And sustainability now has the cachet that diversity once did. This surely will have broad consequences that are not yet fully apparent. The diversity movement began as a rationalization for racial preferences in admissions and effloresced into a doctrine that covered a much broader institutional territory. It took the better part of twenty years before we saw diversity fully institutionalized in the form of executive positions with titles such as “diversity provost.” The sustainability movement managed that institutional aggrandizement almost immediately. We have sustainability vice presidents and officers a notch below that on nearly a thousand campuses. 

Sustainability is also in some ways more intellectually ambitious than diversity. Diversiphiles sought to adjoin the study of social oppression to as much of the curriculum as possible, and were often willing to trump intellectual standards in favor of enforcing their views. Diversiphiles, however, seldom ventured into outright opposition to intellectual standards. By contrast, there are sustainabullies and sustainatopians who think rationality itself needs to subordinated to their higher message. 

Will any of this make sense to my fellow conferees at that mountain of erstwhile vegetarianism and free love? Hard to say. Europeans have had considerable experience with the Green Party and with romantic utopian movements. I am an anthropologist, trained in translating ineffably strange cultural practices. My work is cut out for me. 

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