Psychologists explain why campus diversity efforts often fail

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Two top psychologists have published a lengthy essay in The Wall Street Journal warning costly new efforts to promote racial diversity on college campuses are likely to increase, not decrease, racial tensions and animosity.

Lee Jussim of Rutgers University is an expert on prejudice and stereotypes, while Jonathan Haidt of New York University is an expert on moral psychology. Haidt also co-authored last year’s immensely popular “The Coddling of the American Mind,” an article in The Atlantic about growing efforts to protect American university students from being offended by alternative viewpoints. Together, they have written a new piece, “Hard Truths About Race on Campus,” which engages with the wave of demands made by Black Lives Matter groups at schools across the country.

Schools like the University of Missouri, Yale University and Princeton University have seen large-scale racial protests coupled with lists of demands given to administrators by activist groups. Rather than standing up for themselves, many targeted schools have tried to placate activists by granting some — or all — of these demands. Yale has pledged a five-year, $50 million faculty diversity initiative. Brown University is spending $100 million on a similar effort. Other schools have pledged to hire diversity coordinators, increase non-white faculty, and expand ethnic cultural centers without attaching a specific budgetary figure to it.

Regardless of their approach, though, Haidt and Jussim warn that these efforts are unlikely to resolve racial tensions on campus and may in fact make them worse. The reason, they say, is precisely because they will entrench a college environment that divides people by race.

“A basic principle of psychology is that people pay more attention to information that predicts important outcomes in their lives,” the authors write. “A second principle of psychology is the power of cooperation. When groups face a common threat or challenge, it tends to dissolve enmity … [W]hen groups are put into competition with each other, people readily shift into zero-sum thinking and hostility. With these principles in mind, it is hard to see how the programs now being adopted by many universities will serve to create campuses where students of color feel more welcome and less marginalized.”

For instance, they point out efforts to simply admit more black students will require engaging in increased affirmative action, with less-qualified black applicants being admitted in order to hit desired racial quotas.

“As a result of these disparate admissions standards, many students spend four years in a social environment where race conveys useful information about the academic capacity of their peers,” they say. “People notice useful social cues, and one of the strongest causes of stereotypes is exposure to real group differences. If a school commits to doubling the number of black students, it will have to reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications, particularly if most other schools are doing the same thing. This is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus.”

Similarly, the authors argue boosting funding for “ethnic enclaves” (such as Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center) is unlikely to result in racial harmony. In fact, they point out, existing research already indicates for non-white students, “membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.”

Jussim and Haidt are also skeptical increased diversity and microaggression training will resolve these problems. Currently, they say, there is no experimental evidence suggesting diversity training actually helps, while microaggression training, with its emphasis on the power of simple words and gestures to cause grave offense, has great potential to increase racial hostility.

“How would your behavior change if anything you said could be misinterpreted, taken out of context and then reported—anonymously and with no verification—to a central authority with the power to punish you?” they ask. “Wouldn’t faculty and students of all races grow more anxious and guarded whenever students from other backgrounds were present?”

In contrast the counterproductive strategies universities are currently following, Jussim and Haidt suggest schools should try imitating the U.S. Army. The Army, they say, lowered racial tensions not through affirmative action and other acts of favoritism, but by focusing on closing performance gaps between white and black soldiers so that more blacks could qualify for promotions. Since the Army refused to lower standards for black officers, they prevented black officers from being stereotyped as less competent. The Army also promoted cooperation between groups by emphasizing patriotism and pride in the Army as a whole.

“The policies and programs that universities have pursued over the past half-century don’t seem to be working,” they conclude. “The time may be right for a bold college president to propose a different approach, one based on the available evidence about what works and what doesn’t.”

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