The Supreme Court will soon hear arguments about the use of racial preferences in college admissions. On this score, a curious divergence in opinion has arisen in recent years. While the public has moved sharply in one direction, academia has raced in the exact opposite.
Take California. In 1996 Californians voted by a 9-point margin to approve Proposition 209, a constitutional amendment to ban the use of racial preferences in public employment and college admissions. As the state’s electorate moved to the left in the subsequent years, it was widely assumed that support for the ban had evaporated. The University of California evidently felt bound by the letter but not the spirit of the law, as the system reduced its reliance on objective test scores so that it could use “holistic” judgments, effectively making it easier to hide its use of racial preferences.
Yet in 2020 the assumption was tested. When Proposition 16 was put on the ballot—a provision to repeal the state’s prohibition of racial preferences—Californians voted it down by a 14-point margin. Even a state that voted nearly 2 to 1 for Joe Biden affirmed its opposition to racial preferences. What explained the split?
What nobody realized was that the entire country had become increasingly hostile to the use of race in such decisions. A 2022 Pew Research Center poll found that 74% of Americans oppose the use of race in college admissions. Even more surprising, 68% of Hispanics, 63% of Asians and 59% of blacks also opposed it. The same applied to both political parties, with 87% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats objecting.
But as the public attempted to slam the door shut on racial preferences, the universities were busy trying to open it wide. The stealthy end-runs around the law gave way to support for “equity”: the desire for racial proportionality in all things—never mind that the Supreme Court has held that quotas in college admissions are unlawful. Accordingly, many colleges have begun to abandon the use of test scores in applications.
In line with this hardening of campus attitudes, increasingly powerful diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracies arose to achieve these aims. Consider The University of California, Berkeley, which now has a Division of Equity and Inclusion, a title that gives it a standing on campus equivalent to its Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. The university’s division has an array of highly paid managers. Eight have the title “director,” one of which is for “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” and there are several assistant vice chancellors. Similar offices abound on campuses across the country, where they are major actors in promoting all manner of progressive causes, from social justice to critical race theory and anticapitalism.
The most visible sign of DEI’s clout is its gradually seizing control of faculty appointments. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, DEI personnel prescreen applicants for all faculty positions and can throw out applications whose mandatory statements of commitment to diversity they don’t like. At Berkeley about 75% of applicants for a teaching position in life sciences were rejected in this stage during the 2018-19 academic year. The prescreening resulted in Hispanics representing 59% of the finalists, despite comprising only 14% of applicants. White applicants made up 14% of the final pool, down from their original 54%.
Not only is this practice an illegal political test for faculty employment, it’s also a stunning reversal of the policy that once made our universities great. For decades, the hiring of faculty was driven by the judgment of competent professionals, not by ideological administrators. Who knows how many potential Nobel laureates might be lost to the campuses because DEI zealots don’t like their politics.
These administrative divisions don’t merely act as gate keepers; they also affect speech and conduct inside the gates. DEI divisions are the driving force of cancel culture on campus, which limits the free inquiry that is essential to a university’s mission. While campus radicals long ago achieved this stranglehold on the humanities and social sciences, STEM fields were more resistant. The rise of DEI is how they are being brought under political control.
The public must decide whether this travesty is still worth its tax dollars and tuition payments. Meantime, state legislatures could bar the use of state funds for the support of DEI bureaucracies and all their works. This might not change the character of the radicalized faculty, but it would at least take an important weapon out of their hands.
Mr. Ellis is a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of “The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done.”
Appeared in the October 15, 2022, print edition as ‘A More Diverse America Turns Against Racial Preferences’.