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There is a lot to like in Heather Mac Donald's The Diversity Delusion. She is a punchy writer who cuts through nonsense with funny put downs. She presents a scathing critique of modern US universities, focusing on affirmative action, requirements that student and faculty populations be diverse, sexual assault policies, required education on sexual correctness, multicultural requirements, gender balance in the curriculum, the huge administrative bloat in higher education, and the departure from the traditional conception of knowledge and the importance of the Western canon. There are many parts where Mac Donald calls people out on their bullshit and ridicules them in ways that are laugh out loud funny. It the sort of material that plays well in academic novels which highlight the nonsense statements and duplicity of so many administrators.
While the book is a great read (and Pam Ward's performance of the unabridged audiobook is magnificent), there is of course the question about whether Mac Donald's critique is factually correct and whether she gives a fair representation of what is going on in universities. She cites actual quotations and plenty of statistics, so certainly there must be some truth in what she is saying. Comments from her five-star reviews on Amazon are from readers who believe she has revealed the terrible underlying truth about university life today, and that's also how she portrays her claims. One gets the impression that universities are nearly all bastions of political correctness advocating diversity in every aspect of thought.
I have been affiliated with US universities since 1986, which means I have had over 30 years of experience. A lot of what Mac Donald writes about is very familiar to me. But her analysis is extremely simplistic and one-sided, playing to a conservative readership that is happy to believe what she writes. Quite often her approach is not just simplistic but stupid. Must of the rest of the time, she just ignores the complexity of university politics and practice. Generally, she cherry-picks her examples and gives a distorted picture of what is going on. Most universities have some attempts to promote diversity and some efforts to reduce sexual harassment and assault, but it is a mixture of efforts and they rarely dominate campus life. Most people on campus are hardly affected by what's going on, or they are affected by other tendencies a great deal more. It is just not true that most universities are under the thumb of political correctness police and diversity requirements. It is however true that administration of universities all over has grown massively, far out of proportion of the growth of faculty. As the number of administrators increases, the number of initiatives and the amount of red tape also increase.
Let's first look at Mac Donald's treatment of sexual assault and gender policy. Often, Mac Donald gives the impression that she would like to return to the 1950s, which she seems to view as a time of self-restraint, civility, and embracing of traditional values. She views the 1960s as the start of the sexual revolution where people threw aside all that was of value and devoted themselves to giving into their selfish impulses. She does not quite say that, but she comes close. She likes clear divisions between men and women, and she likes old codes of chivalry and modesty. Her attitude towards campus sexual assault is fairly clear: if women decide to get drunk and end up having sex with someone which they later regret, then that's not rape at all, and they should take responsibility for their actions. So Mac Donald is very critical of requirements for people to be educated about sexual assault without being advised to take responsibility for their own behavior. She is also very critical of campus disciplinary proceedings that have a double standard, holding men to a different standard from women. She does not completely condemn requirements of affirmative-consent for sexual contact but ridicules some of the interpretations that have been made using this standard, where women who have indicated in many ways that they are open to having sex but didn't explicitly say are then judged by campus tribunals to have been assaulted by men. Her main advice is to do away with these disciplinary proceedings altogether, and to refer claims of sexual assault to the police. She has a lot more confidence that the law is able to distinguish real rape from cases where women just make bad judgments and later regret their actions that lead to sex.
What to say about all of this? Mac Donald's caricatures of cultural trends are definitely problematic. Historically, the sexual revolution was not so much a change of values but rather people just became more able to do what they wanted to do. The advent of the contraceptive pill in the late 1960s and the greater availability of abortion in the 1970s meant that the worry of pregnancy became a lot less. And the sexual revolution was not adopted wholesale by everyone: many people did not change their behavior much at all.
The problem of campus sexual assault is very closely tied to a culture of partying and alcohol. While Mac Donald gives the impression that universities just ignore this, there is a great deal of effort to educate students about this. One might doubt how serious universities are about really wanting to stamp out alcohol and drugs on campus, because if they were serious about it, they would make sure they achieved more. It seems that campus efforts to stop students from getting drunk and high on a regular basis are largely ineffective. Mac Donald acknowledges the role of party culture on campus, but she seems so focused on criticism of gender ideology that she does not fully address this central issue.
The most problematic part of her approach is her assumption that there's a clear separation of real rape from other regretted sexual experiences, and that all real rape is sure to be reported to the police. Her main argument against the claims that there is an epidemic of sexual assault on campuses is that if there were, then families would soon stop sending their daughters to college. Since women are in fact going to college in greater proportions than ever before, we can conclude that campus rape must be a rare event. Mac Donald provides no argument for its main assumption, but just regards it as obvious. Yet, as seems very likely, if people who get sexually assaulted do not broadcast this far and wide, then few families are going to know of someone who was sexually assaulted even if assault is a widespread problem.
Inevitably, Mac Donald also feels the need to weigh in on the issue of trans women. Here her approach is crude in the extreme. She basically does not accept that there is any such thing as a trans woman, and treats the political issues simply as whether men should be allowed to come into women's bathrooms and changing rooms. She of course says that this is ridiculous and proceeds to blame gender theory for even raising the issue of a sex/gender distinction. One doesn't need to be a trans activist to conclude that Mac Donald is just venting without reason here. Her remarks are just uninformed and unsympathetic to trans people. We can still debate whether trans women should have full access to all women's activities and what public policies make most sense, but Mac Donald has nothing useful to contribute here.
When it comes to the activities of the academy, Mac Donald is resolutely old fashioned, and believes in the Western tradition and Western culture. She believes it is the job of universities to understand this tradition and to pass it on to students. She believes in the great thinkers of the past, the great books, and the great achievements of Western civilization. She pours scorn on those who question this tradition and aim for a diversified curriculum. She characterizes opposing views as rejecting all Western ideas and replacing them with a mixture of non-Western values and popular culture. Again, her discussion just focuses on the most extreme ideas she opposes and lacks subtlety or any sophisticated thought. She just ignores the possibility of a balanced approach that teaches the strengths and weaknesses of the best known works in the Western canon and brings in neglected figures and sources from other cultures. There is really nothing of serious interest in what she has to say here.
The main strength of The Diversity Delusion lies in its first section on student and faculty diversity, and in particular on the implicit bias industry. Mac Donald points out that in nearly all cases, schools make every effort to bring in underrepresented populations and there are often explicit pressures to do so. Those concerned with implicit bias argue that such bias is responsible for the lack of representation of some population, but as Mac Donald points out, this is not a convincing explanation. The better explanation is that there are not many qualified candidates in the first place. So there is no evidence of the causal role of implicit bias. She goes into some of the literature purported to show the effects of implicit bias, and makes convincing criticisms of it. The claim that faculty and staff need training in countering implicit bias has not been convincingly proven, and so there is no need for the deprogramming industry that has sprung up to reeducate just about everyone. This includes the currently popular idea of microaggressions, for which there is almost no credible evidence. Mac Donald finds plenty of sources here to make a mockery of, and she does a fine job. That's not to say that Mac Donald is completely convincing when it comes to the arguments for a diverse student and professorial population. She paints with a broad brush, and she is hostile to any claim that a university requires a diverse population. There have been good arguments for some schools doing a better job with greater diversity of students and faculty, and these need paying attention to. But she makes a strong case that the answer is not to reduce academic standards, but rather to foster a stronger diverse candidate pool.
While there was only a small portion of The Diversity Delusion which I found to have any merit in terms of its argument, I have to say it was a book I enjoyed reading and disagreeing with. Many of Mac Donald's assumptions are problematic and some of her word usage is distinctly old-fashioned. She sounds like someone's conservative grandmother when she goes on about college "coeds." But she is good in her analysis of how much of current debate about politics never addresses the issues and the arguments and goes straight to accusations of a discriminatory attitude. She of course neglects to criticize parallel tendencies of the right, and the whole book is solidly partisan. But it is provocative. Liberals should read it so as to sharpen their own arguments.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.