The Diversity Fundamentalism of Morty Shapiro

Northwestern University’s president, Morton Shapiro, was interviewed by my old friend, Larry Bernstein, on his show, What Happens Next in 6 Minutes. Shapiro has a new co-authored book that he was promoting, Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us, which argues that we need to be less dismissive of other points of view. In the interview Shapiro summarizes the book:

We argue in the book that fundamentalism hits us across a wide spectrum of areas, not just religion, and that’s where the term comes from, but in my field, economics and politics, culture, the academy, and the like. And we worry in conclusion here now that we fear for democracy…. Almost exactly half of Americans said that they would label their political rivals not as opposing rivals, but as enemies, and that speaks to this rise in people screaming at each other.

And later in the interview he describes a course he taught with his co-author that helped motivate the book:

And that’s the mantra for the course we teach together. You get graded by how well you can present the other view. Now, you want to present your view pretty well, you better present the other view extremely well. And we never thought about grading that way 12, 13 years ago, because that was more the norm. But now everybody vilifies each other, and your opponents aren’t, again, misguided, but they’re the embodiment of absolute evil. That’s important. So, I think academe has a role to play there. We all have a role to play in our own personal lives. And that’s why I think recognizing, looking in the mirror and saying, “What are you fundamentalist about?” And then trying to realize it, and then try to get out of your comfort zone. I watch a lot of Fox News now, I never used to until we started writing this book year and a half ago. It’s very different. In some cases, it’s infuriating, in some cases it’s much better than the CNN I’m used to. I’ve really learned from that. So, I think trying to get out of your intellectual comfort zone. We live in echo chambers, right Larry? When I grew up, if you watched ABC news, CBS, NBC, and whether it was Brokaw or Jennings or Rather, it’s pretty much the same sort of news. And now, we compartmentalize and we live in silos, and we hear our words and thoughts echoed off, and that makes us feel really good. It’s really bad for democracy.

Between these two admirably open-minded and intellectually heterodox statements, Larry asked Shapiro about the study James Paul and I wrote for the Heritage Foundation on how large and unhelpful diversity, equity, staff are on university campuses:

Jay was my high school debate partner, and he’s now at the Heritage Foundation. He asks a question about diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracies. He says that the average university now has a staff of 45 DEI, and Northwestern is now at 52. You have more people in your DEI than you have as faculty in your History Department. Why is it growing, and does it make sense? Morty.

Suddenly, Shapiro adopts an angry tone and deviates from his message about not being dismissive to other perspectives:

I think that that comparison in how you count versus History is absolutely borderline ludicrous if not completely incorrect. I hate to say that to a loyal listener of yours. But we had not sufficiently engaged with diversity, inclusion, and equity questions in the academy. We’ve done a much better job in diversifying our student body at all levels than we ever had in making them feel welcomed. And there’s ample evidence, all you have to do is look at, say your alma mater there, Larry and Josh, at Penn, and look at who at senior, just stick to the undergrads who say that they had a great experience at Penn or at Northwestern or at Yale where Saul went or anywhere else that we happened to have taught or have gone that, would you do it again? Would you recommend it to somebody else? And it varies greatly. Affluent Caucasians see these institutions very, very differently than the rest of the group, and we really have to address it. And I don’t know if counting numbers how you decide what… Do you have either the word D, diversity, equity, or inclusion in your title? I don’t know how you count that. But I don’t lament that we put some resources into this. It was long overdue.

Note that after signaling that the question was out of bounds by expressing outrage, he then shifted the topic to whether diversity and inclusion were desirable goals. That does not address whether having larger bureaucracies of DEI staff help achieve that goal or how large of a bureaucracy is a reasonable allocation of resources relative to other goals. Why have 52 DEI staff? Why not 520?

The titles of DEI officials at Northwestern suggest a considerable amount of duplication. There is a “Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, an “Assistant Provost, Diversity and Inclusion,” a “Manager, Diversity and Inclusion,” an “Executive Director, Campus Inclusion & Community,” a “Director, Social Justice Education,” an “Assistant Director, Social Justice Education,” an “Assistant Director, Multicultural Student Affairs,” an “Associate Director, Multicultural Student Affairs,” an “Associate Dean for Leadership Development and Inclusion,” a “Vice Dean for Diversity and Inclusion,” an “Assistant Dean, Diversity & Inclusion,” a “Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Outreach,” and so on.

I could continue listing the word salad of all 52 DEI staff people’s titles at Northwestern, but I think you get the idea that there is a very large bureaucracy with what seem to be overlapping responsibilities devoted to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Does this army of DEI officials help? Our examination of student surveys suggests that students feel no more welcome or included on campuses with large DEI staff than at ones with smaller staffs.

One might think that a president of a major university when asked about how he allocates resources in the midst of promoting a book on being open to criticism and different perspectives might not have been so dismissive. It would have been nice if he had taken the question seriously and provided his rationale for why it is good for Northwestern and good for the goal of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion to have 52 people with nearly identical sounding titles.

Shapiro’s actual response is disappointing. The hypocrisy of dismissing alternative perspectives while promoting a book on being open-minded suggests that even university leaders who make rhetorical commitments to heterodox academic inquiry do not really mean it in practice. It is extra disappointing because Shapiro seems like a good guy and capable university leader. I’ve been particularly sympathetic to him because he has been the target of the progressive cancel mob in his own right. But perhaps that is why, to protect himself, he must have his own fundamentalism that he defends to stave off those who have been pushing to drive him out

America is losing confidence in the ability of higher education to stay true to its core mission of pursuing truth through open academic inquiry. This interview with Morton Shapiro did nothing to restore that confidence.

5 Responses to The Diversity Fundamentalism of Morty Shapiro

  1. Michael Shaughnessy says:

    A few simple words that are often overlooked- accountability- how are those 52 people held “accountable” and evaluated- and who evaluate their efforts? Second word of course is allocation- who determines that these 52 people with these titles is imperative- could we not have 48? ( and hold them accountable to some specific goals and objectives- but there again,there would have to be some evaluative criteria and some objective data to rationalize and justify their existence- all 52 of them.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Did he ever explain why he thinks it’s “absolutely borderline ludicrous” to compare the number of DEI staff and the number of history faculty? I mean, if it comes down to it, isn’t everything he says about DEI just as true of history – important goal, academy has done a poor job with it, etc?

    I mean, if there’s an argument for why we shouldn’t make this comparison, I’m open to hearing it.

    To say nothing of the follow-up “if not completely incorrect.” Does he think you have your data wrong?

  3. Mike G says:

    I agree broadly. The lack of leadership in higher ed is disheartening. That even the “heterodox” run scared is, too.

    My question:

    Let’s assume that you’re right, Jay. That he says some stuff to “stave off those who have been pushing to drive him out.”

    Is that ever justified?

    I.e., are there situations where it’s morally okay to deduce: “I can do a lot of good in this job. But I will need to say some things I don’t believe. Or I can quit/get pushed out?”

    I realize many metrics tons of delusional leaders rationalize behavior this way. But it still sometimes seems to be the right choice?

    • That’s a fair point, Mike. But the Northwestern board already decided that this will be Shapiro’s last year. This is one of the flaws of people in academia who seriously censor themselves thinking that they’ll speak more candidly once they make tenure, once they get the promotion to full, once they get the job at the better institution, etc… While we should all restrain ourselves to some extent, seriously compromising our ideas for a prolonged period becomes an ingrained habit that we can’t shake even when we have pretty much nothing to lose.

  4. pdexiii says:

    “Affluent Caucasians see these institutions very, very differently than the rest of the group, and we really have to address it.”
    Since I’m not an affluent caucasian but attended another prominent B1G school (that’s been struggling on the gridiron with that school in ohio), how perceptive of this president to discern how I perceived my school.
    When he leaves about 50 of those 52 DEI folks should leave with him.

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