Whose demands? Who’s listening?

Demands by the group Whose Diversity? overlook realities of the University administration.

Brian Reinken

Arguing the need to more thoroughly diversify campus, the independent student group Whose Diversity? recently published a manifesto in which it expressed a desire for “dialogue and negotiations” with the University of Minnesota “on equitable terms.” Ironically, the group then drew up a list of about 30 policy “demands” for the University administration to implement immediately.

Far from promoting a meaningful discussion on campus integration, the group’s inflammatory manifesto serves only to demonstrate how rash proclamations can spoil a basically decent idea. To my mind, there are four main problems with the manifesto.

First: legitimacy. Whose Diversity? has refused the opportunity to become a formal student group because it has “no desire” to participate in “institutionalized dialogues” with the University. However, no demands are ever met without reason. Whose Diversity? has no institutional legitimacy, no financial clout and no legal backing. It says, “We demand.” The University may rightly ask “…or what?”

Second: reality. Even if, by some miracle, the University were to agree to its every wish, Whose Diversity? would have a hard time implementing most of the changes. Many of the group’s demands overlook realities of life beyond campus. For example, Whose Diversity? scapegoats the University for phenomena it can’t fully control, including high tuition rates, low teacher salaries and the gentrification of Dinkytown.

Perhaps most irksome is the demand that the University hire two new faculty members of color “engaging in critical race and ethnic studies scholarship with a social justice emphasis in every department.”

This demand completely overlooks the realities of American academia, where positions — especially tenure-track positions — are extremely coveted and competitive. And even if the University were somehow capable of adding hundreds of new faculty, would it be necessary to recruit new staff solely on the basis of race? It makes perfect sense to seek professors of color for positions in fields such as African American or Chicano and Latino studies. But does color, let alone social justice, make a difference in math or engineering? Is it possible for someone to hold a prejudiced view of fractals?

Third: priorities. Whose Diversity? demands that the University formally acknowledge its existence “as a product of colonial processes.” It’s difficult to say how this would translate to concrete policy, but it doesn’t much matter anyway. Across North and South America, the vast majority of institutions exist as products of colonial processes. The demand is needlessly inflammatory, and the University’s compliance would signify very little.

It’s presumably in an attempt to remedy the influence of colonialism that Whose Diversity? demands the University to require its students take one class each in ethnic studies and gender or women’s studies. The ability to appreciate different perspectives is immensely valuable. But wouldn’t those two mandatory semesters be better spent in a foreign language class learning how to actually communicate with another culture?

Fourth: efficacy. Because of its contradictory demands, it’s difficult to gauge Whose Diversity’s? ideal affirmative action policy. One demand orders the administration to “prioritize recruiting students of color until the university accurately reflects the demographics of the nation.” The demand immediately following it insists that the University’s demographics mirror those of the Twin Cities.

The University recruits capable students from around the world, and it is not supposed to reflect the demographics of the Twin Cities area. Affirmative action is too complex an issue to address in so little space, but Whose Diversity? should understand that forcing the University to emulate local demographics is an inadequate solution to the diversity question.

Lessons (to be) learned

Whose Diversity? has said that all attempts to work with the University administration to increase diversity have been unsuccessful. I remain baffled as to how shouting ineffectually from the sidelines is somehow a better option.

Instead of viewing the administration as a composite body consisting of the sum of its parts, Whose Diversity? seems to perceive it as a static oppressor. Thus, the group overlooks the fact that participating in a body actually changes that body’s very nature; merely by working within the system, Whose Diversity? would begin to change its ideals.

The group must understand that President Eric Kaler and the University administration are not conniving racists sitting atop heaps of money. Rather, these people are human beings in charge of an immensely complicated bureaucratic machine. Moreover, the administration’s workers are too busy to give you their time merely because you demand it. If Whose Diversity? wants the administration’s attention, it needs to earn its respect.

Most importantly, Whose Diversity? should remember that an inflammatory manifesto is never the best or most persuasive form of argument. The most effective actions are unromantic and gradual. Often, they’re almost completely invisible. The group would do well to remember its own warning: “Diversity is a process, not an event.”

Until Whose Diversity? is ready to accept that, it will only be preaching to the converted.