March 29, 2013

M.D. Harmon: There's more than one kind of diversity -- but not at Bowdoin

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) was established in 1987 by a group of university professors and others who wanted "to confront the rising threat of politicization of colleges and universities and to summon faculty members back to the principles of liberal education and disciplined intellectual inquiry."

Needless to say, a group with that goal isn't likely to sympathize with institutions that, in their selection of teachers and courses, expend considerable time, money and effort to lean far to the left -- as many American colleges and universities tend to do.

And part of that liberal focus is schools' commitment to their own definitions of "diversity," a topic now before the U.S. Supreme Court in cases from Texas and Michigan.

What's at issue with the NAS, however, isn't those specific cases, no matter how they are decided, but the practices of a school much closer to home: Bowdoin College, my alma mater.

It is the subject of an NAS research project titled "The Bowdoin Project" (www.nas.org/projects), an in-depth look by primary author Peter Wood and others at how the school defines diversity and applies that definition to its admissions policies, its selection of teaching staff and the courses it chooses to offer.

Although the full report isn't due out until April 3, I have a 27-page draft copy of the 300-page report's preface, introduced by Thomas D. Klingenstein, head of an investment firm and board chairman of the Claremont Institute, a public policy group with ties to the NAS that aims at "restoring the principles of America's founding fathers."

Klingenstein, who is, incidentally, a Williams grad, says in a separate essay on the institute's website (www.claremont.org/publications) that he was inspired to support the Bowdoin Project after the school's president, Barry Mills, referred in a 2010 address at Bowdoin to a conversation the two men had during a golf game in Maine.

Though Mills didn't reveal his name in his speech, Klingenstein says the Bowdoin president had asked him why he didn't give more money to Williams.

Mills took exception when Klingenstein said it was because the school was "too liberal" and didn't understand the true meaning of "diversity" as more valid when applied to intellectual variety than ethnicity and race.

Klingenstein said that in the 2010 speech, Mills mischaracterized their brief discussion as hostile and wrongly led the audience to believe Klingenstein supported racial and ethnic stereotypes.

Instead, Klingenstein claims he said that too many schools fail to support our common American identity and, in the name of outreach to traditionally excluded minorities, those schools have come to ignore unifying and positive principles of American history and current public and private life.

Not being on the course with them, I can't say which side has the more accurate version of what was said. Still, that is the context in which the NAS is working on its soon-to-be-released report.

In his introduction to the preface, Klingenstein says the NAS didn't focus on Bowdoin solely because of his disagreement with Mills, but because the school is typical of many selective institutions of higher education, and what can be learned from examining its policies and practices could have a broader application.

Along with that, the preface lists two other goals: "to provide a vivid, accurate and up-to-the-present account of what Bowdoin attempts to teach its students," and "to show that what this college teaches has been compromised in important ways by contemporary ideology."

For example, Klingenstein claims in his essay, "Do Bowdoin alumni know their alma mater offers not one history course in American political, military, diplomatic, constitutional, or intellectual history, and nothing at all on the American Founding or the Constitution; that the one Civil War course is essentially African-American history (it is offered also in Africana Studies); and that there are more courses on gay and lesbian subjects than on American history? Is it possible this is one reason why some conservatives are disinclined to send their children to Bowdoin?"

The preface goes on to state, "In place of the traditional emphasis on the West at Bowdoin, the emphasis today seems to be on diversity and multiculturalism, which are embedded in a narrative in which the United States conspicuously and perennially falls short of its ideals. Students too often learn to focus their critical doubts on what they come to see as America's false promises ... ."

Finally, the preface says the college falls flat when it comes to intellectual diversity: "We estimate that perhaps four or five out of approximately 182 full-time faculty members might be described as politically conservative. Bowdoin doesn't dispute the imbalance is extreme; instead it argues that its liberal faculty faithfully represents many views, including conservative ones."

Of course they would say that. Liberals are always fair to conservative ideas, aren't they?

The full report will be interesting to read.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

 

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