What does "diversity" mean on campus today?
Student reaction to the University of Virginia's announcement of J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, as its commencement speaker this year has thrust this question into the spotlight. Some U-Va. students have launched an effort to challenge the selection of Wilkinson in the name of protecting "diversity," complete with columns, an online petition drive and hints that they will disrupt graduation.
This growing effort shows that too often, diversity is absent from the one facet of campus life where it is essential: intellectual life.
Supporters purport to use "diversity" synonymously with open-mindedness; they argue for the U-Va. administration to hire a "dean for diversity," for the faculty to offer a wider variety of classes and for students to sign a "diversity pledge." They sing the virtues of learning about people from different places with different points of view. Yet, when it comes to listening to someone with a reputation for being politically conservative, that supposed open-mindedness quickly dissipates.
Because some students disagree with a few of Wilkinson's opinions, they are quick to claim that his opinions are "discriminatory" and illustrate "blatant political bias." A student columnist described one "problem" with his selection: "It is that his political biases will alienate a large number of students when a commencement speaker should bring students together." Others justify their complaints with the need to "protect diversity," claiming that inviting Wilkinson is against U-Va.'s "long-standing commitment to diversity." But where is their support for diversity when it comes to a more politically conservative public figure?
These students argue that because some of Wilkinson's rulings are disagreeable to them, he is offensive. Their message is: If you disagree with someone on a few issues, that person is automatically offensive, discriminatory and alienating -- and therefore, should have no place on campus. This is the opposite of true intellectual diversity.
Some of the students supporting this effort are hiding behind process arguments, claiming that students should have a bigger role in the selection of the commencement speaker. Currently, a committee of students and faculty members gives the university president a list of 10 speakers, from which he invites one. This process has been in place for years. No one complained about the selection process when author John Grisham, a well-known high-dollar Democratic fundraiser, was selected, or even after his speech, in which he hit on hot-button political issues such as the Vietnam War and global warming.
That a conservative judge does not fit within the definition of diversity on campus reveals how far we have to go to achieve diversity in the academy. Unfortunately, we have settled for descriptive diversity, such as race and sex, rather than reaching for intellectual diversity.
I hope that Judge Wilkinson takes the opportunity to address diversity in his commencement speech. This would help complete our education.