Diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, seems to be everywhere these days, from the White House to the boards of directors at Fortune 500 companies and to admissions and hiring policies at universities. We prefer to reverse the acronym, because IED – as in improvised explosive device – seems more apt, given the IED explosion in creating administrative bloat, invasive control of speech, and what used to be called "affirmative action."
In a recent talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a speaker characterized the zeitgeist thusly: "Diversity is being invited to the dance. Inclusion is being asked to dance. And equity is sharing in the planning of the dance." But for MIT and other academically rigorous universities and programs, the goal has always been to develop the brightest minds for the betterment of humankind in all fields of endeavor, not to create social butterflies.
MIT does not "invite" participants, because it is tantamount to a science, technology, engineering, and math ("STEM") Olympics. You compete feverishly to get in. You must be highly self-motivated to participate once there in absorbing every possible iota of knowledge and technique in your field of study. And it defies reality to assert that intellectual capacity and specialized aptitude are evenly distributed to allow equal contributions. The same applies to other higher education programs committed to advancing knowledge through its students and faculty. The dance metaphor for these schools is a gross distortion that reeks of the entitlement mentality of many in today's younger generations.
In fact, the very assumption that there is a significant educational benefit of identity diversity is questionable for these academically rigorous schools, just as the Olympics are focused only on athletic excellence and have retained their exalted status as a result. Intellectual diversity, which is not the within the purview of IED departments, is what fosters advancement of knowledge. In any case, the similarities and intense focus among those students who are truly qualified tends to make identity diversity largely inconsequential in comparison.
In the current litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court concerning affirmative action, the reality of diversity in college admissions has become clearer. The overwhelming majority of schools admit more than half their applicants, with many approaching 80% to 90%. Where admission rates are so high, diversity is often automatically baked in. Therefore, the issue is not the availability of an education; it is the pursuit of the prestige and future opportunity rightly associated with being able to graduate from the highly selective "elite" schools. Assuming that the academic rigor is real (which in some cases it admittedly is not), this evokes the Olympic competition metaphor, not the dance.
The obvious challenge is that, quite apart from innate aptitudes, the "training facilities" for tomorrow's academic Olympians are not all equal, and often the inequality falls unevenly across identity groups, leaving too many talented but undeveloped youths out in the cold. Public primary and secondary schools are largely failing in this regard. Likewise, the family values and support systems necessary to underpin the training process are far from universal.
But that does not justify "adjustment" of a highly selective admissions competition as a substitute for preparing applicants to compete. Nor does it justify lowering post-admission academic standards in order to prevent underperforming students from failing. In fact, any perceived need to handicap the competition or grading is merely evidence of the failures of secondary education, which are beyond the control of universities.
By contrast, most colleges and universities are therefore focused on pursuing the more typical, mundane, yet worthy goals of imparting a modicum of knowledge and skills. They are more suitable venues for remediation of the shortcomings of secondary education. Parenthetically, it has become all too common for these colleges to turn out graduates who cannot think analytically, solve complex problems, or even write properly, regardless of the field of study. Too many classes now focus on ideology and indoctrination that serve little educational purpose. To put it bluntly, the value of a college degree has been cheapened by institutions failing to deliver on their proper mission.
MIT already "boasts" some 100 administrators dedicated to planting IED everywhere. None of them contributes meaningfully to the advancement of STEM. They can add value mainly by actively recruiting underprivileged, unrecognized, superior candidates regardless of identity, but beyond that, it is unclear whether they improve the quality of education or just tribalize the student body. They appear to exist to embrace the culture of grievances that is unproductive at best and destructive at worst.
MIT, like a handful of other elite universities, is a rare gem in the nation's higher education system that is on the verge of being cleaved into low-value stones. That would be a tragedy for the nation, to say nothing of heartbreaking for us alumni.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a consulting professor at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. They were undergraduates together at MIT.