Whose Interests Do College Diversity Officers Serve?

Administrative bloat is driving up the cost of higher education—without doing much to help the most vulnerable students.

Students walk around with backpacks.
Eric Gay / AP

One of the most famous essays on bureaucracy ever written was built upon a deceptively simple observation. Between 1914 and 1928, the number of ships in the British Navy declined by 67 percent. The ranks of officers and men shrank by 31 percent. But the number of Admiralty officials administering the shrunken force rose by 78 percent.

Nor did the growth stop! Between 1935 and 1954, the number of Admiralty officials outright quadrupled—even as the Royal Navy itself was rapidly drawing down from World War II.

The essayist—C. Northcote Parkinson—speculated that the naval administration would continue to grow even if there were no sailors at all.

Here was the origin of Parkinson’s famous laws of bureaucracy, including “work expands to fill the time available” and “officials make work for each other.”

Which brings us to every parent’s favorite question: Why does college education cost so much?

The Parkinson of American academia is Ralph Westfall, a professor at California Polytechnic University in Pomona. He computed in 2011 that over the 33 years from 1975 to 2008, the number of full-time faculty in the California state university system had barely increased at all: up from 11,614 to 12,019. Over the same period, the number of administrators had multiplied like little mushrooms: 3,000 had become 12,183.

You might ask: What do these administrators do?

Today’s New York Times offers one modest illustration. Over the past 18 months, the Times reports, 90 American colleges and universities have hired “chief diversity officers.” These administrators were hired in response to the wave of racial incidents that convulsed campuses like the University of Missouri over the past year. They are bulking up an already thriving industry. In March 2016, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education held its 10th annual conference in San Francisco. Attendance set a new record: 370. The association publishes a journal. It bestows awards of excellence.

As diversity officers proliferate, entire learned specialties plunge into hiring depressions. In the most recent academic years, job postings for historians declined by 8 percent, the third decline in a row. Cumulatively, new hirings of historians have dropped 45 percent since 2011-2012.

I anticipate the response: This only represents a tiny fraction of the growth among administrators! Diversity is important! Graduation rates among black university students have improved in recent years. Surely all these chief diversity officers are accomplishing something?

Yet the closest studies of disadvantaged-student performance discover that what such students need most is more intensive teaching and mentoring. As my colleague Emily DeRuy has reported, young people from impoverished backgrounds live in “relationship poverty”: “Research, which involved surveys of thousands of young people and in-person interviews with more than 100, suggests that if a web of supportive relationships surrounds these students, the chances that they will leave school shrink dramatically.” But that’s not only expensive—it also requires extraordinarily hard work, with uncertain chances of success. Even more relevantly: The students at risk are not all or even mostly “diverse,” as diversity is conventionally understood in the United States in 2016. If J.D. Vance’s marvelous Hillbilly Elegy pounds any one idea into the heads of America’s university presidents, that idea should be it.

But maybe the university presidents already know it. “Diversity” is an easier problem to manage than “disadvantage.” The pages of the diversity officers’ journal reveal much more fascination with increasing demand for their own employment—via compulsory programs in “cultural competence” for example—than in the hard work of mentoring and tutoring.  As the New York Times’ reporting confirms, the freshman orientation sessions run in the name of diversity have a lot more to say about the offense of addressing fellow students as “you guys” than about the challenge of teaching students from poor backgrounds how to make informed choices about financial aid. The priority—in the Times’ marvelously deadpan headline—is to “cautiously train freshmen against subtle insults.”

In the classic movie about politics, The Great McGinty, a local boss explains to the politician protagonist that the politician has been thinking all wrong about a new dam that the state didn’t apparently need. "You think a dam is something you put a lot of water in. A dam is something you put a lot of concrete in—and it doesn't matter how much you put in there's always room for a lot more.” So it is with our universities. We’ve been thinking of them as institutions for teaching and learning—and wondering why we seem to be spending so much without achieving more. But if you think of them as institutions generating a perpetual cycle of employment in specialties for which there would otherwise be no demand at all? Why in that case, they are succeeding brilliantly.