The Woke Against Excellence

September 28, 2020 Updated: October 1, 2020


As the Woke Revolution continues to sweep through higher education, the conflict keeps getting worse. I don’t mean the political and social tensions that woke activism creates. The problem is, rather, the contradiction between the woke mandate of diversity and the university’s dedication to excellence.

The two don’t mix, and as the one goes up, the other must go down.

Is there any institution in American society as caught up in competition, prestige, and status as is the selective college? Is any ranking more noticed than the U.S. News & World Report list of schools? People lump Yale, Harvard, Amherst, Berkeley, Duke, and the rest of the elite institutions together as if they were a united bloc, but the truth is that the rivalries are intense, and mutual scrutiny is nonstop. Princeton’s admissions office watches what Columbia’s does; Emory watches Vanderbilt.

Each looks for a competitive advantage, and if one school’s applicant pool goes up or down significantly, others take notice.

Excellence is each one’s claim. It’s everywhere in the marketing materials. This is an academic ladder, and intellectual quality is the first criterion. Yale accepts only 6 percent of applicants because it believes only the very best belong there. Johns Hopkins’s school of public health gets so many research dollars because its faculty is No. 1. When the University of Chicago issued its faculty statement in support of Black Lives Matter recently, it appeared below a department description that included an assertion that the department is “ranked first among English departments in the U.S.”

The woke mandate doesn’t reinforce the goal of excellence, though. Oh, we hear all the time that “diversity is our strength,” but nobody really believes that, especially not the astute high-level insiders who intone it so solemnly. What woke demands do, instead, is undermine the policies and practices that sustain excellence.

Undermining Excellence

One of the longtime pillars of the U.S. News assessment of schools is the average test scores of entering students. A higher SAT score means a more skilled and talented student body, the reasoning goes, producing a stronger academic climate in the dorms and libraries and dining halls, thus encouraging better outcomes for all. But the SAT doesn’t help with diversity. Asians score well, but they’re already overrepresented on campus. African American and Hispanic/Latino students don’t score so well, which makes it harder for selective schools to admit them and fix their underrepresentation at those schools.

Hence, the test must be dropped, as the Regents of the University of California system unanimously ruled in May: no SAT or ACT required for admission.

Here’s another case of diversity trumping excellence. For many years, the University of Oklahoma has included in its general education requirements an advanced class, the Senior Capstone Experience, which has students complete a substantive project for their major. It’s a nice summary achievement that makes the students put their knowledge and skills to work. But no longer. In early September, a vice provost sent an email to professors stating that the capstone course was no longer a general education requirement.

The action follows another change in the requirements that the OU Regents approved in July. That change wasn’t a removal; it was an addition: a diversity/inclusion course that all students have to take. In other words, the most rigorous undergraduate activity in the curriculum is no longer necessary, but a full class in what is sure to be an ideological exercise in social dogma is. Several heads of departments protested the loss of capstone (while signaling, of course, their approval of the diversity plan), but the administration is pressing ahead. It’s more important that they appear woke than academic.

It’s happening everywhere. The University of Chicago’s English Department has dropped the GRE from the materials it asks applicants to add to the packet (for the same reasons that the SAT and ACT are disappearing). In The Wall Street Journal, Heather Mac Donald has listed the millions of dollars given to science labs that hire women and under-represented minorities. She notes that such awards typically don’t mention “relevant scientific qualifications.”

And then there are the cases in which a scholar has written an article that runs against politically correct dogmas and is published in a respected quarterly after going through standard peer review, only to have an outcry follow, leading the journal to retract the article. The journal didn’t let the article stand, welcome rebuttal, and invite the author of the original piece to defend himself, as has traditionally happened. No, the journal simply scrubbed the article—an insult to academic excellence, but obedience to woke ideology.

Impossible Contradiction

Where is this going? As far as progressives can take it. Woke Revolutionaries know that higher education is the main gatekeeper to the elite. If the hurdles and evaluations and exclusions of the selective university aren’t displaced by diversity commands, professional spheres in American society will remain an area of under-representation. If a few standards have to be lowered, well, that’s a small price to pay for social justice.

It does, however, cloud the primary claim of the top schools in the United States. They can’t keep highlighting excellence, because excellence means exclusion, testing and grading, and discrimination. Different groups will be differently impacted, but the more excellent a school strives to be, the more selective it must be. Inclusion doesn’t jibe. Diversity doesn’t either.

Men and women on average score roughly the same on math assessments, but the male bell curve is wider and flatter. You have more males than females at the low end and at the high end. A math department at a Tier 1 institution hires only the very best mathematicians, which, you can see, will come mostly from the male ranks. A department that aims for proportionate representation, 50 percent female professors to match the overall population, must lower the bar of qualification.

Of course, a math department shouldn’t approach a job search in the complacent expectation that it will yield a male. It may be best for a department actively to hope to hire more women and more underrepresented minorities. But once the process begins, everyone has to be taken as an individual, not a group representative. If a male and a female candidate come up more or less even in the screening of job applicants, then hire the woman. But when we step back from the process, we know that most of the top candidates every year are men.

There’s no way around this except to eliminate the evidence of unequal talents. But that means eliminating the very evidence of excellence, too. It’s a bind, and college leaders haven’t found a way out of it. They will continue to trumpet the ideals of both, diversity and excellence, as if the two are thriving on their respective campuses like nowhere else, but the contradiction is getting impossible to conceal. They can’t stop doing so, though; the woke influence on campus compels it. The result is that college presidents, provosts, and deans will sound more and more like salesmen and less like academics.

Colleges already have a credibility problem, coupled with widespread anger over the sticker price. This is only going to make it worse.

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.