- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

A liberal arts college I know pretty well is trying to get aligned with the popular 21st century academic practice of defining a vision and “strategic goals” to help move toward “social responsibility,” “global engagement” and “diversity.”

Celebrated economist and columnist Walter Williams has commented on modern busybodies requiring businesses to demonstrate “social responsibility.”This is code-speak for spending profits on social programs and diversity consultants. Entire “shakedown” industries have been built around demands of payments from businesses so they can avoid charges of discrimination or greed — the Rev. Jesse Jackson being an accomplished practitioner (to the tune of $10 million-plus a year) of this dubious art. Mr. Williams notes that providing a quality product — be it gasoline, electricity, clothing or automobiles — at a competitive price is, ipso facto, a socially responsible act. No other demonstrations required.

This is doubly true for colleges, which are businesses, too. Their product is supposed to be mature, academically sound, morally put-together graduates who can help society by applying the disciplines in which they have been trained to work and think. Admittedly, some colleges are better than others at producing them. But to the extent a college does so, artificial constructs of “global engagement” — perhaps expressed by establishing satellite campuses in far-away places — need not be laid on to this critical mission entrusted to colleges.

In the past, the college I allude to has produced high-quality graduates who went out into the world to practice medicine, education, the Christian ministry, music, psychology, writing, mathematics, etc. This is what graduates are supposed to do. Any college that produces them is engaging the world. Every able mathematician or biologist or theologian helps his own corner of humanity. A search for additional “global” meaning is superfluous — even pretentious.

A college should be committed to continuity with its past and to a vast future also. In that spirit, leaders should envision an environment of academic excellence, spiritual strength, personal growth and social opportunity for students and faculty. This will enable production of graduates who are academically sound, morally strong, and well grounded in their faith — thoroughly fitted to do honest, high quality (and therefore “godly”) work in the world. This is a practical definition of “global relevance.”

“Diversity” is another hot campus topic many colleges are preoccupied with. Some Board members of my college are also church leaders. Do their churches have diversity plans? Probably not, because they believe people come to church via a Providential calling. A college is not a church, but in some respects the way students are drawn to a campus has a mystic, even religious, quality. The college I attended changed my life. I believe my attendance there was divinely ordered.

Nevertheless, colleges do need to be hospitable to students from many races, backgrounds and cultures. We are light-years away from the pre-1960 era, when campuses were stocked with white kids who looked like Central Casting’s idea of college students. Black students, once limited to their own colleges, have been mainstreamed. A great flood of Asian and Hispanic students has forever changed the face of American higher education. The country can only be helped by this racial and cultural enrichment of education.

Diversity, however, is a result that often can’t be programmed without affecting that product. Many colleges have learned this to their pain. So did a company I also know well. The firm grew dramatically and was very strong in early years when excellence and performance were the watchwords. But then company executives got spooked by bean-counters who didn’t see enough skirts or nonwhite faces to suit them. Many capable men left for friendlier surroundings — the company hit a flat spot.

Eventually sanity returned and the ship righted itself. A valuable lesson had been learned: in enterprises requiring excellence, “diversity” is not a programmable result. (A look at the Yankees or the Redskins tells all about how excellence and diversity mix.)

That technical company needed people who could sell and perform at high levels. Ultimately, many got to show what they could do. Those who couldn’t cut it were out. Successes were heavily male and Oriental. This displeased some, but these people had prepared for the work and had the necessary skills. Managers realized the firm could not be successful if a less qualified person of a preferred race or gender was selected in place of a better-qualified person.

Colleges have waded into the diversity waters, too, but have found the bottom drops off quickly. Sensible leaders discover that diversity — however desirable — cannot be programmed. A college needs to advertise widely, create a friendly, ethnicity-neutral campus, and select students qualified to work amid academic excellence and moral stability. When its highly qualified graduates are eventually sent out into the world, no one (except old fuss-budgets at the New York Times) will care about their racial mix.

An acquaintance attended a medical school where it became known that minority students received exam questions ahead of the exams. When other students complained, the administration replied that the school “could not afford to let minority students fail.” The school thought it was succeeding in its diversity mission. But it really was failing — at a fundamental level — in its academic, social and moral responsibilities to the global community.

Excellence — first, last and always — must be what a college is about. As they say in Detroit, “good-looking junk will not sell.”

WOODY ZIMMERMAN

Author of a weekly column, “At Large,” in the Atlantic Highlands Herald, an Internet newspaper (www.ahherald.com).

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