Washington.--It is easy to remain dry-eyed about the trouble that colleges and universities have brought on themselves from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the non-governmental accrediting agencies approved by the U.S. Education Department. Still, resistance to WASC's political agenda is gratifying because academic freedom matters.
WASC, which accredits 140 institutions, mostly in California, wants to use its considerable power -- unaccredited institutions lose government funds -- to promote racial, ethnic and sexual "diversity" in admissions, faculty hiring and curriculums. Instead of attending to its proper business, which is to examine institutions' facilities, financial resources and faculty credentials, WASC wants to coerce institutions it deems insufficiently aggressive in promoting affirmative action and "multiculturalism."
WASC's draft policy on "diversity" will be voted on this week by a WASC commission composed primarily of college and university administrators who will be forgiven for being bewildered by the hostility of many professors toward the policy. WASC is only trying to make compulsory the sort of behavior that many academics, with their penchant for moral absolutism, say is obligatory. Many academics are incapable of distinguishing their political agendas from the moral yearnings of the universe, and they are simultaneously passionate in their advocacy of "diversity" and imprecise in defining the term and demonstrating the good that would be done by whatever it denotes.
So it would be fun to savor the spectacle of academics reaping the whirlwind they have sown with their "progressive" posturings. However, it would be intolerable for institutions of higher learning to have to accommodate WASC's political program.
A distinctive kind of muddy language issues from badly educated educators, as when WASC tells institutions that one ++ measure of their commitment to quality is "serious and thoughtful engagement with diversity." Do any people other than politically correct academics talk so pretentiously?
UCLA's James Q. Wilson, a former head of the American Political Science Association, says WASC's diversity enforcement is objectionable on two grounds. WASC is neither competent to define nor able to cite scholarly consensus about the relationship between "diversity" and academic quality. (If quality depends on diversity, can black colleges be accredited? Women's colleges? Religious colleges?) And, WASC does not define "diversity," so WASC's staff is free to pursue its political preferences, as it hitherto has done.
In 1990 WASC presumed to instruct the RAND Graduate School that it should show "progress" on "the study and analysis of issues relating to diversity," particularly "race and ethnicity." Mr. Wilson, who serves on RAND's academic advisory board, expressed astonishment that WASC "believes it has the responsibility, right, or even competence to specify what subjects ought to be the object of research and teaching at a university."
WASC replied with words demonstrating that "diversity" can be the thin end of an enormous wedge of intrusion into an institution's traditional sphere of autonomy. WASC said an institution's "integrity" involves treating everyone with "respect" and "it is difficult for faculty, students or clerical workers to be productive if they feel that they do not belong or sense they are viewed as unworthy."
So unless WASC and other accrediting agencies are kept on a short leash, they will feel licensed to snoop and bully and micromanage institutions, always in the name of making people "productive" by making them feel they "belong" and are "worthy" and "respected."
Gerhard Casper is president of Stanford, not an institution famous for resisting trends considered "progressive," but he has sent a stiff letter to WASC, expressing alarm about "layers of bureaucratic regulation," and vowing resistance to "WASC's apparent attempt to create and impose academic policies on its members." Mr. Casper says:
"Stanford will not . . . endorse WASC's continuing attempts to intrude upon institutional autonomy and integrity. . . No institution should be required to demonstrate its commitment to diversity to the satisfaction of an external review panel."
Now, it is nice that academics, who often support policies that expand the regulation of other people's lives, are occasionally on the receiving end of overbearing busybodies. This improves the political culture.
The rise of American conservatism in the second half of this century owed much to the rise of radicalism on campuses in the 1960s. In reaction to that radicalism there emerged a conservative intelligentsia articulate about the fragility of institutions and about the danger of power in the hands of people bent on enforcing the fads of campus politics. And when government began to break colleges and universities to the saddle of affirmative action in hiring and admissions, the iron entered the soul of campus conservatism.
Today the enforcers of "diversity" may be producing a diversity they will abhor -- many unreconciled conservatives in their midst.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.