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Agree To Disagree

February 23, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 8

When Justice Lewis Powell Jr. used the term “diversity” in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke,438 U.S. 265 (1978), he probably never anticipated the extent to which recitation of an undefined and subjective term would become the reference point for so much analysis and commentary.

The remarks of D. Richard Cobb, chair of the ACS Committee on Nominations & Elections, are particularly instructive in illuminating the overuse and superficial application of this term (C&EN, Dec. 1, 2014, page 32). He states the advantages of diversity as follows: “You get more opinions, you get more history, and you get different backgrounds. What you don’t want is a room full of the same people nodding their heads the same way 100% of the time.”

This is a strikingly strange statement. I hold both a scientific doctorate and a law degree and have counseled business entities, religious and civic groups, and various local governments for decades. One problem I have rarely experienced is that groups of people nod their heads and think the same way all of the time, or even most of the time. A more typical experience is that in a collegial body with N members, there may be more than N opinions expressed in the course of a given meeting, to the extent that reaching agreement on even simple points is often difficult, and sometimes impossible.

Perhaps Cobb might explain why the immense carnage of World War I ever took place, since so many of the dominant political families of the time were closely related by blood, marriage, socioeconomic status, and personal familiarity. Given their lack of diversity, why didn’t they just nod their heads and agree on everything, instead of unleashing an unparalleled catastrophe on Western civilization? Perhaps he could also explain why there are so many examples of small groups of people, closely resembling each other in outlook and background, making immense contributions to world history and culture, far out of proportion to their numbers. Some representative examples include the ancient Greeks; the modern Jews; the painters and sculptures of the Italian Renaissance; and the political, economic, and scientific thinkers of the Scottish ­Enlightenment.

World history and culture are far richer because these groups were not diverse, and therefore made unique contributions. In summary, neither diversity nor the lack thereof guarantees much in the way of either harmony or substantive achievement.

William Charles L. Jamison
Warrenton, Va.



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