Dr. King’s Dream or George Orwell’s Nightmare – the University of Virginia at a Crossroads

by James C. Sherlock  Updated Aug. 17 at 8:24 AM

This letter is a response to the recommendations of the University of Virginia’s Racial Equity Task Force which are to be taken up this week by President Jim Ryan and the University’s Board of Visitors.

Dear President Ryan,

Martin Luther King dreamed of the day that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The University seems poised to go in a different direction. You charged your racial equality task force to focus on the color of skin.

A focus on class would have produced a far better and more constitutionally sound set of recommendations and honored Dr. King’s vision. Picking a racial group for preferential treatment runs head on into constitutional equal protection guarantees and any sense of true equity.

In doing so you assured a very racially divisive and highly politicized result. Regrettably but unsurprisingly, the recommendations of the task force view education as a means by which to advance a form of race-based social justice that aligns with a specific political viewpoint.

The report asserts controversial and arguable positions as dogmatic certainties. Some schools of the University have already adopted those same critical theory positions. Course listings and reading lists and the writings of many professors in the University’s humanities and social science departments and the Curry school already indicate large-scale enforcement of this viewpoint.

From Aaron Alexander Zubia, Universities Abandon Reason for a False Idea of ‘Empowerment’, Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2020:

“This instrumentalization of the humanities subordinates the pursuit of truth to the achievement of preordained social outcomes. It impedes free inquiry, which in turn diminishes the power of judgment that a liberal-arts education is supposed to create.”

“A dogmatic education is not a genuine education. The Roman philosopher Cicero wrote that “for the discovery of truth it is necessary to argue against all things and for all things.” On that model, course requirements in the humanities would be established broad-mindedly to promote the zealous pursuit of truth, not the enforcement of the current preferred ideologies. Students would not be placed under “compulsion to support all the dogmas laid down for us almost as edicts,” as Cicero put it. They would instead be urged to develop independent powers of judgment by arguing for and against various viewpoints, adhering to that which is most probable, and drawing closer to universal truth in the process.”

Your task force has recommended both required university-wide indoctrination in a specific viewpoint and a vastly expanded and a policing system empowered to enforce it. To imagine that this approach will sustain civil discourse and free inquiry and result in better understanding is magical thinking.

Those recommendations, if accepted, portend a dystopian future for the University. They are sufficiently intrusive on student privacy, freedom and faculty concentration on quality education and research to qualify as Orwellian — the University as Animal Farm — a parable of speech and thought control.

If we can’t reason together and sometimes disagree, then there will be no University.

The Recommendations of the Task Force

Let us now consider the actual recommendations (in italics below) of the task force.  See University of Virginia Racial Equity Task Force, Audacious Future: Commitment Required, August 10, 2020 for quotations below.

They are buttressed in virtually every case by what the authors clearly think are unchallengeable assertions. They will certainly prove unchallengeable if the recommendations are adopted.

First, we see the abolition of privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry and imposition of a enforcement bureaucracy to police the new “company policy”.

Provide anti-racism education to all members of the University community. “Students, faculty, and staff are eager to be courageous and clear in their work to dismantle racist policies and practices in the systems around them but need more anti-racist education to develop these skills and to foster a culture of belonging at UVA.”

Nowhere that I have seen in my review of online course examples does anti-racism education permit intellectual challenge to its core tenets.  It is presented as dogma.  Perhaps the University can present it differently, but based on other examples of retribution for dissenting opinion, I am not hopeful.

The recommendations of the task force seek control of the University, its endowment, leadership, faculty, staff and students through pervasive, University paid and enabled thought police and a racial spoils system.

Endow Equity at UVA. Many of our Task Force focus group conversations with stakeholders included people expressing the need for better funding of the Division for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DDEI) to assist faculty, staff, and students to meet their racial equity goals. That Division will be essential infrastructure to steward many of the initiatives herein, so ensuring their team is resourced is critical to meeting most other goals we identified.

Launch the Equity Scorecard. In order to redress the serious challenges to racial equity in staff hiring, wages, retention, promotion, and procurement, we heard a need for close audits of key points of intervention where policies and procedures might be reinforcing entrenched inequities. To implement the Equity Scorecard will require an investment in data infrastructure, visualization, and analysis.

No kidding. The example “student lifecycle indicator set across multiple dimensions of inclusive excellence” offered by the task force has 26 “key metrics/indicators” as example “admission offers”, “perceptions of being valued”, “unmet need”, “trust in the Institution” and “median earnings”, each to be analyzed against ten different “equity disaggregation” metrics that require possibly illegal compilation of very private personal data such as gender identity and sexual orientation.  Each of the metrics has multivariable answers, many subjective, some of which require lifetime tracking of each student.  

I will leave the estimates of the total number of permutations and combinations of such data to the mathematics department. Scorecards will be compiled “within each school and major operational/administrative division, including the Medical Center.”

In case you missed it, under this equity scorecard system, you will serve at the pleasure of your antiracism staff.

Fund the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Fund and empower the Division for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion so that it can fulfill its overall mission and execute or coordinate efficiently against all of these initiatives.

See “Launch the Equity Scorecard” above for some of what the Division for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will do.

Second, we see the abolition of excellence as a controlling standard for admission into the faculty and student communities at Virginia and replacing it with a constitutionally unsound focus on racial quotas.

Commit to represent Virginia in student body demographics. As a public institution, we should serve the Commonwealth equitably—so our student population should strive to reflect the racial and economic demographics of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which will require bold commitments to recruitment and retention.

What solution other than quotas is offered?

Launch the Inclusive Faculty Initiative. A lack of diversity amongst faculty is one of the main reasons people (regardless of racial identity) consider leaving UVA, and most certainly harms our ability to attract top students. Doubling the amount of underrepresented minority faculty by 2030 would be tremendously beneficial to all aspects of the University.

The assertion that the University has difficulty attracting top students is drawn out of thin air.

Review tenure and academic policies. Tenure and other academic policy review came up consistently as a set of systems where transformation was required in order to ensure inclusive excellence. In order to redress the serious challenges to racial equity in staff hiring, wages, retention, promotion, and procurement, we heard a need for close audits of key points of intervention where policies and procedures might be reinforcing entrenched inequities.

Again, what intervention other than quotas can be meant here?

An Alternate View by A Black Academic

City Journal published on July 16 an interview with Glenn Loury, a professor of economics who teaches at Brown University conducted by one of his former students. At the age of 33, professor Loury became the first black tenured professor of economics in the history of Harvard University. He is currently the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He has a bachelors degree in mathematics from Northwestern and a Ph.D. in economics from MIT.  The quotations below are from Glenn C. Loury and Glenn Yu, Race and Equality, City Journal, July 16, 2020.

“I object to the soft tyranny of having political postures put forward as self-evident truths to which every decent member of this community should subscribe. I object to that. That’s the last thing that a university should be doing. It’s malpractice. It is administrative malpractice of this precious institution to be swept along by political fad and fancy, and then demand the assent of every administrator, in lockstep, without any dispute among themselves. This is horrible, I thought. I thought the propagation of such groupthink at our university was just horrible.”

Loury said in that same interview that:

“‘Structural racism’ has become an explanation for everything and disparities are seen not as signs of individual choices or group behaviors but proof of the need for more direct control over outcomes.”

“People cry, “structural racism.” Is that why the homicide rate is an order of magnitude higher among young black men? They say structural racism. Is that why the SAT test-score gap is as big as it is? They say structural racism. Is that why two in three black American kids are born to women without a husband? Is it all about structural racism? Is everything structural racism? It has become a tautology explaining everything. All racial disparities are due to structural racism, evidently. Covid-19 comes along and there’s a disparity in the health incidence. It’s due to structural racism. They’re naming partners at a New York City law firm and there are few black faces. Structural racism. They’re admitting people to specialized exam schools in New York City and the Asians do better. This has to be structural racism, with a twist—the twist being that this time, the structural racism somehow comes out favoring the Asians.” …

“And just so I don’t sound like a right-winger, observe that if I were a Marxist, I’d be furious at these people going around talking about “structural racism.” Structure, yes. Racism, no.” …

“I don’t necessarily have to agree with Das Kapital to understand that it’s a serious engagement with history. …”

“Structural racism, by contrast, is a bluff. It’s not an engagement with history. It’s a bullying tactic. In effect, it’s telling you to shut up. …”

“Everybody pretty much has the same information available to them, but people are very selective of what information they avail themselves. There’s also a confirmation-bias problem that we all suffer from, where we want to pay attention to evidence that confirms our prior beliefs and dis-attend evidence that contradicts them.”

“What groups are on top? What about the Jews? You could say, “There are too many Jews in positions of influence.” If there are too few black lawyers who are partners in big law firms, doesn’t it follow that are too many Jews who are partners at these big firms? If there are too few blacks who are professors of mechanical engineering at places like Carnegie Mellon, why aren’t there too many Korean professors at these places?”

“If the system is structured to deny the potentiality of black humanity, then the system is structured as to affirm the humanity of the particular groups that are overrepresented in the prized venues of American life. People don’t realize that they’re playing with fire when they take these disparities as ipso facto evidence of systemic failure. They insist on wholesale interventions into people’s exercise of their liberty in order to enact a reduction or elimination of disparities, yet a world without any disparities is a world where you don’t have so many—name your group—who’ve got so much money or so many prizes. There are only so many positions. There is no under-representation without over-representation. This is arithmetic.”

“What is the nature of the world that we live in? Why would I ever expect that there would be parity across the board between ethnic, racial, cultural, and ancestral population groups in an open society? It’s a contradiction because difference is a very fact of groupness. What do I mean by a group? Well, it’s genes, to some degree; it’s culture; it’s networks of social affiliation, of intermarriage and kinship. I mean the shared narrative, the same hopes, the dreams, the stories. I mean the practices of parenting and filial piety and whatever else there might be.”

My Recommendations

The underlying thesis of the report suggests that the pathway to equality is direct control of racial outcomes. Yet following the recommendations of the task force risks far more damage to the racial group it favors than an approach which attempts to lift all the boats of an underprivileged class, the poor.

There are proven strategies to lift those boats. They are focused on improving the quality of the primary and secondary education and health care of poor people in the communities were they live. Success Academy has accomplished extraordinary results with the poorest students in New York. That success has exposed as a lie the suggestion that children of color in poor communities cannot learn and indeed thrive when challenged with traditional learning objectives in a supportive environment.

The Curry school is all in for critical race theory instruction for K-12 children.  Critical race theory education at this level teaches children of color why they can’t learn, rather than teaching them to learn.  This theory of “pedagogy” as Curry calls it is fiercely controversial among parents and school boards.  My recommendations for help to K-12 education purposely exclude Curry participation as counterproductive.

Consider these different examples for potential University contributions:

  1. Adopt the concept of the all-expenses paid one-year prep schools operated by the military academies to raise candidates for admission to the level of excellence expected in the first year of a university education.
  2.  Consider the University’s options for improving basic educational k-12 achievements.  Contribute both money and expertise to expand the educational opportunities in primary and secondary schools in the Commonwealth’s zip codes with the worst achieving schools.  Consider partnering with Success Academy to offer University-sponsored charter schools in these communities.
  3. Sponsor through the Medical Center and Medical School the improvement of primary care in the communities with the lowest county health rankings in Virginia as ranked annually by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

You made a fundamental mistake in convening a task force charged to focus on race. You got what you must have expected.

You now have a choice between Dr. King’s dream and George Orwell’s nightmare.

Choose wisely.

James C. Sherlock
Captain, United States Navy (Ret.)
College ’66

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