The Reductio Ad Absurdum of Diversity

St. Catherine University (generally referred to locally as St. Kate’s) is a Catholic school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Its undergraduate school is for women. For the last few years, St. Kate’s has put on a “leadership conference” for students and others. But on December 8, this year’s conference, which was scheduled for January 19 and had approximately 200 registrants, was abruptly canceled. A St. Kate’s dean explained what happened in an email to the 30 individuals who had been selected as presenters at the conference, out of 58 who applied:

We received 58 proposals to fill the 30 slots on the program. The selections were made solely based on their fit with the three themes of the conference: Explore your purpose, Ignite your passion and Inspire excellence.

This same process was used last year in order to be blind throughout the process so as not to exclude or unintentionally over represent a particular industry over another in the presenters collective. While well intentioned, it is a case where a blind process has led to a racial and ethnic blind outcome.

In an article in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune, reporter Maura Lerner follows up:

Last fall, St. Catherine University invited 30 businesswomen and inspirational speakers to lead the breakout sessions at a popular annual leadership conference.

But the conference, which was billed as a networking and career-building event, never took place. The university canceled it because of what it called a lack of diversity among the invited speakers.

The decision, which caught many of the speakers by surprise, has cast the Catholic university in St. Paul in an uncomfortable national spotlight. Last week, the conservative website Campus Reform reported that St. Catherine had pulled the plug on the event because “most, if not all the scheduled speakers ended up being white.”

The remarkable aspect of this story, to me, is that the university chose to cancel the conference, thereby entirely losing the benefit of the event for students and others, rather than proceed with a faculty that inadvertently was mostly, if not entirely, white. Lerner called me for comment on the story:

John Hinderaker, president of the Minneapolis-based Center of the American Experiment, a politically conservative think tank, called the decision appalling. “This is the kind of absurdity you get when you prioritize skin color over merit,” he said.

Apparently the organizers of the conference forgot to include racial quotas when they selected the speakers, and only realized what had happened “after the speakers were asked to send in photos and bios for the event’s website.” Upon seeing the speakers’ pictures, university officials realized they had made a terrible mistake. The President of St. Kate’s, Becky Roloff, emailed the entire university community to explain the fiasco. The opening lines of Roloff’s email read like a parody of trendy left-wing academia:

In a time where sexism and racism, in their individual and institutional forms, are recognized and called out, those of us in positions of power and privilege – be it through whiteness, maleness, middle-class position, heterosexual-normativity, ability, or Christianity – must slow down, reflect, and listen to those who have been subject to systematic silencing, exploitation, marginalization, and exclusion.

Based on our Sisters of St. Joseph heritage and our deep commitment to social justice, in all its forms, my note today is specifically about our obligation, commitment, and responsibility to make room for everyone at the table.

The reporter gave me the last word:

Hinderaker, of the Center of the American Experiment, is skeptical. “It’s really almost comical that they’re forced to admit that they did this strictly on the basis of merit and they characterize this as a mistake,” he said. The losers, he notes, are the very people they set out to help.

“Instead of providing the benefit to the [participants] that they intended to provide, they’d rather do nothing apparently,” he said. “It’s really kind of a classic story of how everything gets sacrificed in the name of diversity.”

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