The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, by Heather Mac Donald

A polemic against the divisive effect of ‘victimology’ puts its author’s prejudices on display, says Joanna Williams

November 1, 2018
womens-rights-protesters
Source: Getty
Boomers: Mac Donald targets the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s

Universities have always been value-laden institutions. In the past, the particular religious, political and scholarly principles underpinning academia were rarely explicitly acknowledged. Today, in contrast, values are discussed openly: almost every university has an institutional vision or mission statement.

In The Diversity Delusion, Heather Mac Donald dissects the chief value driving the contemporary university: diversity. Rather than lending moral weight to scholarship, she argues, the obsession with diversity encourages students to identify with clearly delineated groups differentiated by skin colour, sex or sexual preference. Lessons in “victimology” teach students to recognise the oppression faced by their particular identity group.

Mac Donald’s rhetoric is acerbic; nonetheless, she raises important questions. Does offering lower entry requirements to disadvantaged students risk setting some up to fail? Why do students privileged to attend the most elite universities in the world see themselves as victims of discrimination? Academics and administrators, Mac Donald contends, are among “the most prejudice-free, well-meaning group of adults on the planet”. So why do university managers indulge protesting students and reward their “delusional self-pity”?

Mac Donald pulls no punches and yet, despite the robustness of her polemic, she shares some common ground with her opponents. She criticises the social determinism of “victimologists” but buys into a biological determinism, arguing that men and women are innately different when it comes to sex and relationships. She comes very close to claiming that black people cannot do mathematics, arguing that “math deficits show up at the earliest ages”, a product of the “systemic academic weaknesses of those students” brought about through “bad behavioral choices and maladaptive culture”.

Mac Donald’s own prejudices emerge when she explains why universities have so enthusiastically embraced diversity. Her first target is the 1960s and, in particular, the women’s liberation movement. “In a striking historical irony,” she tells us, “the baby boomers who dismantled the university’s intellectual architecture in favor of unbridled sex and protest have now bureaucratized both.” Today, boomer blaming is as fashionable as identity politics.

Change did indeed sweep through universities in the 1960s and 1970s, but student radicals and progressive academics gained influence only because the cultural elite had already largely abandoned its mission to discern, conserve and propagate the best that had been thought and said. It was because the Enlightenment values of dispassionate reason and rationality had been called into question that radicals had space to occupy.

A second target of Mac Donald’s book is students themselves: the narcissistic “cupcakes” with a “nauseating sense of entitlement”, who demonstrate “boorish behavior that gets worse every year”. As recent campus protests have shown, some students do indeed have a philistine arrogance that seemingly entitles them to punish those whose views they find offensive. Students deserve criticism, but so too do the many adults, not just academics and diversity officers, who have indulged their behaviour.

Mac Donald seems to long for a time before the sexual revolution when women were modest, men were chivalrous and professors taught the canon. Instead of harking back, we need to reimagine the contemporary university to take account of society’s changes in order to reinvigorate rather than denigrate scholarship. What Mac Donald gets right is that this requires treating students like intellectually capable individuals, not oppressed and victimised groups.

Joanna Williams, formerly at the University of Kent, is now head of education at Policy Exchange.


The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture
By Heather Mac Donald
St Martin’s Press, 288pp, £22.26
ISBN 9781250200914
Published 4 September 2018

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Reader's comments (1)

Nice to see a wide range of views represented in THES. Thanks.

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