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Interview with Heather Mac Donald, Fellow at the Manhattan Institute

Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to the Institute’s City Journal. Mac Donald releases her new book, The Diversity Delusion, on September 4th.

The Politic: You wrote a piece for the National Review titled “Rage and Race at Yale,” in which you criticize the administration’s recent response to “petty dormitory tyranny” involving graduate student, Lolade Siyonbola. Just so our readers know, what’s your brief take on that controversy?

Heather Mac Donald: It’s regrettable that president Salovey is so willing to sell out his faculty and his student body as “racists” in order to foreground his own moral righteousness. This was an insignificant incident, possibly the result of emotional instability on the caller’s part and her history with the sleeping student.  Yet Salovey chose to turn it into the very symbol of Yale, consistent with his previous claims that the school is riven by racism.

This claim is demonstrably false. Every faculty member at Yale is colorblind. These are some of the most open-minded individuals in human history, who want all of their students to succeed, especially underrepresented minorities. Every library is open. There’s no “blacks only” library or “whites only” library.  Every scientific laboratory seeks students who want to work hard. Yale’s resources for gaining knowledge are stupendous, and they’re available to all comers on a colorblind basis. What Salovey has done is simply to increase racial divisions on campus and to encumber students with a delusional interpretation of their environment.

Do you think it’s purely his self-righteousness, or do you think there’s some external pressure he’s accommodating to keep the university going?

There’s definitely a culture of phony victimology. There may be some sort of pressure to conform to that culture, although I don’t know, in Salovey’s case, where it would be coming from exactly. Certainly, almost every college president grovels before delusional student protestors and implicitly labels his faculty as bigots without ever naming who those offenders are. But a president should be able to stand up to any amorphous peer pressure and speak the truth. There’s nobody over Salovey.

The Yale Corporation is likely equally obsessed with a narrow definition of “diversity,” but a president has enormous untapped power. We’ve seen this with the University of Chicago president, Robert Zimmer, who has chosen to buck the prevailing administrative cowardice. The University of Chicago will not wink at totalitarian efforts to shut down politically unorthodox speech, he has announced. I don’t see any job threat to Robert Zimmer– to the contrary, he has earned enormous respect in the wider world from people who believe that universities should be places of debate and civility.

One thing you said is that Peter Salovey is not acknowledging the “truth.” But someone might argue that the university isn’t doing everything it could to cater to diversity, such as by abolishing the student income contribution. Do you think it’s as simple as this monolithic “truth” narrative?

I don’t see any resistance on Salovey’s part to identity politics. Charging tuition is largely irrelevant to the dominant narrative about systemic racism, and getting rid of tuition would probably not make that much difference to the racial composition of the class. Underrepresented minorities are probably being given whatever financial assistance they need to attend Yale. There’s huge competition among selective schools for qualified underrepresented minorities. I don’t accept the premise of your question that Salovey is pushing back against the victimology narrative.

You mentioned that minority students can physically enter libraries. In that sense, it seems like Yale isn’t institutionally racist, but people might counter that the culture is not conducive to minority students. What’s your take on that?

Your questions are moving into the area of microaggressions now.  The concept of microaggressions arose because it’s getting harder and harder to find actual examples of racism. Yale’s “culture” has been one of academic achievement, and I’m not willing to say that that culture is at odds with the ability of underrepresented minorities to succeed. The problem in every selective school is the use of large racial preferences to admit what the schools view as the necessary critical mass of underrepresented minorities. There are, of course, many Blacks and Hispanics who qualify on colorblind grounds for admission to selective schools. But given the very large academic skills gap, there are not enough of them to satisfy the desire of administrators like Salovey or Drew Gilpin Faust at Harvard to look over the student body and see a diverse range of melanin– something that is irrelevant to the academic environment of a university.

Students who are admitted to an institution where their academic preparedness is significantly below that of their peers are going to struggle.  This is not a race issue; admissions “mismatch,” as it has been called, applies to gender preferences as well. Let’s say that MIT decided that it needed more females in its undergraduate body, and admitted me via a gender quota, even though my math SAT, say, was 650.  If most of my peers were admitted by academic standards alone and had scored 800 on their math SAT, I would have a very hard time keeping up in freshman calculus or physics.

I would then have two options: I could confront the truth that I was admitted to a school where I was not academically competitive. Or I could blame gender bias: “I’m not doing well in my classes, it must be because I’m in an institution of rampant sexism.”

That’s a tempting explanation, because it would be hard to acknowledge that maybe I wasn’t prepared for MIT. So, when we hear these claims of circumambient racism, and we can’t point to exclusion on the part of faculty or administrators, it’s likely the result of mismatch– admitting students to institutions for which they are not fully prepared.

If I had a 650 math SAT, I would be better off going to, say, Boston College, or wherever I would be surrounded by peers with my level of academic qualification. I would learn more, and I would be more likely to graduate in a STEM major. The so-called “beneficiaries” of race preferences often intend to major in STEM fields, but their rate of attrition from STEM majors is high, because they can’t keep up in their current environment. That says nothing about their ability to succeed as scientists.  Were they to be trained in a school geared towards their incoming level of preparation, they would likely stick with their STEM field and go on to have a satisfying career.

What’s the lasting impact of this kind of “victimology” you’re discussing?

To tell students at an institution of such magnificent educational opportunities as Yale that they are suffering under a culture of racism may hinder their ability to maximize those opportunities. You’re teaching them to see phantom obstacles, rather than leading them towards the truth, which is that any college student today, at virtually any American college, is among the most privileged human beings in history, simply by virtue of having at his fingertips the thing which Faust sold his soul for: knowledge.

To set up these imaginary barriers does students a disservice– one that follows them potentially for the rest of their lives. If they see discrimination at Yale, which is the most welcoming, tolerant environment in history, they’re probably going to see phantom discrimination in the world at large, and that too is going to inhibit their ability to maximize their opportunities.

There are social interactions that can be awkward, and students can say things which are not phrased in the best possible way. One of the typical microaggressions that gets put up on various student whiteboard videos about campus oppression is a freshman asking another freshman, “So, like, what exactly are you?” referring to the student’s ethnic background. The question, as phrased, is clumsy, but to seize on this as grounds for offense is absurd in a world that insists that the most important thing about anyone is his racial or ethnic identity, and that you sure as hell better get that right.

A better strategy if you come across awkward, clumsy statements is to say: “big deal.” My revenge is going to be to study my butt off for my organic chemistry exam and leave this idiot in the dust. Being an adult means understanding the difference between a significant problem and an insignificant one. And the things that get singled out as “microaggressions” belong in the category of insignificant problems that most people, with any sense of proportion and pluck, can easily overcome. There are millions of Chinese students at this very moment studying almost night and day for the privilege of attending an American university.  If you believe the racial victimologists, those Chinese students, as students as color, would be oppressed by systemic university racism and unable to fulfill their potential. In fact, they’re desperate to get in. Why is that? I’ve never had an explanation from the diversity bureaucracy about that.

Everyone recalls that striking video from the Christakis incident. One of the criticisms was that people were “tone policing” the upset student– criticizing how she presented herself, rather than the substance of her beliefs. Do you think that instance of “tone policing” is somehow analogous to the way people are criticizing microaggressions?

I don’t think there’s any comparison. It wasn’t just that one screaming and cursing girl, by the way; there were other students yelling similar insults and profanity at Nicholas Christakis. They violated what were once common norms of civility. It is shocking that students should feel entitled to treat one of the most respected sociologists in America with that degree of boorishness and discourtesy.

To my knowledge, Peter Salovey never said a word against the perpetrators of that mind-boggling incivility. If doing so would be “tone policing,” we desperately need more of it. Instead, we are dismantling standards of civility and civilization in the name of social justice. That’s quite a different matter than classic examples of “microaggressions:” declaring that “America is the land of opportunity,” say, or, “I believe the best person should get the job.” The microaggression conceit has been pumped up by the diversity industry to justify its existence. It has nothing to do with the type of grotesque incivility that was on display during that three-hour mob tirade against Nicholas Christakis.

I’m not sure if you’re aware of Jamie Kirchick’s candidacy for the Yale Board of Trustees, but what do you make of it? First, do you think there’s a chance, and second, do you think he can have a real impact?

I’m not privy to the internal dynamics of the Yale Corporation. I don’t know the rules of confidentiality– whether Kirchick would be allowed to disclose any conversations he might have about freedom of speech or diversity of thought. If he does not have a public platform outside of Yale, I am not certain if confidential internal debates would have much of an effect.

Universities handpick the nominees to oversight boards who will be likely to rubber stamp the direction that the ever-growing bureaucracy already wants to go in. So, I hope that Kirchick can go public with his concerns.  But I think the candidacy is very worthwhile.

One problem is that at some point you get a tipping point where the majority of alumni are themselves the product of the diversity-obsessed academy and have no critical distance from its methods or goals. So it’s kind of a race against time to be able to appeal to alumni who still have a connection to the ideal of objective knowledge and the beauty of scholarship that hasn’t been tainted by the poison of identity politics.

I’m sure you get a million of these interviews, so if you could ask yourself one question, what would it be? What would you want to get out to an audience?

That’s a hard question. Here’s one: “Should I listen to Mozart?” And my answer would be yes. Relatedly:” Should I throw myself headlong into the pursuit of beauty?” My answer again would be yes.

Follow up: would you throw yourself headlong into Conservatism if you were a twenty year-old on a college campus?

I would not. My ideal campus is a pure ivory tower. I think there’s time enough for politics when you graduate.  That’s a luxury that may not be available to students today, however. Politics has so infused every aspect of the campus with a few possible refuges such as, at Yale, Directed Studies. But I’m told that even in DS, some younger faculty are apologizing for the predominantly white male status of the syllabus.

Ideally, college should be a place where you lose yourself in real difference: the radical difference of the past, in pastoral poetry, in the great debate of Western civilization: how to restrain power effectively.  Matters of the moment are largely tangential to that deep dive into the treasure trove of past accomplishment and wisdom. These are four precious years to encounter the greatest works of mankind. It gets harder to do so after you graduate, unless you pursue an academic career.

But I recognize things have changed since I went to Yale.  I took what was then called English 25, which is today Major English Poets. Even though Yale was the hotbed of deconstruction in the mid-1970’s, no one thought to object to the reading list on the basis of gender and race. We were allowed to read Chaucer, Spencer, Milton, Wordsworth, and Wallace Stevens without having that poison of gender and racial resentment poured in our ears, and instead simply reveled in language of extraordinary complexity and beauty.
Today, of course, the Yale English department caved into the absurd idea that reading Milton and Spencer is somehow life-threatening to students of color.  The department compromised the sequence, creating an alternative that they defend as “principled.” Don’t be fooled. The students won. The department was not willing to stand up and say: “we read these authors not because they are white males, but because they are the most influential writers in English literature, and you cannot purport to be knowledgeable about English literature without having immersed yourself in these works.” So, it may be that one has to take sides politically, but ideally these would be four years removed from the madness of the rest of the world.