The recent controversy surrounding my colleague and friend, Paul Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic Theology in the Duke Divinity School (DDS), has been widely covered. Countless op-ed pieces, fueled by Rod Dreher’s online publication of internal memos and public emails at The American Conservative, as well as prominent editorials in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have reached many readers. 

That Professor Griffith’s resignation resonated so loudly in the public media has less to do with his indisputable eminence than with the fact that his story fits a well-established journalistic genre: the exposé of “politically correct” academia, waxing illiberal and vindictive and repressing free and open speech, even as it spouts increasingly threadbare pieties about the importance of academic freedom. To be sure, the genre’s sheer tenacity suggests that there is a measure of truth to it.

Yet the stories by which we habitually seek to comprehend the various worlds we inhabit, including that of academia, not only define us. They also tend to obstruct our intellectual vision and imprison us in dubious and self-serving verities of our own making. As regards the Griffiths affair, then, rather too much attention has been lavished on the dramatis personae involved: a sharp-tongued scholar of eminence; a small clique of colleagues willing to manipulate institutional mechanisms (e.g., Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity) to impugn the professional and moral persona of those with whom they disagree, rather than engaging in robust and open exchange about the issues at hand; a dean conspicuously bereft of the impartiality and discernment that could have brought to a quick and amicable resolution what began as a minor, garden-variety academic spat.

Meanwhile, as regards the multiple casualties that have resulted from the entire affair, the one least lamented, though most troubling, is a collective failure to seek and achieve clarity on the issue of diversity, which continues to vex and divide institutions of higher education across the country. In their misplaced zeal, Paul Griffiths’ opponents failed to see that he had not, in fact, rejected that concept at all. He had merely raised very pointed questions as to whether a workshop run by an extramural organization, OAR, that was urged upon all faculty in semi-mandatory language, could credibly be expected to advance the causes of social justice and diversity. That a substantive debate over the meaning of diversity was once again preempted by facile recrimination and attempts at sanctioning individual voices is a grave loss to us all. For as long as its contents are allowed to remain oblique, the concept of “diversity,” will continue to divide American academic and civic life.

Surely, it is equally pointless (if not outright disingenuous) to profess oneself for or against diversity (or social justice) when that concept’s meaning remains as woefully unspecified as has long been the case. Indeed, one has reason to suspect that the moral certitude and normative force with which the concept of “diversity” keeps being deployed in public speech, especially in contemporary academia, often capitalizes on this very lack of definition. If there is any hope of resuscitating our faltering culture of rational dialogue—arguably a preeminent task for, and prima facie justification of, higher education itself—then concepts such as diversity must be reasoned through in good-faith dialogue by all civic-minded members in our various polities.

Unfortunately, that dialogue remains more elusive than ever. Instead, for quite some time now, the word “diversity” has served two distinct and equally problematic purposes: the magical and the litigious. Some university administrators, particularly those less loyal to the job they have than to the one they covet next, have embraced “diversity” as a professional talisman of sorts, a term that, if wielded frequently and with conspicuous reverence, will magically unlock doors higher up on the professional ladder. Conversely, to faculty members craving moral ascendancy over colleagues whose superior achievements they may regard with a mix of dread, inadequacy and envy, there is no more powerful weapon than to charge the target of their ressentiment with opposition to diversity, which in the present order of opportune allegations ranks just below that of the child molester. To put it in Platonic terms, contemporary academia has been mirroring our country’s deteriorating civic discourse by supplanting knowledge with opinion, and by weaponizing our opinions, rather than understanding them as something for which we bear great responsibility.

The hard and often vexing civic task of rational, painstaking dialogue whereby we seek to account for our moral preconceptions by making them intelligible to others has yielded to the facile and often devastating contrivance of moral (and very public) indictment. At this stage, it is hard to see how we might yet exit the cave of divisive opinion and self-confirming narratives. How, that is, can we rebuild conceptual and ethical foundations for the various communities (familial, political, academic) in which we daily participate? Not coincidentally, the concept of “diversity” nicely exemplifies the difficulties involved, as the following short analogy may help illustrate. Suppose that, at the end of my annual physical exam, my experienced family physician informs me that some biochemical processes in my body are imbalanced, say, an unwelcome cocktail of bad cholesterol, vitamin D deficiency, and surging triglycerides. Now, at this point in the conversation, I should expect my doctor to provide me, in addition to a gently inflated bill, with at least three bits of practical information: 1) A specific numerical value to be aimed for in the attempt to remedy the problem; 2) a series of precisely defined practical steps to achieve that outcome; and 3) a clear explanation of why the numerical values now being aimed at ought to be accepted as normative (i.e., “healthy.”) Once these three criteria have been established, yet only then, can I be confident that the remedial action proposed is rational, intelligible, and achievable. Now, provided one accepts the fundamental analogy between a balanced physical health and a healthily diverse body politic, it appears that in the current conversation about diversity two of the above criteria have been missing or, at the very least, have not been clearly articulated.

Take the case of diversity in faculty hiring or undergraduate admissions at a major university. What, we should like to know, would be the point at which we could confidently and credibly claim to have actually achieved “diversity”? Naturally, for that question to be answered, some explicit and agreed-upon definition of “diversity” will have to be established, including specific criteria concerning the kinds of hires deemed to add to the goal of “diversity.” While this much may appear obvious, it is in fact anything but. For to define diversity as a concrete and attainable good presupposes an anterior, normative conception of a healthy body politic that, preferably by a wide consensus, will be regarded as appropriately diversified. Absent some guiding norm of this sort, the idea of “diversity” will remain but a function of shifting opinion and emotively charged argument, altogether bereft of clear and distinct meaning. For our shared institutional spaces to prove genuinely habitable and rational, rather than utopian and repressive, we must continually strive to make explicit not only the goal being aimed at but also the underlying, normative conception that justifies that goal as an intrinsic good.

To be sure, American higher education is awash in task forces and ad-hoc committees tasked with developing strategies related to the goal of diversity. Virtually without exception, though, such efforts shed little or no light on the concept of diversity itself, wherein it consists, how it can be attained, and what overarching good it serves. Instead of advancing collective understanding, such initiatives usually expire in public and increasingly formulaic affirmations of a given institution’s commitment to diversity. Indeed, it is virtually unheard of for a major university to commit to a substantive definition of diversity, let alone to make explicit the normative grounds on which such a definition rests. To make matters worse, it is typically only in the wake of some public-relations crisis or the other that institutions of higher learning are galvanized into affirming their “unwavering” commitment to diversity, which they will typically do in hurried press releases and mass emails whose generic language reflects less a core of earnest conviction than a desperate attempt to get ahead of the latest unflattering news story. Meanwhile, in a society such as ours, addled by a frightful and persistent legacy of segregation and victimization of many ethnic, religious, and sexual sub-groups, the concept of diversity is widely felt to hold enormous importance. And yet, it remains fundamentally an enigma, a function of impassioned conjecture rather than shared understanding.

For this current, harmful impasse to be overcome, a genuinely searching and long-term public debate is needed that, at least in its initial phase, will need to be guided by some fundamental questions. While these questions apply to any variety of contexts (e.g., selecting a new class of undergraduates; inviting guest speakers; choosing texts for the next syllabus), they are here phrased in the context of “faculty diversity,” a notion strenuously affirmed in today’s academia:

1) Is the notion of “diversity” to be understood as a mimetic or compensatory endeavor? That is, is the notion of “diversity” that is being aimed at supposed to replicate among faculty the current demographic breakdown of our country as a whole? Or is the objective to compensate for the extreme dominance of a certain type of faculty—white, Caucasian, male, and (putatively) heterosexual—as it undeniably prevailed well into the 1990s at many institutions of higher learning?

2) Supposing, then, that higher education understands itself to be committed to a mimetic conception of diversity, then what is to serve as our point of reference? Is diversity, as currently affirmed by institutions of higher education, to be modeled on the overall demographic breakdown of the population in the United States—say, as captured by the most recent national census? Or is the university’s conception of diversity aimed at some other norm of proportionate representation of minorities, say, one prevalent in academia as a whole or as endemic to specific disciplines?

3) Conversely, if the goal of diversity is compensatory, i.e., seeks to make up for past social injustices and the demographic disequilibrium they have produced, then here too we must be explicit about the point of reference that is to guide our remedial efforts. Is the objective to compensate for a historical lack of diversity that for many decades prevailed inside the academy? And, if so, is diversity pursued under that principle to amount to a retroactive balancing of sorts, an open-ended institutional “reparation” for past injustices and inequities? Here it ought to be kept in mind that, to cast the matter in sacramental terms, there can be no atonement without forgiveness. Hence, if diversity is understood as compensation, then not only must past wrongs in this regard be clearly identified, but any institutional acknowledgment of past injustice must also be met by, and conclude with, an act of comprehensive forgiveness. Otherwise, institutions would remain forever caught up in a downward spiral of moral recrimination and self-abasement, respectively.

4) Assuming that these questions can be openly deliberated and satisfactorily answered (which in the present climate is to assume a great deal indeed), more intractable issues yet will arise. For regardless of whether the modern research university opts for a mimetic or compensatory approach to diversity, it is by definition an inherently selective, elite institution. Thus, one must wonder whether institutions of higher education can balance their highly selective practices of faculty recruitment—practices directly related to the goal of the university as such, viz., advancing knowledge—with a demographically representative notion of “diversity” such as it exists outside of academia?

5) Finally, we should ask why currently prevailing assumptions and practices concerning “diversity” are conceived in such peculiarly narrow, not to say non-diverse ways. We know that empirical demographic studies, including the national census conducted by the U.S. government every decade or so, rely on many categories and descriptors and, consequently, yield a far more inflected and robust conception of our society’s diverse composition. That being so, what justifies higher education’s conception of “faculty diversity” being mainly restricted to the categories of race and gender? Leaving aside logistical difficulties, to which one may certainly be sympathetic, why exclude any number of other descriptors from our conception of diversity, such as social class, ethnic background, veteran status, political views, religious belief, childhood trauma, aesthetic preferences, dietary philosophy, dance and gardening skills, past struggles with mental disability, etc.? With its metonymic progression from the superficially plausible to the wholly absurd, this laundry list will surely strike any rational reader as facetious and absurd. That, of course, is the point. For it reminds us that any concept (including that of diversity) can only ever signify within specific limits and, more importantly, that in our attempts to discern those limits we must necessarily appeal to a higher norm than the one contained in the concept under discussion. Yet precisely this is what prevailing notions of diversity stubbornly fail to recognize. The underlying problem here is that even as the concept of diversity serves manifestly normative (moral) purposes, it does so in an environment—that of contemporary, liberal-secular academia—characterized by fierce, indeed irrational resistance to all forms of normativity. Yet where normative assumptions shape moral claims and administrative decisions, even as normativity is routinely disavowed and disparaged as so much metaphysical backwardness, the result is not rational thought but idolatry. Ultimately, it is this destructive habit of equivocation, whereby moral claims are routinely advanced and enforced even as their normative foundations are never allowed to come into focus, that prevents us from understanding and prioritizing those hyper-goods (to borrow Charles Taylor’s term) absent which a just and humane community cannot even be pursued, let alone be realized. The present generation of faculty, administrators, and public figures must resist the temptation of catechizing the next generation into idolatrous worship of empty notions while consistently disparaging or proscribing all normative commitments. Otherwise, modern academia will end up vitiating its core values of research and teaching, reflection and dialogue, values that today no less than in Plato’s Athens or thirteenth-century Paris remain the foundation any authentic intellectual community.

Thomas Pfau is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English at Duke University and a member of the Duke Divinity School faculty.