University of Wisconsin emeritus professor W. Lee Hansen
University of Wisconsin emeritus professor W. Lee Hansen

“Many American colleges and universities are in the thrall of ‘diversity,’ but none more so than my institution, the University of Wisconsin” (UW).  These are the words of Lee Hansen, who for 20 years has led a lonely fight against what he sees as the folly of the UW’s “diversity” policies.

Hansen is not a conservative culture warrior.  A soft-spoken emeritus professor, Lee Hansen is a renowned labor economist and careful scholar.  He is also a devoted teacher who won numerous teaching awards during his career and continues to develop instructional and evaluation tools for economics courses.  In fact, it is Hansen’s dedication to the university’s teaching mission and maintaining academic integrity that motivates his efforts against diversity programs he believes undermine academic standards and stigmatize achievement.

His most recent work demonstrates the dangers of the diversity mindset, which emphasizes “egalitarian groupthink” at the expense of academic excellence.  In July 2014 essay for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Hansen revealed that UW wants to eliminate differences in the distribution of grades across racial groups.  This article led to an immediate, defensive response from the University’s Chief Diversity Officer, who issued a press release claiming the university’s diversity plan did not include “a quota system for apportioning grades by race.”

On December 17, the Pope Center published a follow-up piece by Professor Hansen that demonstrates how UW policies discourage impartial grading if doing so leads to racial disparities in grades. Although the university never officially calls for or uses the word “quota,” the pressures created by its policy directives will nevertheless move grades in that direction.

The UW took a significant step toward mandating what Hansen calls “egalitarian grading” in 2008.  In that year, the university told faculty how the shares of D, F, and dropped grades varied by gender and for first-generation and targeted minority college students.  Hansen says this breakdown “sent a message to the faculty that they’d better pay close attention to low grades for students in certain groups.”

In 2009, UW established an “Inclusive Excellence Framework” that discussed racial grade disparities more directly. This framework endeavored to create “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution … and in the distribution of grades.”

This was followed up later in the year by a study of grades awarded in five introductory courses. The study found the courses displayed “sharp disparities by race. In all courses targeted minority students achieve lower grades than non-targeted students at similar preparation levels. In each course, targeted minority students receive more of the low grades and fewer of the high grades.”

The departments associated with the five courses (Chemistry, Communication Arts, English, Mathematics, and Psychology) were told to implement plans to “eliminate racial gaps by 2014.” It was recommended that racial gaps be eliminated by discovering “pedagogical strategies that reach targeted and non-targeted students with equal effectiveness,” while also deploying “proactive multicultural competence” to enhance minority learning.

In 2014, UW issued a “Framework for Diversity of Inclusive Excellence,” strengthening efforts to eliminate racial gaps. Recommendation 1.5 explicitly calls for a “reduction in the achievement gap” across races, which UW is already attempting to implement. A Fall 2014 retreat explored a variety of practices designed to address “adverse academic outcomes,” or racial gaps in grades in the designated courses.

As Prof. Hansen notes, the University’s emphasis on “pedagogical strategies” to eliminate grade disparities is utopian. There’s no reason to believe minority students learn basic chemistry or mathematics in a different way than white or Asian students (a non-targeted minority group). Nonetheless, a variety of university edicts and polices are putting instructors under pressure to show the desired results. If teachers can’t find ways to raise the performance of their minority students, they can satisfy university administrators simply by adjusting grades so that racial gaps are eliminated.

In such instances, instructors will be able to claim that the “improved” results stem from more effective pedagogy. It is nearly impossible to challenge such a claim, and officials will be loath to do so in any case, because the outcomes fulfill the university’s objectives.

UW’s diversity policies may be well-intentioned, but it’s difficult to imagine a more profound distortion of the university’s mission than awarding grades based on race. Grading on a racial curve requires applying unequal standards to individual students in order to achieve more “equitable” measured performance outcomes across student groups.

This is not only grossly unfair; in the long run it does not even help targeted minority students. It is difficult, however, to see how administrators’ continued, intensifying demands to eliminate racial grading disparities will not inevitably lead teachers to adjust grades in order to remove the gaps.

Prof. Hansen argues that “UW-Madison is going through all these contortions because the administration can’t or won’t acknowledge a simple fact: some groups of admitted students are significantly less well prepared for college work.” College grade disparities reveal problems with K-12 educational systems and differences in the effectiveness of primary and secondary schools in preparing their students for higher education. Addressing this problem requires more effective K-12 education, particularly reforms that increase the range of educational options available to minority and disadvantaged students, not artificially inflating grades to boost the self-esteem of ill-prepared students.