The Lost Art of Connecting Dots: Part Twelve

I read an article recently that scared the hell out of me. Published by Quillette, the article is entitled, “As US Schools Prioritize Diversity Over Merit, China Is Becoming the World’s STEM Leader”, written by Percy Deift, Svetlana Jitomirskaya, and Sergiu Klainerman. My first thought was, “That’s alarming.” My second thought was, “That’s arguably racist or, at the very least, discriminatory.” Both of those possibilities piqued my curiosity. So, I started reading.

The first stopped-in-my-tracks moment came when I read this paragraph, including the articles hyperlinked therein by Deift, Jitomirskaya, and Klainerman:

At many of our leading academic and research institutions … excellence is being supplanted by diversity as the determining factor for eligibility in regard to prizes and other distinctions. And some universities … are now implementing measures to evaluate candidates for faculty positions and promotions based not only on the quality of their research, teaching, and service, but also on their specifically articulated commitment to diversity metrics. Various institutions have even introduced pathways to tenure based on diversity activities alone … adherence to a politically favored ideology … can lead to the devaluation of entire academic fields.

I thought, “Well, that could indicate misplaced priorities. But I wonder if there are any concrete instances of the US lagging behind. As it turned out, 10 days after the Quillette article was published — on Sunday, August 29, 2021, to be precise — the CBS News program, 60 Minutes, aired this piece of hard evidence of the US decline in STEM. It turns out Intel is no longer inside. In fact, it’s on the outside looking in. That’s why Mark Liu, Chairman of Taiwan’s TSMC said this:

I think the US ought to pursue to run faster, to invest in R&D, to produce more Ph.D.s, Masters, Bachelor students to get into this manufacturing field instead of trying to move the supply chain, which is very costly and really non-productive.

And it’s also why Pat Gelsinger, CEO of Intel Corporation, is now looking for government bailouts, despite the fact that Intel is still a 78-billion-dollar company.

What Then?

At risk of my being labeled all manner of less-than-charitable things, let’s grant for the moment that Deift, Jitomirskaya, and Klainerman are correct. And let’s imagine that, while Intel’s taking its eye off the ball is responsible for its falling behind, programs that focus on all manner of diversity — rather than focusing on intellectual aptitude, academic merit, scholarly rigor, and scholastic achievement — may not be the best route to putting the US of A back in the competitive (let alone formerly world-beating) position it once enjoyed.

Is there a remedy for what Deift, Jitomirskaya, and Klainerman have observed? Yes. Does it require eliminating diversity as an objective? No. Does it require a common-sense departure from ideology in favor of adopting a more pragmatic and productive approach to education? Yes. Will that departure and adoption be easy? It depends on our objectives and our willingness forgo ideology and special interests in favor of academic, commercial, and economic advancement.

To be fair to Deift, Jitomirskaya, and Klainerman, they go on to write this in the same article:

American educators must return to a process of recruitment and promotion based on merit, at all levels of education and research—a step that will require a policy U-turn at the federal, state, and local levels (not to mention at universities, and at tech corporations that have sought to reinvent themselves as social-justice organizations). Instead of implementing divisive policies based on the premise of rooting out invisible forms of racism, or seeking to deconstruct the idea of merit in spurious ways, organizations should redirect their … DEI budgets toward more constructive goals, such as funding outreach programs, and even starting innovative new charter schools for underprivileged K-12 students … By doing so, they could demonstrate that it’s possible to help minority students succeed without sacrificing excellence.

If funding outreach programs, starting new charter schools for underprivileged students, and letting those students and their families take advantage of school vouchers provide more opportunities for more diverse populations of students to participate in schools, to get good educations, and to excel in the fields to which they’re suited by their own interests and inclinations, wouldn’t that be desirable? And if those substantive steps accomplish more than ticking off checkboxes, wouldn’t we want that? If not, why not? Who wouldn’t want that? Why wouldn’t they want it? (Hint: Follow the money.)

Broader Horizons

I credit my ability to think critically — or the honing of my ability to think clearly — to my liberal-arts education. It enabled me to find my way, my voice, my agency. There were other-than-English requirements to the curriculum of my English major, of course, including some classes in math and science. (Do I need to tell you I didn’t fare so well in those? The US certainly won’t restore its STEM credentials or its global STEM position on the merits of my work in math in science.)

Five years ago, I wrote this piece — “A Full Head of STEM” — in celebration of my liberal-arts education. I criticized STEM for its shortsightedness, for the fact that it doesn’t teach or encourage critical thinking. My simple point was that STEM is not a be-all and end-all. It certainly has its place in geo-economic standing and global competitiveness. But any program that neglects the arts is less than complete cognitively and educationally. Nevertheless, plucking that STEM from my craw didn’t make me feel any more settled about the seemingly negative effects of DEI on the decline of the US’s competitive standing in the world marketplace.

As I was mulling that over, I came across this manifestation of presumably unintended consequence of DEI — tokenization. This article on LinkedIn — “Leaders, don’t tokenize employees” — delivered this wake-up call:

Tokens of any kind are under enormous external and internal pressure to represent the entirety of a social group’s experience … don’t put your employees in this position. If you’re diversifying your company, its [sic] inevitable that you’ll have to hire your first fill-in-the-blank person … When they engage, let it be on their terms, not yours.

And this citation, from the comments that follow the article, added fuel to the fire:

Tokenistic approaches do more harm than good and sends the wrong message that the company/organization is already accessible/inclusive even if that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Both of those led me to take a step back, to view the situation from a little more distance, from another angle, and through a wider lens. Those differences in perspective led me to this question: What’s the objective of DEI?

Through the Looking Glass

Let’s start by accepting the proposition that at least one of the objectives of DEI is to create more opportunity for underrepresented people. Let’s accept the reality that every opportunity has a corresponding price. And let’s also accept the reality that while we can choose to be diverse and inclusive, we can’t choose to be equal. If we were all equal, I’d have aced my work in math in science — and my name would be mentioned alongside Albert Einstein’s.

Granting our acceptance of those three things, then, these questions occur to me:

  • What other objectives of DEI might there be?
  • What are the attendant prices of those objectives?
  • Are geo-economic standing and global competitiveness prices we might choose to pay, however unintended they may be?
  • Is tokenization a price we might choose to pay, however unintended it might be?

I don’t mean to suggest DEI — or any other program the objective of which is to give people opportunities to be seen and heard, to excel, to find and express their agency — is undesirable. Very few of us ever knowingly or deliberately undertake anything undesirable. (From that sweeping generalization, I make an exception for most politicians.) I do mean to suggest the things we undertake may have results or ramifications we didn’t think enough or critically enough about — or that we never could have seen coming. That’s why God invented the Law of Unintended Consequences.

I’m not in the Advice Business. But I do have two suggestions: (1) Let’s pump the brakes a little harder before we do things, especially if our compulsions to do them are emotional. (2) Let’s be willing to weigh the prices of the things we’ve done and to fix or pull the plugs on the things for which the prices have become too high.

The country, the people — all of us — and the resources we save might be our own.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Lots of food for thought here, Mark, and some really good questions.

    Personally, I have a problem with the formula DEI=Tokenism. My attitude is informed as having been one of 5 women in an IT department of around 50 people. Making people feel they belong so they can deliver their best work is real work, important work, and should be lauded and rewarded. In the past, some thought this happened automatically but it doesn’t. There is plenty of research to confirm that and I will be happy to dig up some.

    Hypothetically, if our “best” STEM professors had a record of always loosing their BIPOC students along the way, it might not be because the students were not up to snuff – it could be that they weren’t invited in. Can we as a country afford to not invite in 15-20% of the talent base? (And if you want to add the female half of the population that still is being harassed in many STEM laboratories and IT organizations, it is way more than 20% of the talent base.)

    I have no idea who do STEM in China or Asia in general, but even if they don’t invite 75% of their talents to the table, they still have more people to pick from than the US. We can’t afford NOT to educate everybody – and step one is to remove well known obstacles to learning.

    • Charlotte, I don’t know enough about DEI and tokenism to meaningfully understand the extent of the problem. I certainly agree these issues reflect problems in our eduction system. I also think rank ignorance hides under many guises — racism, homophobia, arbitrarily exclusionary practices of all kind. But if we’re checking off boxes without regard to aptitude or merit, we’re not doing anyone any favors, including those whose boxes we’ve checked.

      Thank you for joining the conversation.

  2. Thanks, Mark.
    Good balance and insight. I think we could all do with a healthy (and helpful) dose of skepticism about our own stuff (you know what George Carlin would substitute here). Instead of THE ANSWER, we can all explore possibilities and accept that just because I believe something does not ensure its benevolence. And I’m a big fan of ‘unforeseen consequences’ rather than ‘unintended consequences.”

    • Thank you so much, Julie. The only way I can retain my hopefulness is by believing everything is cyclical. It’s just a matter of having the patience to let The Big Wheel turn.

      I’m grateful to you for joining the conversation.