When Diversity Challenges Excellence and Efficiency

multi colored pen lot on black background

The pressure to sideline technical, discipline-specific expertise for the sake of diversity continues to mount.  The latest is the demand that orchestras stop using blind auditions, which require musicians to play behind a screen so that judges cannot see their gender or race but only hear them play.  By the usual measures, it has been a huge success for women and Asians, who previously were hard to spot in the orchestra pit but now are found in every section. The complaint, however, is that this hasn’t help African Americans in particular, so the suggested solution is to drop blind auditions and insist that orchestras hire a certain percentage of African Americans.

The core issue at play can be seen in many fields.  Even math, the most objective and rational of disciplines, has been called racist or “white math” (see here and here).  We’re seeing a push to challenge the very idea of excellence in many fields, or at supplant it with the ideal of diversity.

The Rise of Excellence

Our criteria of excellence is in large measure a product of the Enlightenment and the growth of science, rationalism, and specialization in all the disciplines.  Each profession and field has unique skills one must master to acquire proficiency in that field:  teaching, business, coaching, television, medicine, aeronautics, music, and so forth. And one reason many African American activists are frustrated with America is because blacks are not well-represented in many of these arenas.  The argument often made is that the criteria of excellence have been created by the white majority, which have consciously or inadvertently sidelined African Americans.

I must say that although I am instinctively biased toward such traditional criteria of excellence, as a Christian, I admit that technical excellence in many instances should be subordinate to other values, in particular love of neighbor.  I have a friend who has fought to retain an elderly secretary in his department, despite her many inefficiencies and increasing inattention to detail.  Colleagues argue that she her weaknesses are preventing excellence in their work.  On the ground of efficiency—a high, high value in an Enlightenment world view, not to mention capitalistic economics—she should be replaced.  On humane criteria—that she has given 20-plus years of faithful service and will retire in a few years—she should be retained.  I think my friend has it right: there are times when love trumps excellence and efficiency in an organization.

And this is why I’m open to arguments that there is something more important than technical or discipline-specific excellence in any given field. I can especially appreciate the argument in the field of journalism, which is the only one in which I have first-hand knowledge.  I’m not convinced the dynamics I’m about to outline are inherently racist as much as economic and cultural—especially that demand for efficiency and excellence–but the phenomenon certainly has racial consequences, nonetheless.

How It Worked at CT

When I was managing editor and then editor in chief at Christianity Today, I was responsible for the hiring of staff, even if subordinates did much or all of the leg work leading up to applications and final interviews.  Though we asked African American, Hispanic, and Asian friends to recommend candidates, they rarely did (one African-American journalist actually recommended only white candidates!). Even though the job openings were publicized broadly, very few minority candidates applied. And when they did, we rarely hired them.

When a minority candidate did apply, we found in most instances they did not have the journalistic skill set that we prized.  Our mistake, in retrospect, was that we valued journalistic excellence and efficiency more than anything else.

As I wrestled with this problem, I slowly realized that we were not as pure as we imagined. CT has very high journalistic expectations of its writers.  Anyone who has written for CT knows what a pain CT is to work with.  That’s partly due the demands CT makes on writers (we’ll ignore the less noble reasons for now).

However, if some venerable evangelical leader, usually with a broad network, wanted to say something in the magazine and yet wasn’t a good writer, we welcomed him or her with open arms nonetheless.  We did this whether the leader in question was white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or whatever. And we worked with this leader—and sometimes it took lots of work–to make the piece publishable, if not excellent journalistically.  Why?  Because we valued the network or perspective this person represented, that is, we wanted to be seen as a magazine that was interested in that network or who included those who held that opinion.  In other words, having a strong network or having a certain life experience or having a unique perspective trumped journalistic excellence, as such, in those cases.

When it came to hiring staff, we were more consistent. None of those things were considered nearly as valuable as the ability to report and write and edit English prose of a certain journalistic style–that used by many of the elite publications of America.  And we expected them to be efficient at doing this—”excellence on demand” is how one editor put it.  Make no mistake, these are valuable skills, and when in the hands of talented journalists, it makes the world a better place.  So we never hired anyone of any ethic group or demographic—including white leaders—if they didn’t show journalistic excellence. To be frank, it was often due to economic pressures: we believed we could not afford to take the time or trouble to spend months training them journalistically—we had a magazine to get out, both monthly and daily. So we wanted talented people who could hit their keyboards running.

Does this mean that there really are not highly qualified minority journalist candidates?  Of course not. To take examples just from the African American community, note the number of superior journalists and writers at major media today–Eugene Robinson (Washington Post), Thomas Sowell (academic), Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune), Ta Nehisi Coates (writer), just to begin with. But for various reasons too complex to go into, talented African American journalists have usually had little interest in applying to CT (fortunately there have been some stellar exceptions).

I suspect this phenomenon can be found in many disciplines and fields, and it is often economic pressures for “excellence on demand” that make organizations so impatient in their hiring.  It’s the rare organization that will set aside a few spots for people they will patiently train up.  And yet it’s also the rare organization that doesn’t have a “good-old-boy network” that it looks to from time to time. One can understand the charges of hypocrisy when an organization proclaims its pure pursuit of excellence while making exceptions for its preferred demographic.

Ongoing Tension of Values

So, as the examples of music and math suggest, some in the U.S. now argue that the traditional criteria of excellence in many fields needs to be bracketed immediately for the sake of diversity, or one might say, to pursue excellence in diversity.  As I said, I recognize that humane values must sometimes trump excellence and efficiency, no matter the dictates of the economy—so I get it.

Fortunately, we’ve already made diversity a crucial criterion in many fields, certainly in television, movies, and the stage. Excellence now often demands that no visual production can be considered so if its cast is not diverse—even if the production is set in a historical period when only whites played significant roles. Thus the genius of the musical Hamilton, whose cast is a perfect example of this trend, in which black actors play key white leaders during America’s founding era.

The question now is: how many other fields should diversity be the reigning criteria?  Classical music?  Math? I could see an argument for the first (though I would finally demur), but not at all not for the second.  For journalism, yes, but not for medicine.  And so forth.  But the issue is not the mindless junking of excellence—as some conservative minds see it.  And race as such is not  the only issue at play, as some liberals would have it. There is something deep within us that respects Enlightenment assumptions as true and good, and something there that longs for human values to check the brutal coarseness of our excellent efficiencies and to name our hypocrisies. In short, we have two goods fighting with one another, which is why this debate will not be settled anytime soon.

[Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash]



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12 Responses to When Diversity Challenges Excellence and Efficiency

  1. Charles Robinson says:

    3 Thoughts: (1) How would I feel as a person of color knowing I got hired for a position in a technical/artistic field while more qualified people were turned away simply because of my color? (2) Certain fields – and one could argue which ones – require the most qualified, regardless of race or color. I do not want anyone operating on my heart who is not a highly qualified surgeon. (3) In order to make any of this fair and equal, everything must begin at the level of education and opportunity. If we are giving all people the same training and opportunity, then maybe the whole issue of race or color becomes moot.

    • markgalli says:

      One thing I was suggesting is that diversity is a type of excellence. In fact, most editors hired have deficiencies in one area or another, and they need to be trained up in those. I would assume if I were hired because I brought a certain perspective and life experience (like being in the military, or from accomplishments in sports, or being black or hispanic, or whatever), that’d I’d be proud of that and would want to contribute that, all the while being willing to be trained in areas in which I was less proficient. In the context of journalism, diversity is a type of excellence IF the person recognizes the unique value they bring AND can communicate that in writing at some level. Not everyone who comes from a diverse background has those two additional skills. So I’m not talking about someone who knows nothing about writing our journalism.

      Second, I fully agree that education is the long-term solution to many of our inequities, but I think this is an interim solution while education–a decades long effort–begins to bear more fruit.

      These are great comments, so thanks Charles!

  2. Karen Lee-Thorp says:

    Mark, I think the values tension you set up between technical excellence and the value of diverse voices in journalism is helpful as a starting point for thinking about this subject. I also agree that getting rid of screened auditions in music is a bad idea, and a better idea is to provide resources for training and mentoring young African American classical musicians. I have a few additional thoughts on the subject.

    First, I have read accomplished Black doctors (and White ones confirming their observations) talk about the pervasive racism they experienced in medical school, residency, and job searches. To hear them tell it, while better early education for African Americans in math and science would be extremely helpful, it is not the case that Black medical students do not perform as excellently as White ones. They have been patronized and dismissed even when they were hitting measurable metrics as well as their White counterparts. Similarly, there are organizations devoted to mentoring Black business people and Black economists, to close the excellence gap and eliminate the defense that “we just couldn’t find any qualified applicants,” and yet the leaders of those organizations still speak of how hard it is to get their people onto corporate boards or into jobs at the Federal Reserve or universities. I heard a Black female economist talk about the 13 years it took her to get a paper published about the nationwide economic effects of the destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” because White economic journal editors didn’t have the historical knowledge background to understand what she was talking about. When the article did finally get published, it was lauded as groundbreaking. Female biologists were dismissed in their fields for decades. So I believe that the perception of excellence can be colored by bias of which the journal editor or the hiring person is unaware.

    I spent much of my career at an evangelical book publishing house. We struggled to find and hire editors of color. I believe part of the difficulty of finding applicants was the accurate perception that our readers were largely White and our management team was completely White. It may have been worth the effort for a Black editor to push to get a job at a major New York publisher, but our house was perhaps not such a huge prize that someone would want the endless hassle of being the one Black editor trying to expand our readership. Baratunde Thurston writes eloquently about the hassle of being “The Black Employee” in his book, How to Be Black.

    I greatly appreciate the articles and perspectives you bring forward. This is a subject Christians need to keep exploring.

    • markgalli says:

      Karen, thanks for the thoughtful comments. Indeed racism does play a role in all this, as noted in your comment. Can’t disagree. Just looking for other things than might be at play. But racism is certainly a factor!

  3. Thomas Harkins says:

    This is very thought provoking. I do agree that efficiency is not everything, and instead “humanity” is a important consideration in how we deal with other people. However, as you also note, sometimes competency is very important (such as with medicine). So it is necessary to be circumspect when it comes to “promoting” people solely on the basis of race. For the most part, I believe we really have to “start at the bottom and work up.” In other words, education. We need to make sure everyone has a ‘fair shot” at being trained properly to advance in whatever endeavors they may wish to pursue. Once that is done, though, it strikes me that it may itself be “condescending” to say someone must be hired on the basis of their race.

    • markgalli says:

      Training is certainly key in the long run. As the need to avoid condescension. But if diversity is it’s own kind of excellence, this might help us redefine excellence in some instances.

  4. Bob Fryling says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and honest comments. As a former executive also responsible for hiring decisions, I appreciate and agree with the tensions you identify.
    Another complicating factor in the whole equation though, is the comparative educational opportunity by professional field.

    For instance for someone to excel in music performance they usually have to study at an expensive music school, own a high quality expensive instrument and pay for years of private lessons. They also probably needed to have a viable and inspiring music program in their K-12 schooling. Music excellence then is related to not only ability and dedication but to years of financial and educational resources which are proportionately more lacking for Black students.

    So what really has to change is not just how final auditions are done but by how beginning aspirations are seeded, nurtured and supported. But to get to that long range solution we probably need to broaden our standards of excellence beyond just technical competence and embrace an excellence of meaningful inclusion as well.

    • markgalli says:

      Couldn’t agree more, Bob. But that takes such a long time and requires cooperation at various levels among all sorts of people. It’s the best way to go about it in my view, but one wonders how possible it is. But there are visionaries who can make this sort of thing happen. –mark

  5. Dan says:

    Thoughtful, thought-provoking and balanced as always. Keep it up.

  6. Frederick Collins says:

    Regarding the old lady who has passed her prime to put it delicately, the problem in such cases is that you have ignored the element of at whose cost her inefficiencies must be accommodated. It is always at someone else’s cost. Even if the organisation is Christian-owned, the question still arises. If you are her manager and are forcing her supervisor to continue to accommodate her, then you are forcing the supervisor and perhaps the rest of the team to bear the cost. Of course, if you adjust the supervisor’s and other team members’ assessment for loss of performance due to her inefficiency, then they should not complain However, in my experience this does not happen. In other words, you are expressing your love at someone else’s expense. That cannot be fair.

    • markgalli says:

      Good point Frederick. I should have noted that the example comes from a Christian org, which one would hope would be willing to bear one another’s burdens. Alas, many don’t think that important.

      But it is more complicated in a secular org. Yet it is always true that to love someone, someone else pays a price. If I take the time to pick up a homeless man and take him to wherever, it might take me an hour or two. That is time I was going to spend with my children. So they are paying a price. Examples abound.

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