As the University of Nebraska makes strides for diversity, a Nebraska State senator sparked debate when he suggested the addition of a diversity director would put white men at a disadvantage by favoring minorities.
In a letter to constituents posted on the Nebraska legislature website last month, state senator Steve Erdman said the culture at NU would suffer if the university hires a diversity director — a common position at colleges around the country, but a first in the school’s history. Erdman, a Republican, said that introducing this position would lead to under-qualified minority candidates being hired in fields “most dominated by White professors" and create a hostile environment for those who don’t share the “extremist progressive worldview.”
"While nobody I know advocates for racial, gender or sexual orientation discrimination, we should still ask why NU needs a Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, if not to impose favoritism upon these groups,” Erdman wrote.
Erdman’s comments come at a tense moment for diversity in higher education, after the Trump administration revoked federal guidance last month on affirmative action from the Obama era, arguing the previous administration had gone too far in promoting racial diversity in college admissions. Last fall, minorities made up roughly 14 percent of the University of Nebraska’s student body, according to statistics on the school’s website.
In a statement provided to The Post, NU President Hank Bounds worried about the consequences of Erdman’s letter.
“I was shocked and deeply saddened when I read the column,” Bounds said in the statement. "For any elected official to champion these kinds of dangerous views only serves to damage our great state and our ability to recruit and retain the top talent that will grow Nebraska for the future.”
Some of Erdman’s colleagues share Bounds’s concerns. In a letter to the editor published in the Lincoln Journal-Star, Democratic state senators Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld applauded NU for creating the position, saying it would be important move for the state’s economy, which needs to attract young talent.
"Young professionals consistently prioritize diversity and inclusion when choosing a place to live,” the letter read. “Don’t take it from us; take it from young professionals who, in a recent study by the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, listed diversity and inclusion as a critically important priority.”
Erdman, a former farmer who also sells real estate, represents a district of nearly 36,000 people — 91 percent of whom are white, according to Ballotpedia. He said that about 90 percent of all feedback from his constituents has been positive. Like him, they think conservatives are treated unfairly on college campuses and that the focus on diversity contradicts American values.
“We’re teaching young people multi-culturalism when we should be teaching American culture.” Erdman said. “I have black friends and I have Hispanic friends, but I don’t look at them as black and Hispanic, I look at them as American.”
Dozens of studies in higher education have shown that more diversity benefits all students, not just minorities, according to Edna Chun, chief learning officer at Higher Ed Talent.
“Diversity and quality are not separate. They’re synonymous,” Chun said. “There’s often a perception that it’s only about race and it isn’t. It’s about how every aspect of diversity that can help students work with people that are different from themselves."
Positions like the one NU is creating have been standard at colleges and universities for years, according to Chun, who consults with institutions around the country on diversity initiatives. In 2012, the American Council on Education published a letter outlining how diversity strengthens communities and makes U.S. students more competitive. It explained that without intentional efforts by schools, these opportunities won’t be available to students who need them.
“Some schools have experienced precipitous declines in the enrollment of students from underrepresented minority groups,” the letter read, "reversing decades of progress in the effort to ensure that all groups in American society have an equal opportunity for access to higher education.”
But Erdman, in his letter, criticized the university for adding a “six-figure-salaried” position for diversity while complaining about a lack of state funding and said it would create a culture that puts the needs of the few over the needs of the many. He also said it would cause faculty positions to go to unqualified minority candidates over qualified white ones and would make it so “every word spoken by White Christian conservative males at the school will be excruciatingly scrutinized."
Kwame Dawes, chairman of the search committee for the position and an English professor at NU, said he respected Erdman’s concerns about the position’s effects, but that he personally didn’t think they were realistic.
“I think he’s constructed his own ideas of what the position is,” Dawes said. “Those scenarios that he created have nothing to with it.”