Below is my column in Tthe Hill Newspaper on the recent proposal by a diversity panel appointed by Mayor Bill De Blasio to eliminate much of the Gifted and Talented programs in the school system. It is part of a broader trend of achieving equality by eliminating opportunities or recognitions.
Here is the column:
Democratic presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio may have a new claim for the campaign trail. He has been challenged to list his accomplishments, particularly after reports came out this week that the number of people leaving New York City has doubled in the last year. However, he might rightfully claim that he wiped out racial disparity in the gifted and talented programs in New York City. De Blasio gave the problem to his school diversity advisory group two years ago, which just came back with a simple solution to eliminate the gifted and talented programs in most schools and poof! You will have racial equality.
Despite more than one million students, the group apparently decided that decades of efforts to achieve diversity in these programs have failed. Black and Latino students make up 65 percent of the kindergarten population of New York City public schools but only 18 percent of the students were offered slots in gifted and talented programs. On the high school level, the disparity is even greater. At the most competitive of its eight elite high schools, only seven of the 895 qualifying students were black. Some 587 were Asian, 194 were white, 45 were unspecified, 33 were Latino, 20 were multiracial, and nine were Native American.
Notably, the termination of the gifted and talented programs would not include those high schools. To most people, such solutions smack of their own form of discrimination. Those white and Asian students still have a great need for such programs, as do those nearly 20 percent of minority students. This achieves equality only by cleaving off the top of academic programs. De Blasio is not alone in achieving inclusion through exclusion. Indeed, even the sight of top intellectuals can prove too much for some.
A few years ago, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow went to Rockefeller University in New York City to bestow an award for women scientists. Maddow apparently saw an alarming sight, a wall covered with alumni winners of the Nobel Prize and the Lasker Award, intellectual giants of science like Francis Peyton Rous, who discovered the role of viruses in the transmission of certain cancers. The problem was that they were all white men, and Maddow reportedly exclaimed, “What is up with the dude wall?”
The “dude wall” is now gone. As Dr. Leslie Vosshall, a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has explained, “100 percent of them are men. It is probably 30 headshots of 30 men. So it is imposing. I think every institution needs to go out into the hallway and ask, what kind of message are we sending?”
For most of us, the obvious message is that these individuals achieved the highest honors in their fields, and the significance is neither their race nor their gender but their intellect. But Vosshall said the sight of so many white men has bothered her for years, and she was part of a committee that removed the portraits. For its part, Rockefeller University insists it did not “remove” but “redesigned” for greater “inclusion.” It claims that there was no more room on the “dude wall,” so it created a photo display allowing for a more inclusive group of winners of various prizes.
Rockefeller University is not alone in this endeavor. Dr. Betsy Nabel, the president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School, decided to sanitize the Bornstein Amphitheater of white men. Nabel declared that all the portraits of the leading figures at Brigham and Women’s Hospital made minority students uncomfortable and ordered their removal. Those portraits included Dr. Harvey Cushing, the father of neurosurgery, and the first chief of pathology, Dr. William Councilman.
At Yale University, Pierson College head Stephen Davis removed all of the portraits of school “masters” because they happened to be white men and declared that the wall would remain blank so that “everyone has a sense of belonging and ownership.” He reversed his decision following a public backlash against this action and insisted that he was misunderstood in his effort to allow a broader dialogue on race and diversity in academia.
There is more to this issue than simple interior decorating. In academia, we honor intellectual advances and measure those without reference to race or gender. All those portraits represent the greatest among us as intellectuals. To see only their race and gender is not just backlash against intellectual achievement but can be itself a form of racial and gender bias. This brings us back to the New York City diversity group. Somewhere in the public school system there is the next Rous or Cushing. The question is whether that child will have a chance to excel without administrators fretting about his or her race or how it looks for the local politicians.
The problem is that highly gifted students need to be able to progress at a faster pace with more challenging material. Otherwise, they can become bored and even regress in their development. For teachers, one of the most difficult challenges is dealing with overcrowded classrooms in which students learn at different paces. The result is often having to teach the majority of the class and leaving those at the top to educate themselves or just drift along. That is why we have gifted and talented programs.
With this change, all students may fare worse. Gifted students are likely to push down the scores and rankings of other students. Currently, students in other programs can still excel and achieve high class rankings to seek college positions. Many emerge, at their own pace, as top students at elite universities. Now, however, these students are likely to find themselves less competitive. Alternatively, some gifted students may simply leave, and calls for vouchers may increase. This will achieve the desegregation interests of the panel by reducing the diversity of the system overall.
Whether it is removing programs or portraits, these efforts are based on a twisted sense of equality. Rather than look at students as individuals with special talents, these educators want to end their programs because of their race. Rather than look at Nobel Prize winners as the geniuses who helped to shape and advance our knowledge of the world, they are seen as irredeemably white or Asian or male. It appears some would prefer a blank wall or an empty building as the ultimate expression of equality.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.