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Self-Selection is Diversity’s Natural Predator

August 16th, 2019 by dk

Last week’s decision to appoint Jim Torrey to the Eugene School Board reminded me of an implicit promise I made to readers ten years ago. After engineering a little social experiment, I wrote a 2009 column about the experiment and pledged to update readers on its long-term effects.

We say we want diversity on our boards and in our clubs, but there’s another force that works against it. Self-selection is diversity’s natural predator.

Here’s how I described it a decade ago. “Like sad replicas of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, a hidden force kicks the hat [of diversity] away from us, just as we’re about to reach it, over and over. We reach for the hat of greater diversity with all the best intentions, but just as it’s almost within our grasp, our own comforting foot of [self-selection] kicks it away. That only increases our resolve, which starts the cycle again.”

Even though Torrey lost his re-election, and other qualified candidates were available, the four returning board members overruled the two new members and chose Torrey to fill a vacant seat. His experience and their familiarity outweighed other factors.

Ten years ago, I led the Round Table Club of Eugene to remove self-selection from its membership recruitment process. We invited new members who were vetted by the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce or by the University of Oregon’s Tenure Review Committee. We welcomed a dozen new members without knowing them personally. So, how did that work out for the club?

I can’t speak for the club itself, but here’s what I’ve observed. The long-term effects have been mixed. A few members quit on the spot, resenting the idea that current members may not be most qualified to choose future members. Several others drifted away slowly, possibly because the club felt less comfortable — less “clubby.”

One year later, the club decided not to repeat the experiment, returning to the old way of doing things. A handful of that unusual membership class became active members. Some rose to leadership positions.

Cohesion inside the group seems to have waned, but it’s impossible to identify a single cause. Everyone’s life is busier now. We’re more tethered to our phones for more hours each day. We’ve all gotten older.

The club’s new leaders have accelerated a different trend, at least to my eye. History and tradition — important elements to a club formed in 1912 — are less a constraint now. Those who instituted those traditions were no longer solely responsible for the new members’ inclusion. Original intent behind each tradition is available in the archives, but not deemed dispositive.

Diversity accelerates adaptation, once self-selection has been removed. Allegiance to one another and to those who came before occurs less naturally, and so less often. History has less sway on the future. Nothing seems quite as comfortable, but that might be my nostalgia speaking.

If our experiment is relevant to the Eugene School Board, returning Torrey to their ranks by self-selection may increase cohesion but inhibit change. Keeping things comfortable will naturally also keep things the same.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at Kahle’s earlier column on the topic is here:

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