WASHINGTON. — In the current climate of political extremism on campuses, a small sensible decision made off campus can have enormous potential for good. In one such decision, the secretary of education, Lamar Alexander, has delayed renewing recognition of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools as an agency empowered to award to colleges and universities the accreditation on which federal aid depends. Mr. Alexander is alarmed by Middle States' attempts to impose its political agenda on schools by making accreditation contingent on schools complying with its ''diversity'' demands.
Middle States, a private organization, recently decreed, on the basis of no authority, and contrary to principles of academic freedom, that two institutions should be coerced into complying with what it deems ''appropriate'' racial, ethnic and sexual balances on their faculty and governing boards. Mr. Alexander warns that such diversity demands ''may undermine institutional autonomy and academic freedom and could in fact lessen variety among the nation's colleges and universities.''
''May''? ''Could''? His criticism is too delicate. Restricting institutional autonomy. Circumscribing individual freedom and imposing intellectual uniformity is the explicit political agenda of groups making diversity demands.
There is astonishing arrogance in a private organization asserting a right to make compliance with its political program a precondition for institutions to receive public funds. Robert Atwell, president of the American Council of Education, the principal lobby for colleges and universities, defends Middle States by saying ''diversity is a defensible ingredient to educational quality and thus defensible as an accreditation standard.'' Whatever we consider ''defensible'' we have a right to impose as public policy? Thus a private association's political preferences acquire the force of law.
Mr. Alexander says that when Middle States deferred accreditation of Baruch College of the City University of New York and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, ''apparently there was no question about the quality of education provided in these institutions.'' Actually, the secretary underestimates the perversity of what the diversity-enforcers are attempting.
The political poison is in the way they assert connections between diversity and educational quality. They say quality requires an academic quota system in hiring, and intellectual gerrymandering in curriculums.
Mr. Alexander says proper accrediting decisions pertain only to ''basic indicators of an institution's adequacy in providing training and education.'' But diversity-enforcers argue that educational adequacy depends on ''appropriate'' racial, ethnic and sexual balance. They justify that idea with reference to one or more of five related ideas:
First, hiring by race, sex, etc. is incompatible with a merit system, but in a racist, sexist, class-riven society such as America, meritocracy is merely a means of domination by members of the favored race, sex and class. Therefore a quota system in hiring is remedial ''fairness.''
Second, there is no common, unifying American culture. Or there is one but it is an instrument of oppression and any common culture must be oppressive until American racism, sexism, etc. are overthrown. Therefore the balkaniza- tion of academic life along lines of victimization either wisely reflects reality or heroically advances the revolution.
Third, ethnicity is destiny: American society's racial, sexual and ethnic victims necessarily produce scholarship distinctly ''authentic'' and self-ratifying and immune to criticism from outside the circle of victims. Thus it is rational to gerrymander academic life into intellectual enclaves corresponding to varieties of victimization.
Fourth, ethnicity is a moral choice: Western civilizations' ''phallocentrism'' is reinforced by sexist curriculums dominated by DWEMs -- dead white European males. Blacks, Hispanics, women, homosexuals and others should choose to derive their identities from their group's experience of oppression. Therefore they can best be taught by fellow victims who will sharpen their sense of victimhood.
Fifth, self-esteem is a prerequisite for, not a product of, achievement. It must be instilled by schools. And the inculcation of self-esteem in victims (everyone except white males and Asian-Americans) requires teachers who serve as role models from victim groups. Therefore diversity of victim groups on campuses is a pedagogic priority.
The intellectual tone of Middle States and other diversity-enforcers can be measured by the mind of Leon Goldstein, chairman of Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Mr. Goldstein, who also is president of a community college in Brooklyn, recently said that tuition increases that would injure needy students ''would be genocide.''
Secretary Alexander has sent a sharp signal to all six regional accrediting agencies, saying that Middle States' diversity decrees ''could conceivably cause violations of federal civil-rights laws by, for example, leading to race-based hiring quotas.''
''Could conceivably''? Again, Mr. Alexander is too tentative. The sort of violations he warns against are now explicitly advocated, in the name of diversity, as a ''civil-rights'' cause.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.