The Diversity Quest

In a strange historical accident, a speculative line in an opinion by a Supreme Court justice has led to a decades-long quest for something that may not exist at all. That quest is for educational benefits that arise from a student body designed to have “diversity.”

We’re not talking here about intellectual diversity—the diversity of ideas—but diversity based on race.

As most readers know, universities are not allowed to set racial or ethnic quotas for admission. In 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that universities (specifically, the University of California-Davis Medical School) cannot set aside a percentage of seats for students of certain races; that would be an unconstitutional violation of equal protection of the law.

But that 1978 case also opened the door to the matter at hand. Justice Lewis Powell wrote the opinion for an extremely divided Court majority. In it, he suggested that colleges might use race as a “plus factor” even though a strict quota would be unlawful, and that doing so could be constitutionally justified if there were educational benefits to students from a more “diverse” student body.

No other justice joined with Powell in the part of his opinion offering that idea, Powell gave no evidence that there actually were benefits to a more diverse student body, and those purported benefits had not been discussed during the arguments. Once Bakke became law, however, colleges and individuals intent on continuing the use of racial preferences saw two ways to keep those preferences: prevent them from looking like quotas and find the educational benefits that Justice Powell had alluded to.

They have been searching for those benefits for more than thirty years. And now that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a new case challenging the use of racial preferences, Fisher v. Texas, the debate over the educational benefits (if any) is again hot. A taste of the sort of battle that we can expect surfaced in an article in Education News.

Author Kevin Wolfman claims that white students gain from having a diverse campus because it makes them “better thinkers.” He says that it is “established scientific fact” that white students learn to think with more “integrative complexity” at campuses where they encounter students who are racially different.

That is quite a claim and, if true, it would go a long way toward showing that states have a good reason to use racial preferences. However, Wolfman relies primarily on a single research paper for this finding. The Pope Center took a careful look at it.

The paper, “Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students,” was published in 2004. Lead investigator Anthony L. Antonio of Stanford University and four co-authors did an experiment involving 357 students who took part in small group discussions and wrote short essays. The authors state that they “aimed to advance the scientific understanding of the educational effects of race through a controlled, randomized experiment measuring the impact of racial diversity on the complexity of thinking in college students.”

One problem arises immediately. While they say that they’re studying “educational effects” of diversity in their experiment, in fact we never find out if any education actually took place. At most, the experiment discloses some momentary changes in behavior among students who confronted “diversity” in the experiment, not that they learned to think with greater complexity.

In the experiment, students were assigned to discussion groups consisting of three “participants” (all white) and one “research collaborator,” who helped facilitate the discussions (all participants were unaware of the purpose of the study). Groups varied in two ways. The race of the research collaborator varied among the groups, and so did the collaborator’s agreement or disagreement with the prevailing opinion expressed by the group.

Groups discussed two social issues: child-labor practices in developing countries and the death penalty. Participants wrote three essays—one before the discussion and two after—that were rated for integrative complexity by three independent judges. Integrative complexity is defined as “the degree to which cognitive style involves the differentiation and integration of multiple perspectives and dimensions.” It is often associated with being open-minded or with being able to “create well rounded and balanced yet loose conclusions.” This could mean that students who exhibit high levels of integrative complexity are employing the scientific method—incorporating new facts into their conclusions—or it could merely be a symptom of their moral relativism.

The researchers reported two main effects of their experiment. First, they report a very small, marginally significant effect of the collaborator’s race on integrative complexity in the first essay. In other words, the authors claim that the simple presence of a black collaborator raised the “integrated complexity” score of the participants. Those in groups with black collaborators scored 1.94 (out of 7) on their pre-discussion essays, while those in groups with white collaborators scored 1.83.

But then a funny thing happened. The opinion expressed by the collaborator created a larger, more significant effect. Researchers found that participants in groups in which the collaborator held an opinion that differed from the majority scored higher on integrative complexity (1.88) than those in groups where all four members of the group agreed (1.63). The racial make-up of discussion groups had no effect on integrative complexity in either the second or third essays, indicating that the initial effect of race—found on the first essay—faded rapidly. But intellectual diversity—differences of opinion—actually did make something of a difference.

The researchers also reported an interesting secondary effect: participants reporting higher levels of diverse racial contact, i.e., having friends or acquaintances of different races, scored higher on the second and third essays than students who did not have diverse racial contacts. The authors did not report the size of the differences in scores. (Without other control variables, it’s difficult to know what this is really measuring or how the variables interact. If anything, these results may suggest that voluntary interactions are more important than contrived classroom diversity.)

In toto, the experiment tells us very little about the interaction among white students and minority students even in its contrived setting. It tells us nothing whatsoever about any educational outcomes from racial or ethnic diversity in real-world campus settings.

And if our objective is for students to learn or more frequently practice “complex thinking” there would seem to be more direct ways of bringing that about than simply choosing some students whose ancestry puts them into a minority group. It would be better for professors to introduce novel and divergent views into class discussions and for admissions officers to favor students of all backgrounds who seem to be outspoken advocates for provocative ideas. The Pope Center has been encouraging diversity of thought and discussion for years.

Until Fisher is decided, America will be buffeted with exaggerated claims for the educational benefits supposedly produced by racial preferences. Those claims need to be scrutinized. If they’re like the one here, they must be rejected.