A Remarkable Statement by the Establishment

On Sunday, June 30, a group of 37 organizations representing the higher education establishment took out an ad in the New York Times to run a remarkable statement, “Diversity in Higher Education Remains an Essential National Priority.”

Here’s what’s most remarkable about it: According to the American Council on Education, which coordinated the statement, it was issued “[i]n the wake of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision [i.e., Fisher v. University of Texas] concerning the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions ….”  Yet the statement itself does not mention race or ethnicity at all, not once.  The only “diversity” mentioned is diversity of “backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.” Before explaining why racial preferences fail to achieve the relevant diversity, I would be remiss not to mention briefly the other way that the statement is remarkable – remarkably misleading.

The statement is disingenuous since it begins by suggesting that universities have a “constitutional right” to decide who may be admitted to study. I doubt that any of the signatories would defend a state school’s decision to return to Jim Crow segregation, but that’s what the statement implies. 

It’s also wrong to describe as longstanding the proposition that the claimed educational benefits of a diverse student body are so compelling that they justify racial discrimination. That proposition did not command a majority of the Supreme Court until 2003, and was not reaffirmed by Fisher because the plaintiff did not challenge it.

And above all, the signatories are misleading when they say they support “equal opportunity.” What they support is its opposite, racial discrimination in order to guarantee equal results.

But back to role of race in achieving diversity. When you think about it, we can describe as “compelling” the “educational benefits” of only one kind of diversity in a student body:  diversity of expressed thoughts. It is only the diversity of what is thought and said that can enrich learning. Simply seeing someone of a different color isn’t the point, any more than simply having a Hispanic surname is. 

The problem is that it isn’t easy for admissions officers to know from an application what ideas a student will bring to the campus, much less whether he will express them. The most obvious information to look for would be what the student has thought and said in the past, and sometimes—especially for graduate students—that information will be available. 

But in undergraduate admissions it usually is not and, assuming that the pursuit of diversity of student ideas is worth the trouble, one must look elsewhere for clues. (Incidentally, it is not obviously true that diversity of ideas among students is all that educationally valuable. For example, many student ideas are ill-conceived and if expressed in class may just waste time.)

And it is then that looking at the students’ “backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives” might give some hint of what different thoughts the student might bring to the campus. If that were all that colleges are doing, it wouldn’t be controversial.

No, the problem that the statement tries to hide is that schools are using skin color and national origin–in a very heavy-handed and mechanical fashion–as a proxy for student “backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.” In turn, that serves as a proxy for different ideas that students might express, in or out of the classroom. This is obviously tenuous, piling a strained presumption on top of a stereotype.

Consider that, according to the very pro-preference book The Shape of the River, 86 percent of the African Americans admitted to selective schools using affirmative action came from upper- or middle-class backgrounds. These students are not slaves or former slaves or people who lived under Jim Crow, but were born in 1995, and into fairly affluent families to boot.   

It is hard to imagine what it is that those black and Latino kids, by virtue of being black and Latino, are going to say to white and Asian kids that the latter have a compelling need to learn, but have not learned, and cannot learn any other way.

Conversely, there may well be students who don’t fit into any of the “preferred” groups who might have a wealth of ideas and insights they would contribute to the campus, but because they are not regarded as “diverse” they are passed over. True intellectual diversity suffers. 

Finally, even if you think there is some marginal educational benefit to weighing race in order to achieve greater diversity of expressed thoughts, that dubious benefit has to be weighed against the heavy, myriad, undeniable costs of using racial preferences in university admissions. 

It is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; it creates resentment; it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it mismatches African Americans and Latinos with institutions, setting them up for failure; it fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body; it creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation; it papers over the real social problem of why so many African Americans and Latinos are academically uncompetitive; and it gets states and schools involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership.

The Fisher decision leaves the door open to litigating all these relative costs and benefits of using racial discrimination to achieve “diversity.” When the case returns to the lower courts on remand, the judges should not blindly accept the contention that colleges need “diversity.” They should ask what sort of diversity is important and whether the schools are really pursuing it, rather than just trying to fill quotas of students from a few groups.

So, see you in court, higher education establishment!