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Affirmative Action – and Reaction: Is Diversity Overrated?… Race Is Never Neutral

Affirmative Action – and Reaction

On Tuesday the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases challenging the University of Michigan's admissions policies, which award minority applicants extra points. The court's decision could change admissions policies nationwide and has prompted a debate about diversity on campus and affirmative action in higher education.


Is Diversity Overrated?


March 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- The Supreme Court hears arguments next week in the cases that may determine whether racial and ethnic preferences in higher education admissions and hiring are preserved or discarded. Whatever it decides, the court should be skeptical of one of the most popular justifications for preferential treatment of minority applicants: that a diverse student body necessarily improves the quality of education for everyone.

One of the most comprehensive studies ever undertaken of diversity in higher education indicates that this contention is at least questionable. The study's findings show that college diversity programs fail to raise standards, and that a majority of faculty members and administrators recognize this when speaking anonymously.

With my colleagues, Seymour Martin Lipset and Neil Nevitte, I measured views of the educational benefit of diversity as it is now incorporated in higher education policy. We wanted to know this: Is diversity truly seen, as the former president of the University of Michigan has said, "as essential as the study of the Middle Ages, of international politics and of Shakespeare" to a well-rounded education?

To find out, in 1999 we surveyed a random sample of more than 1,600 students and 2,400 faculty members and administrators at 140 American colleges and universities, asking them to evaluate the quality of education at their institution, the academic preparation and work habits of the student body, the state of race relations on campus and their own experiences of discrimination. Then we correlated their responses with the proportion of black students attending each institution, based on government statistics.

If diversity works as advertised, we surmised, then those at institutions with higher proportions of black enrollment should rate their educational and racial milieus more favorably than their peers at institutions with lower proportions.

The results contradict almost every benefit claimed for campus diversity. Students, faculty members and administrators all responded to increasing racial diversity by registering increased dissatisfaction with the quality of education and the work ethic of their peers. Students also increasingly complained about discrimination.

Moreover, diversity fails to deliver even when all else is equal. When we controlled for other demographic and institutional factors like the respondent's race, gender, economic background and religion, or an institution's public or private status, selectivity and whether it offers an ethnic or racial studies program, the results were surprising. A higher level of diversity is associated with somewhat less educational satisfaction and worse race relations among students.

We also tested for the effects of higher Hispanic and Asian enrollment. Hispanic enrollment has little effect on any group's ratings of the educational or racial climate. As the proportion of Asian students increased, however, faculty members and administrators perceived an improvement in the academic quality of their students. Thus support for the diversity argument comes with respect to a minority often excluded from preferential admissions programs.

We also asked students about policies used to increase diversity. Three out of four oppose "relaxing academic standards" to increase minority representation, as do a majority of faculty members. And an overwhelming 85 percent of students specifically reject the use of racial or ethnic "preferences"– along with a majority of faculty members. More telling, 62 percent of minority students oppose relaxing standards, and 71 percent oppose preferences.

Among the most striking findings is the silent opposition of so many who administer these programs – yet must publicly support them. Although a small majority of administrators support admissions preferences, 47.7 percent oppose them. In addition, when asked to estimate the impact of preferential admissions on university academic standards, about two-thirds say there is none. Most dismaying, of those who think that preferences have some impact on academic standards, those believing it negative exceed those believing it positive by 15 to 1.

One cannot help but wonder why the public and private views of higher education's leadership differ so greatly. It would be useful to have some good studies of that question.

Stanley Rothman, professor emeritus of government at Smith College, is director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change.

Race Is Never Neutral


March 29, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - On Tuesday the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases challenging race-sensitive admissions policies at the University of Michigan. Harvard, together with many other private and public educational institutions, has filed a brief urging the court to adhere to a quarter-century-old rule: while universities may not adopt racial quotas, they may consider a qualified student's race as a factor in an admissions process that treats each applicant as an individual and weighs the capacity of each to contribute to the education and experience of the class as a whole.

There is a broad consensus supporting the value of racial diversity at our nation's universities. Even the Bush administration, while opposing Michigan's specific programs, explicitly endorses the "laudable goals of educational openness and diversity." The administration argues that "race neutral" approaches – like guaranteed admission for the top 10 percent of high school graduates – could approximate the racial and ethnic mix that consideration of race now achieves. But calling such methods "race neutral" when their aim is to keep minority enrollments up is disingenuous and obscures the consensus in favor of racial diversity as an important goal in higher education.

That consensus reflects the reality that today's students must be prepared to live and work in a global economy and a multiracial world. And it helps explain why Michigan's admissions policies have been supported by a record-setting 66 friend-of-the-court briefs from hundreds of leading businesses, members of Congress, states, labor unions, professional associations, two former defense secretaries, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the former superintendents of all three service academies.

The rule that universities may take race into account as one of many factors in shaping a diverse student body stems from the landmark Bakke case, decided 25 years ago, and is by now deeply woven into the fabric of our society. In the intervening quarter-century, universities have learned that racial diversity helps students confront perspectives other than their own, forcing them to think more rigorously and imaginatively. Diversity also helps break down prejudices and stereotypes by showing students that every ethnic community includes a broad range of viewpoints and experiences and that imagined differences often turn out to be only skin deep.

This debate, then, is over means, not ends. And if the Supreme Court – which has elsewhere honored the values of competition, experimentation and heterogeneity – respects the institutional competence and academic freedom of colleges and universities, it will give them leeway in choosing how best to obtain the educational benefits of a diverse student body.

The supposedly race neutral alternatives the court is being urged to embrace as the only permissible means of doing so have many striking defects. The most widely touted among those proposals – automatically admitting the top 10 percent of each high school graduating class – would conflict with the imperative of treating each applicant as an individual. It would also be useless above the college level and for colleges too small to admit even the top 1 percent of high school graduates nationally.

Race is just one of many factors other than grades and test scores that universities consider. They also weigh geographic origin, socioeconomic status, personal or family hardships, alumni history, and special talents and experiences. Indeed, recruited athletes at many selective colleges are far more likely to be admitted at any given SAT level than are minority candidates. And any "race neutral" formula yielding as racially diverse a class would leave unchanged the odds of admission for the typical nonminority student.

Setting aside a fixed number of "slots" for which only racial minorities are eligible would be a forbidden racial "quota." But that epithet does not fairly describe Michigan's policies – or those of the many other educational institutions that take care not to stigmatize or separate students of any racial group but do not shut their eyes to the realities of race.

Lawrence H. Summers is president of Harvard University. Laurence H. Tribe is professor of constitutional law at Harvard and author of the Supreme Court brief filed by Harvard and other private universities.

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