Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why diversity?

Abigail Fisher and her attorney
The Fisher affirmative action case has inspired Philosophy professor Chris Surprenant to contribute an excellent opinion piece to today’s New Orleans Times Picayune. Professor Surprenant suggests that the Fisher case should encourage us to think about the value of diversity and diversity-promoting policies in education. He begins by pointing out that the effectiveness of affirmative action in achieving the most common definition of “diversity,” increased representation of under-represented racial groups, is highly questionable. Since 1993, he tells us, black student enrollment at our top universities has actually gone down, even as these universities have actively pursued race-conscious admissions. I suppose one might respond that this enrollment could have gone down even more without these kinds of admissions policies, but that response would still leave a big problem. In writing the Supreme Court decision in the 2003 Grutter case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor opined that using race to achieve diversity must be a temporary strategy and she stated that in twenty-five years affirmative action would no longer be needed or justified, presumably because there would be no more significant academic differences among groups. But not only were the selected under-represented group differences not going down at the time of the Grutter decision, group differences in academic preparation have actually increased, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere. So, I would accept Professor Suprenant’s point, and add to it that affirmative action has not only failed to increase black representation in selective schools, it has also failed completely as a solution to inequality across groups. I would also add that much of the growing “diversity” of American education has had nothing to do with affirmative action and has, in fact, occurred in spite of such policies.  There are today many more students of East and South Asian origin in our elite universities, a trend that might well be even more pronounced were it not for the fact that preferences for under-represented groups necessarily mean disadvantages for over-represented groups.
But Professor Suprenant’s main concern is to question what the ultimate purpose of “diversity” is supposed to be.  He asks why we value diversity. He suggests that the goal is to “make students less ethnocentric.” This goal is accepted without question “It's a product,” he writes, “of an educational system where the goal isn't to make students scholars, but to instill within them the virtues of tolerance and acceptance.” In this environment, the “diversity” of a campus has become a selling point, and universities seek to bring in minority students as assets.
Philosophy professor Chris W. Surprenant
Now, there are those who make the extraordinarily far-fetched argument that recruiting less-prepared minority students somehow has academic benefits for everyone. But the most common and most plausible claim is, as Professor Suprenant recognizes, that bringing in under-represented students will make other students more open to demographic variety. Diversity is good, in other words, because it makes students more accepting of diversity. For my part, I can’t see why black and Latino students will contribute more to open-mindedness than students of Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, or Asian Indian backgrounds. But it remains the case that what our colleges are trying to achieve is not intellectual development, but attitudinal adjustment. Professor Surprenant is right that we should go beyond the question of whether affirmative action is achieving this goal, to the more fundamental question whether the goal itself is an appropriate one for our institutions of higher education.

No comments:

Post a Comment