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Jewish World Review April 4, 2003 / 1 Nisan, 5763

John H. Fund

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Is "diversity" on campus even a goal worth pursuing? | Diversity. Everyone talks about it. Everyone pledges support for it. It has become a civic religion. It is the backbone of the University of Michigan's legal argument before the Supreme Court this week: that racial discrimination is acceptable if the purpose is to achieve diversity.

But what if diversity isn't all it's cracked up to be? What if it actually has a negative impact when its adherents pursue it too zealously?

Those are the questions raised by a study conducted by three distinguished political scientists who surveyed 1,600 students and 2,400 faculty members and administrators at 140 institutions of higher learning. The authors are Stanley Rothman, a professor at Smith College, Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto and Seymour Martin Lipset of Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Mr. Lipset has formerly headed the American Sociological Association as well as the American Political Science Association. In reporting on their findings, the New York Times acknowledged that "the study's authors have earned respect from academics on all sides of the affirmative action debate."

The authors found that while everyone pays lip service to diversity, there is a clear, usually quiet undercurrent of dissatisfaction with some of its effects. "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," says Mr. Rothman. Diversity seems to make race relations worse, not better.

That negative attitude may be wholly the result of the methods used to produce diversity. Those methods have silent majorities opposing them. A majority of faculty members oppose relaxing academic standards in order to promote diversity. Even administrators, who oversee diversity policies, are sharply divided, with a full 48% opposing racial preferences. While two-thirds of administrators don't believe that admitting minority students with lower academic qualifications affects academic standards, those who believe they have a negative effect outnumber those who think they have positive effects by a margin of 15 to 1. "Those who argue that diversity will improve the education of everybody haven't made their case," concludes Mr. Rothman. "The data do not support them."

Maybe that's why an obviously frantic University of Michigan felt compelled to collect a record-breaking 78 friend-of-the-court briefs supporting its position. Michigan assigns 20 bonus points (on a 150-point scale) to black, Hispanic and American Indian applicants to the college; a similar system of racial preferences exists at the law school. Applicants from other ethnic groups, including whites, Asians and Arab-Americans, are held to a higher standard. All of this is designed to promote diversity, which defendant Lee Bollinger (formerly president of the University of Michigan, now at Columbia) has said is "as essential" to education "as the study of the Middle Ages, of international politics and of Shakespeare.

The briefs backing Mr. Bollinger came from dozens of leading companies, labor unions, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and members of Congress. All of them cite diversity's benefits, but they offer scant evidence and little data.

Indeed, some engage in outright deception. Peter Wood, a professor of anthropology and author of "Diversity: The Invention of a Concept," was appalled at what some of the material in the briefs--and he looked at only a few of them. Indiana University's law school, for example, claimed that it gave great weight to law school board scores and undergraduate grades in determining admissions. The school claimed that race was at the end of a long list of "other factors" it looked at. In reality, half of the students are admitted on the basis of their test scores and half of those go into a pool where race is a prime factor in the decision. The Hoosier Review, a student publication, quoted a former admissions committee member as saying that "to meet de facto quotas, we leapfrog less qualified minority applicants over approximately 330 more qualified nonminority applicants." An internal law school memo mentioned the "concern that a minimum of five blacks per section of the first years class is needed." But in practice the quota is a ceiling as well as a floor. Indiana University has seen the number of black applicants to its law school nearly double in the past three years, but the number of blacks admitted is a rigid number (52, 52 and 53).

No doubt many other peculiar practices in admissions policies lurk behind the benign arguments that so many law schools are making before the Supreme Court.

The brief submitted by 28 private colleges and universities defending their use of race to classify applicants contains a breathtaking sentence describing the aftermath of the 1978 Bakke Supreme Court decision that declared quotas unconstitutional but has been interpreted as allowing the goal of a diverse student body to be weighed in admissions decisions: "After Bakke, each of the [schools] . . . reviewed their admissions procedures in light of Justice [Lewis] Powell's opinion sketching out a permissible approach (which five justices plainly supported), and set sail accordingly." In fact, no other justice joined the relevant portion of Powell's decision. And, as Mr. Woods notes, "we have gone 25 years without a Supreme Court opinion in which any other justice has endorsed Powell's 'permissible approach.' "

It would be in the best interest of the country if the Supreme Court bit the bullet and ended 25 years of uncertainty on the constitutionality of the diversity shell game. Despite massive efforts at propagandizing the benefits of diversity, it hasn't won over nearly as many adherents as the true believers like to think. In a survey last week, only 41% of University of Michigan students backed the school's racial preferences. "Affirmative action, as it's practiced or even imagined, is a half-baked effort," says student Johanna Hanink. "It might be putting students in the seats, but the diversity we're getting out from different-colored people isn't close, for most of us, to the kind that Bollinger envisions."

How can one square Michigan's program with the Constitution's prohibition against racial discrimination?Aggressive outreach to find quality minority candidates is important, but pushing minority candidates into schools they're not ready for doesn't do them or the school any favors. Ultimately, the damage a poor education does to a kid in the lower grades can't be remedied by diversity intervention in his or her teenage years. That's why school-choice programs that provide real alternatives to help students in failing public schools may be the best and most effective affirmative action around.

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Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
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11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
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©2001, John H. Fund