“Diversity” Research Advances Progresses Accumulates

In a long, interesting, and valuable article in the Chronicle of Higher Education Peter Schmidt reviews what he describes as the “increased nuance and complexity” of a “new wave of research on campus diversity.” The new research, he writes,

holds the promise of improving how colleges serve students of different hues. On the fundamental question of whether racial and ethnic diversity produces educational benefits, the latest studies’ bottom line is: Sometimes. With the right mix of students. If handled delicately.

Left unsaid, at least out loud, is what such faint and attenuated praise of the new work says about the quality of the old work it attempts to move beyond. At least some of the new scholars are willing to admit that the first generation of “diversity” research left a good deal to be desired.

Many of you will recall the controversial report by University of Michigan psychologist Patricia Gurin that played such an important role in UM’s defense of its racial preference policies. (Those two posts, by the way, did not discuss the competence of Gurin’s work so much as its honesty.) Now some scholars are having second thoughts about this and other similar work. “In the period leading to the Grutter decision,” Schmidt writes,

researchers had been focused on the basic question of whether diversity produced any educational benefits, because the courts’ view of the legality of race-conscious admission policies appeared to hinge on the answer.

“There was a rush to get stuff out quickly,” says Mr. Milem, of Arizona, who helped generate research used by proponents of affirmative action to make their case. “The lawyers did not want the nuance. They said, ‘Show us what the outcomes are.’ They pushed us to sort of talk in better, shorter sound bites because that is the way it needs to be communicated.”

The debate over the persuasiveness of research on this point has remained very much alive in the years since Grutter. In an article published in the Stanford Law Review in 2006, for example, Justin Pidot, who was then a third-year Stanford law student and now is a Justice Department lawyer, reviewed the research that had been before the Supreme Court in 2003 and found it inconclusive on the key question of whether colleges must maintain minority enrollments above certain levels to achieve educational benefits.

Even former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who relied on that research in her infamous Grutter opinion, now may have doubts about whether that research “clearly demonstrate[d] the educational benefits of diverse student bodies.”

Of course one need not be a new scholar, or the author of new scholarly research, to find enormous and fatal flaws in the research of Gurin and other early apologists for “diversity.” For example, the Michigan Association of Scholars demolished this research (without, somehow, persuading Justice O’Connor et al.) in an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court in Grutter (which I discussed in some detail here). “In an effort to quantify the educational benefits of diversity,” they wrote,

the University solicited and then issued a report written by Patricia Gurin, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. Professor Gurin sought to correlate the racial diversity of classrooms on the one hand with hundreds of educational outcomes on the other. Among her results was the conclusion that students’ self-reported intellectual self confidence improved more sharply in classrooms where there was greater racial diversity. But only by wading through pages of regression tables will one find the fact (not much emphasized by the University!) that student self-reported intellectual self confidence in racially mixed classrooms increased for white students. For black students Prof. Gurin found either no correlation or a negative correlation. Black student self-confidence, according to Prof. Gurin, either did not improve, or it declined in more racially mixed classes.

As the University would have it, the University is justified in abandoning normal admissions criteria so as to boost the number of black students in order that white students (but not black students) may feel more self-confident. Whether this shows a need for diversity at all is arguable; that it shows a compelling need for diversity is absurd.

The Michigan scholars argued, in short, that racial diversity is not constitutionally compelling because it is not in fact compelling.

Schmidt’s article surveys a number of recent studies — some of those, such as those by Thomas Espenshade of Princeton I’ve already discussed — and his entire article is well worth reading. I was particularly interested, for a reason you will see below, in Schmidt’s comments about one of those new studies:

Among the latest studies is a soon-to-be-published paper by two Duke University scholars — Peter Arcidiacono, an associate professor of economics, and Jacob L. Vigdor, a professor of public policy and economics — suggesting that colleges interested in promoting educational diversity face a Catch-22: If they relax admissions standards to take in more black and Hispanic students, their white and Asian-American students are much less likely to reap educational benefits, at least as measured by their acquisition of diversity-related skills assumed to increase long-term earning potential.

On the whole, the study, slated for publication in the journal Economic Inquiry, found only weak evidence that the racial composition of a college’s student body has a long-term impact on the success of white and Asian-American students in the areas it measured. And where colleges enrolled black and Hispanic students whose academic credentials were lower, on average, than those of other students, the effect of diversity on the success of white and Asian-American students appeared, if anything, to be negative.

Note well — in fact, note very, very well — the dramatic but unacknowledged assumption here that virtually screams, in vain, for recognition: the value of “diversity” consists of its effects on white and Asian students. The authors, of course, recognize that “diversity” may have other justifications, but they clearly recognize what most “diversity” advocates prefer to disguise: that “diversity” is justified because of what it does for whites and Asians, not the preferred minorities. Here is their abstract:

This article evaluates the frequently argued but heretofore little tested hypothesis that increasing minority representation in elite colleges generates tangible benefits for majority-race students. Using data on graduates of 30 selective universities, we find only weak evidence of any relationship between collegiate racial composition and the postgraduation outcomes of white or Asian students. Moreover, the strongest evidence we uncover suggests that increasing minority representation by lowering admission standards is unlikely to produce benefits and may in fact cause harm by reducing the representation of minority students on less selective campuses. While affirmative action may still be desirable for the benefits it conveys to minority students, these results provide little support for “spillover” effects on majority-race students….

The hollowness of the “spillover” justification for “diversity” (actually, its only legal justification) has been noted before, such as by the Michigan Association of Scholars quoted above (“… the University is justified in abandoning normal admissions criteria so as to boost the number of black students in order that white students (but not black students) may feel more self-confident”).

And, if I do say so myself (well, who else is going to say so?), the discordant, grating song that “diversity uses blacks for the benefit of whites” has been sung here, loudly and frequently, since 2002 (!). Critics of “diversity” often note the unfairness of excluding some whites and Asians so that other whites and Asians could receive the alleged benefits of being exposed to the preferentially admitted minorities. They properly regard such treatment as unfair, I noted in the November 2002 post just quoted,

because they were not treated with what Ronald Dworkin (and others) would call “equal respect.” Their interests were subordinated to the (presumed) interests of others in being exposed to more “diversity” than the rejected applicants could provide. In short, they were treated as a means to the more important ends of others.

But, I also noted, the same point could be made about the successful, “diversity”-providing minority applicants.

Even though they were awarded the prize of admission, they too were treated as a means of providing a benefit to others, i.e., the non-minorities who will benefit from being exposed to them. They are not treated as individuals. They are not admitted, after all, to provide “diversity” to themselves but to others. True, they may receive some benefit from being in a “diverse” student body. But they would receive that benefit no matter what majority-white institution they attended. That is, admitting the preferentially treated blacks admitted to any highly selective university does not provide them with any diversity benefits they would not receive at less selective majority-white institutions. The diversity benefit that preferences are said to provide, that is, flows to the non-minorities exposed to the preferentially admitted minorities. This is treating them as a means, not an end, every bit as much as the rejected whites….

I’ve played this song so many times it has become a broken record — such as here, emphasizing that “whatever benefits derive from diversity are provided by the preferentially admitted minorities, not to them.”

They may well receive some benefit from being admitted to more selective institutions than they would have absent the racial preference they received (or course, they are also less likely to graduate), but the diversity benefit they receive cannot justify those preferences because the preferentially admitted minorities would have received the same diversity benefits at the less selective institutions they would otherwise have attended.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the elite institutions that offer racial preferences are using minorities to provide “diversity” to their non-minority students. In return, those students are allowed entry into institutions whose requirements would have excluded them if they had been judged by the same standards as the other students. This bargain may or may not be beneficial to the instiutions or to the preferentially admitted, i.e., differentially treated, minorities, but it is a fallacy to point to diversity benefits allegedly received by the preferred to justify the preferences extended to them. If “diversity” justifies racial discrimination, it is because of the benefits received by the non-minorities who are exposed to the preferentially admitted minorities. To claim otherwise is less than honest.

And here I discussed Hostages to Diversity, dealing with a case where a white student was denied access to a math and science magnet program because allowing his transfer would have a negative “impact on diversity.” Similarly, two Asian-Americans kindergartners were denied transfers to a school with a French immersion program because allowing the transfer would have deprived the students in their current school of the benefits of being exposed to them. When their parents pointed out that the new school has as few Asian-Americans as their current school, the Montgomery County, Maryland, Superintendent of Schools replied to the school board “that nothing in the school system’s policy permits ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ by hurting the diversity of one school to help it at another.”

I could quote more, such as Paul Brest, former dean of the Stanford Law School, being

honest enough to recognize that admitting minorities so that the other students may benefit from being exposed to their allegedly different perspectives places a burden on them. He notes that “[w]hile minority students complained of the burden of constantly having to educate their white classmates, the minority students learned as well.” Of course they did, but the fact they did does not validate the diversity justification for racial preferences. They would also have learned at the schools to which they would have been admitted without preferences. The diversity argument is based on the contributions the preferentially admitted minorities make to others, not on the benefits they undoubtedly receive.

Since Brest defends racial preferences, he obviously thinks the burden their “diversity” preference bestows on minorities is worth bearing.

Tote that barge! Lift dat bale!

Say What? (2)

  1. Joe Hooker February 7, 2010 at 9:32 am | | Reply

    Wouldn’t it be easier to just use busing? Bring the black & hispanic kids onto those white campuses for a couple of hours each day so they could “educate” the white & asian kids with their mysterious diversity.

  2. […] diversity. But those benefits are based solely on social science studies, that have been torn apart since the Supreme Court first found the interest of “diversity” compelling in Grutter. When the […]

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