“Diversity” Takes More Lumps

“Diversity,” as everyone surely knows by now, is the sole remaining justification for racial preference in higher education allowed by the Supreme Court. Defenders seem to regard it as even more essential to a good education than books in the library or professors behind the podium. But a funny thing has been happening on the way to the Supreme’s Court revisiting racial preference in the Fisher case next fall: an increasing array of academic studies has been demonstrating that the “diversity” emperor has no clothes.

The best known of these, of course, are the “mismatch” studies conducted by UCLA law professor Richard Sander and those he has inspired. See his and Stuart Taylor’s brief filed with the Supreme Court that summarizes much of this work, pointers to other Sander work recently offered by KC Johnson here, and a brief by Gail Heriot, Peter Kirsanow, and Todd Gaziano, who write that “if anything should cause thoughtful supporters of race-preferential admissions policies to reverse course–or at least refrain from proceeding further–it is the mounting empirical evidence showing these policies are doing more harm than good for their intended beneficiaries.”

“Trying to Get By with ‘Holistic'”

Increasingly, however, mismatch no longer presents the only empirical challenge to the practice of racial preference in higher education. I have just discussed, here, a new study of “holistic” review in selective institutions that found widespread use of “race norming,” in effect placing minority applicants in a separate pool and evaluating them only in competition with other minorities, in defiance of both Grutter and statutory law, evidence that should persuade the Court of the folly of trusting the good faith of universities to seek quota-free, race-neutral means before turning to heavy-handed racial preference.

A few days ago Inside Higher Ed reported on another new study calling into question the importance of “diversity.” Using survey data from six liberal arts colleges and eleven universities–all of them no doubt institutionally committed to “diversity”–the authors found, “contrary to [their] expectations,” that “as undergraduates progress in higher education, they become less interested, on average, in promoting racial understanding.”

It is easy to dismiss these findings as trivial or unimportant. What, after all, is “racial understanding,” and what does a declining commitment to improving it from freshman to senior year really say? Roger Clegg posted a typically incisive comment:

Suppose that the question asked was “How important to you personally is helping to promote world peace?” or “How important to you personally is helping to promote good dental hygiene?” or some other question. Would the fact that the numbers changed somewhat over time be taken as evidence of anything?

In any event, if the numbers go down slightly, there are many explanations why it may be little cause for concern, including (a) freshmen are more easily intimidated into giving the answer that they know they are supposed to give than seniors are, or (b) natural adolescent resentment at being beaten over the head by grownups about anything for four years, or (c) a growing realization that, gee, racial understanding is actually pretty good and not something that I need to worry about a lot, or (d) it’s not a problem that I personally can do a lot about and it would be hypocritical for me to declare that it is a high priority for me compared to, say, finding a rewarding job, getting married and raising a family, and paying off my student loans.

Similarly, on National Review Online’s Phi Beta Cons, George Leef quoted Clegg’s comment and concluded that the study “seems like much ado about nothing.”

Naive, idealistic freshmen are more apt to give a politically correct answer than are seniors, who have seen that all the talk about “promoting racial understanding” is just talk. The way the question is asked almost requires the respondent to wear a scarlet A for admitting that he isn’t really interested in (and probably has no idea how to go about) promoting racial understanding. It’s remarkable that any significant number of students ever say that it is not important to them.

Both Clegg and Leef prove how easy it is to criticize this study, but I nevertheless think my two conservative friends dismiss it too quickly. They persuasively challenge the significance, but not the accuracy, of its finding that a desire to promote “racial understanding” decreases through college. If that finding is accurate, however, it significantly adds to the already heavy burden of those who must persuade the Supreme Court that experiencing “diversity” is essential to the education of good citizens.

In asking Does “Diversity” Make Students Smarter? several years ago I quoted the impenetrable abstract of a then-recent study and concluded:

If I’m not mistaken, this says that “diversity” does nothing to improve what students learn, as measured by objective criteria, except for their self-assessed “understanding of racial and cultural issues.”

In other words, “diversity” helps students understand … “diversity.”

If it doesn’t even do that, what good is it?

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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