‘Role-Model’ Affirmative Action: Not Needed, Not Legal


One of the criticisms of affirmative action acknowledged even by many liberals is that the preferential treatment it bestows tends to benefit those who need it least. For example, it is hard to imagine a group of minority students less in need of special, career-enhancing assistance than graduate students in STEM fields at Stanford, Caltech, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, and yet those four institutions have received a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to form a new consortium — the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate — to provide special programs for them and eventually minority STEM students at other institutions.

The targeted minorities are the usual URM (underrepresented minority) suspects: “African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.” Presumably poor Appalachians, Arabs, and Albanians are not “underrepresented” in STEM fields, not to mention Anglicans or Adventists.

The Alliance programs include:

  • training faculty “to better recognize and help these students thrive and advance”;
  • conducting research about “what factors impact their attitudes, experiences and preparation for the future”;
  • “sponsoring annual retreats — the first one to be held at Stanford April 4-5 — “to build networking, communication, project management and other skills” and provide “a venue where schools and national labs seeking postdoctoral fellows and new faculty can meet students looking for jobs”;
  • funding students “to travel to other Alliance institutions to visit, give a talk or meet another research group or a potential mentor to increase the likelihood that they will land a prestigious postdoctoral or faculty position.”

Among the questions raised by this extraordinary project is, Why? The ubiquitous “role model” justification is predictably the main one rolled out here. We need more minorities in academic STEM fields, according to UC Berkeley executive dean of the College of Letters and Science Mark Richards, because of “the pivotal role that faculty members have as role models for future scientists and engineers.”

The role model justification, however, is circular, asserting that we need more minority STEM scientists… to produce more minority STEM scientists. And like other hollow justifications for racial, gender, and ethnic preferences in science that I have discussed hereherehere, and here, it never explains why we need more minority scientists. If we need more STEM scientists, we need them of whatever hue. Since “diversity” — the only rationale for preferential treatment blessed by the courts — has no relevance to building bridges or even explaining dark matter, it would seem to be a perfect example of what Justice Powell had in mind in his controlling Bakke opinion when he declared: “Preferring members of any one group for no reason other than race or ethnic origin is discrimination for its own sake. This the Constitution forbids.”

An unusually thin role-model justification was offered by Jeremy Brown, a Ph.D. student in geophysics at Stanford and one of the four Alliance-benefitting students featured in a Berkeley News Center article. Brown is planning a career in energy exploration in the private sector, but he claims that “it would have made a big difference if I’d had professors who were minorities…”

Another justification for the special care, nurturing, and attention provided to minority STEM graduate students is their higher attrition rate — “’10 percent for new Ph.D.s, 9 percent for continuing Ph.D.s, 8 percent for conferred Ph.D.s, 6 percent for postdocs and 4 percent for faculty,’ said Jerry Harris, associate dean for multicultural affairs in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences and a professor of geophysics.”

Standing alone, however, these numbers reveal little. Are these students exiting the STEM pipeline because of an absence of colleagues and mentors who are similar to themselves? Rebecca Hernandez, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in environmental earth science at Stanford, laments the fact that she has not had a Latina environmental earth science mentor, but that lack has not appeared to pose a major obstacle to what is sure to be a promising career.

In short, there easily could be explanations of minority attrition that are disguised, not clarified, by the all-consuming emphasis on the nail of race and ethnicity that the hammer of “diversity” always seeks. One possibility is that the higher attrition rate of minority STEM students may be a result of mismatch, that they entered these highly competitive institutions with weaker preparation than their peers. Another is that some of these students leaving is not a problem that needs fixing. For example,

Anastasia Chavez, a math Ph.D. student at Berkeley also featured in the Berkeley article as a California Alliance model, “wonders … whether she should abandon dreams of teaching at a top-tier university and instead work at a smaller school with more diversity, “but she also noted, revealingly, “that it’s also hard to ignore the emails that she and her Ph.D. classmates get from private companies offering large salaries.”

Is it really worth lavishing so much institutional effort and resources on students like Anastasia Chavez and Jeremy Brown, the Stanford geophysics students, to induce them to remain in academia instead of pursuing careers with “large salaries” in the private sector?

Finally, there is a serious question whether programs designed to provide special benefits and assistance to minorities is even legal. Can the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, really spend over $2 million on a race- and ethnicity-based program? Caltech and Stanford are private (although the recipients of considerable federal largesse), but did not Prop. 209 bar public institutions in California from engaging in such racial and ethnic favoritism?

It is unlikely that any application form explicitly states that no whites or Asians need apply, but it is clear the California Alliance programs are targeted specifically to the usually approved minority groups. The San Francisco State graduate fellowship office, for example, states that an Alliance Summer Research Scholars program “is designed to prepare underrepresented master’s students to pursue PhD’s in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.” Similarly, the purpose ofUCLA’s Alliance “PLEDGE” program — “Providing Leadership & Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education” — is “to assist interested URM undergraduates and master’s students prepare their portfolios … for their successful application to UCLA’s STEM graduate programs. These initiatives are facilitated by a Program Director who mentors URM STEM students in their academic and professional success and assists departments in recruitment, funding, mentoring and matriculation.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation, according to attorney Meriem Hubbard, is looking closely at the California Alliance to determine whether its assistance violates the California constitution’s prohibition of racial and ethnic favoritism. And here, Roger Clegg, General Counsel and President of the Center for Equal Opportunity, has advised higher education institutions to “don’t even think about making the ‘role model’ argument” as a justification for preferential treatment…. This is a dubious argument as a policy matter, but what is amazing is that the argument continues to be made even though the Supreme Court rejected it … over twenty-five years ago.”

In that 1986 case, Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that “the role model theory” as a justification for providing benefits based on race “has no logical stopping point” and hence suffers from a constitutionally fatal “indefiniteness.” If, as the Court (including even Justice O’Connor) held, benefitting some on the basis of race so they can provide “role models” is not allowed as part of a remedy for past discrimination, why should it be allowed and funded as a way of increasing the comfort level of some minority students who prefer to have mentors who share their gender, skin color, or ethnicity?

At the very least, by now it should be necessary to do more than ritualistically chant “diversity” and “underrepresentation” and “role model” to justify expensive programs designed to benefit some students simply on the basis of their race and ethnicity, especially when part of the purpose of those programs is to persuade those privileged minorities to choose careers in academia rather than private industry.


2 thoughts on “‘Role-Model’ Affirmative Action: Not Needed, Not Legal

  1. I wonder if the NSF application justified using the same intervention to treat such disparate URM populations. Why, that is, should we use the same interventions to support both Hispanics and blacks? These two populations are vastly different on many dimensions, including the reasons behind their URM status. I would need to see whether the grant application makes clear, for example, why a white, German guy from Argentina needs the mentor and role model as much as a black man from California. Why are white Latinos underrepresented exactly? What if the adviser is 1/16 Spanish ancestry: will that satisfy the requirements of co-ethnic mentoring?
    I would also like to know the implications of this intervention for international students. How, for example, can international students succeed when their mentors are all or mostly of a different cultural group? Should we force the hiring of an Indian professor for every Indian international student? How will a Chinese student succeed in a university with no Chinese (not Chinese-American) professors?
    I would also like to know why, for example, a woman of Russian or Thai ancestry does not merit attention for lacking advisers of the same ethnic background. If students need advisers of the same cultural/linguistic background, as the quotes above suggest, then the Russian and Thai students are greatly under-served and disadvantaged, too. The grant application, therefore, should make clear exactly why certain cultural/linguistic groups need role models while others do not encounter barriers to success without them.

  2. Excellent analysis of the perennial folly. If a student is mature enough to do graduate level work in the sciences (or any other field for that matter), isn’t he also mature enough to focus just on the material and not the irrelevant matter of the characteristics of the professor teaching it?
    This reminds me of the silly argument advanced recently in The Chronicle that it’s good that whites and Asians are cold-shouldering law school more, thus leaving the door open for an increasing numbers of URM lawyers. Same assumption at work: society must be better if some group (scientists, lawyers….) has a group composition making it “look more like America.”

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