The “Racial Pairing” Fallacy

In recent years, American higher education has popularized the idea that students do better academically when taught by professors from the same racial or ethnic group. It is hard to imagine that such a theory of “racial pairing” has risen from a testable (and refutable) hypothesis in the 1990s to an industry standard adopted by most U.S. universities and colleges today. Against common sense and sound scholarship, proponents of racial pairing cite a growing corpus of research to justify a dogmatic effort to racially balance higher education.

Racial Pairing Has a Cult Following

In December 2022, the Education Trust, a national advocacy group committed to dismantling “the racial and economic barriers embedded in the American education system,” published a report entitled “Faculty Diversity and Student Success Go Hand in Hand, So Why are University Faculties So White?” The 32-page-long document surveys “faculty representation over time for Black and Latino faculty at public, four-year institutions” and concludes with recommendations for campus leaders and policymakers on diversifying the professoriate.

The group urges institutional leaders and advocates to take the following four steps to combat the chronic underrepresentation of black and Latino professors:

1. Adopt goals to increase access, persistence, and retention.

2. Increase funding for research opportunities.

3. Ensure that campus priorities are aligned with faculty diversity initiatives.

4. Improve campus racial climates.

All four suggestions have been accepted by institutions of higher learning as irrefutable truths. In January 2023, the Equal Opportunity & Discrimination Prevention Office at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) updated its Affirmative Action Plan with new “Placement Goals” for faculty searches, which outline racial and gender quotas for tenured and non-tenured employees at the school’s ten colleges and divisions. The new plan has been widely circulated among deans, department chairs, academic senators, and business officers at UCSB.

The plan compares the percentages of employees who are female, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and bi- or multi-racial to the availability of each school and division and identifies sub-groups to establish placement goals. Ironically, the university does not recognize areas where representation and diversity have been achieved. For example, 28.2% of UCSB’s postdoc scholars are females, compared to a 23% availability rate, while 36.4% of these scholars are racial minorities, far exceeding a 29.5% availability. Additionally, UCSB has built “diversity” into its official criteria for evaluating department chairs, including a requirement that chairs “diversify [the] faculty, staff, and student body.”

UCSB’s endorsement of race proportionality in faculty hiring, placement, and promotion is but a typical case of universities and colleges subordinating academic merit to ideological conformity. In practice, efforts to “diversify” the faculty use the catchphrase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to hide racial pairing and racial balancing behind seemingly innocuous euphemisms.

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A 2022 review of the faculty recruitment processes at 50 elite medical schools found that 36 required job applicants to detail their views on, experiences in, and contributions to DEI. According to a more recent survey by the National Association of Scholars, which examined 280,000 files from university webpages, annual programs, publications, and social media accounts,

Of the 100 university websites we surveyed, the number of webpages that use both STEM and DEI terms grew from 110 in 2010 to 2,891 in 2021. … Between 2010 and 2021, scientific publications and preprints that incorporate DEI or antiracist language grew between 3 to 42 times faster than scientific topics in general in the Web of Science.

These data make it clear that DEI has a cult following in American higher education, one that shows no signs of slowing down.

Racial Pairing is Fallacious

Aside from its plain defiance of common sense, the theory of racial pairing rests upon empirical sandcastles by treating statistical tendencies as sweeping generalizations and correlation as causation.

The “Why are University Faculties So White?” report from the Education Trust bases its conclusions on a handful of new, supportive research papers. Most of these treat racial pairing as a foregone conclusion, while some study narrowly defined phenomena that can’t be generalized.

For instance, the report’s observation that “overall graduation rates for students of color are positively affected by faculty diversity” derives from a 2018 Intercultural Education journal article that surveys 41 two-year institutions and 23 four-year institutions from a single reporting year. Even the authors admit the methodological limitations of their research design, which is not based on cumulative data. In other words, correlational relationships of varying strengths within a short time frame should be treated with caution.

The Education Trust report also borrows from a 2021 Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) State Doctoral Scholars Program paper called “Now Is the Time to Focus on Faculty Diversity.” The paper’s ontological starting point is not that racial pairing is a falsifiable hypothesis in need of more testing, but that “when students don’t see professors of color, it’s harder for them to imagine being at the front of the classroom themselves.” It is hard to imagine how this identity-based mentality could lead to student success. By this line of reasoning, would a Hispanic student benefit more from a white-Hispanic professor or a non-white-Hispanic one? Is a Chinese-American instructor or an Indian-American one, both belonging to the Asian-American category, better for a Chinese-American student? The inconsistencies are endless.

Another revealing finding from the SREB study is that the organization has provided “financial, academic, personal and motivational support” for “1,100 underrepresented students” to “earn a Ph.D. over the last 27 years.” Regardless of whether giving preferential treatment based on race and ethnicity is constitutional, providing additional support to underrepresented minority graduate students, many of whom would join university professoriates, further weakens the correlational relationship between faculty diversity and student performance by intermediating the correlation.

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SREB’s State Doctoral Scholars Program is one of three initiatives to increase faculty diversity cited by the Education Trust. The other two are the Strategies and Tactics for Recruitment to Increase Diversity and Excellence (STRIDE) initiative by Florida International University and the California Pre-Doctoral Program by the California State University system. STRIDE offers “mandatory workshops focused on actionable best practices,” and the California Pre-Doctoral Program dispenses funding to “about 76 juniors, seniors, and graduate students … interested in pursuing a career in teaching and research.”

Could it simply be the case that greater academic success is a result of targeted outreach, funding, and other assistance available to both faculty and students? Racial diversity is a spurious variable, not an independent one.

Although politically motivated advocacy organizations like the Education Trust hide the goal of racializing higher education behind a mountain of supportive research, studies disapproving the racial pairing theory are also numerous. A multiple regression study of student-faculty interactions found that both the quality and frequency of the interactions, not crude racial matching, were important contributors to the academic growth of Latino/a students. Another working paper, utilizing cross-sectional regression models to probe the relationship between faculty diversity and minoritized student success, concluded that there is no statistically significant evidence for the positive effects of increased minority faculty representation at predominantly white institutions.

There is more opposing evidence from K–12 education. A cross-state data analysis on schools in on Tennessee and Missouri found that “having a same-race principal improves math achievement but that this effect largely operates through avenues other than the racial composition of the teaching staff.” A similar study on elementary schools confirms that the relationship between teacher diversity and student performance is confounded by other, more consequential factors such as the quality of the teachers and the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students. Another study identifies student innate ability and teacher gender as factors that interfere with the racial matching theory and renders the relationship statistically insignificant.

Given that the research on faculty diversity and student success is inconclusive, it is a mistake for so many American universities to jump on the racial pairing bandwagon. Not only will this fail minority students so long as issues of low performance and lack of preparedness remain unaddressed in the K–12 pipeline, but it will but also hamper universities’ assumed responsibility to hire and retain the most capable educators and researchers. When applied in a mechanical, bean-counting manner, racial matching unduly attacks the equal employment opportunities of white and Asian scholars who would have otherwise qualified for the faculty positions reserved for “diverse” candidates.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Wenyuan Wu

    Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

2 thoughts on “The “Racial Pairing” Fallacy

  1. I have long been disturbed by the suggestion that students’ learning potential is affected directly by the race or gender of their professors. I recall having a conversation 25 years ago with a dear friend, a prominent female faculty member from another university who was a strong feminist and who, in a group over beers in the bar at a scholarly conference, mentioned that more women were needed in academic departments so that female doctoral students would have fellow women to serve as their mentors. I pointed out to my friend that I–a white male–had had very good success in mentoring female students, had coauthored articles in scholarly journals with many of them, and had placed all of my female doctoral students in good academic positions. Indeed, I had mentored and coauthored articles with more women than men.

    I have worked over the years with a very diverse group of students at both the doctoral and undergraduate levels. The diversity of my students is not based on any active effort on my part to diversify my pool of mentored students. Rather, as students come to my attention, and as we find that we have similar interests, I invite them to become part of my research group. The result is that I have mentored a more diverse group of academics than anyone I know. All of my students–whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, men, women, heterosexual, gay/lesbian–have gone on to successful careers. The suggestion that a white male cannot mentor a diverse group of students to success is not only ridiculous, but it is also offensive.

    One other thing: Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there were businesses that did not hire black people because they were concerned about the racial prejudice of their customers and that they would lose business if they hired black people who would clash with the prejudice of their customers. While they were no doubt correct that they would lose business by hiring black employees, particularly in some areas of the country, none of us would think that this was an appropriate justification for discriminating against black job applicants, and ultimately the 1964 Civil Rights Act changed that hiring culture for the better. My question: Why would we let our faculty hiring practices and policies be driven by the racial or gender prejudices of students who refuse to work with a faculty member of a different race or gender and who insist on only a same-race and/or same-gender mentor?

  2. These “studies” that supposedly show racial pairing improves student outcomes are flawed for one glaring reason: they first decide what the conclusion should be, and then go find some data to support that conclusion. Other possible explanations—-e.g., targeted funding or tutoring—-are downplayed. Data that might suggest alternative reasons is ignored. You can always support whatever conclusion you made beforehand if you cherry-pick the data.

    The real losers in such programs are the students. Affirmative action programs always hire the mediocre qualified. When you hire professors picked to achieve some diversity goal, you are not hiring the best and the brightest. Students, of all racial backgrounds, deserve better.

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