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May 30, 2012 5:37 PM The Intellectual Value of Ethnic Diversity

By Daniel Luzer

The Affirmative Action debate in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 case that ruled institutions cannot set a specific number of places for applicants of certain races, also introduced an interesting concept in student admissions: the intellectual importance of diversity. But can one prove that racial diversity promotes intellectual rigor? Maybe not.

Justice Lewis Powell wrote the opinion, in which he stated that,

Racial and ethnic classifications of any sort are inherently suspect and call for the most exacting judicial scrutiny. While the goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race in admissions decisions under some circumstances, petitioner’s special admissions program, which forecloses consideration to persons like respondent, is unnecessary to the achievement of this compelling goal.

It’s the first clause of that second sentence here that is important. Racial diversity is valid and useful because it promotes intellectual diversity. But, according to a piece by Jenna Ashley Robinson and Jane Shaw of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy:

They have been searching for those benefits for more than thirty years. And now that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a new case challenging the use of racial preferences, Fisher v. Texas, the debate over the educational benefits (if any) is again hot.

They cite a recent study that, while it indicated something about the value of racial diversity, indicated more about the importance of different intellectual ideas.

A funny thing happened. The opinion expressed by the collaborator created a larger, more significant effect. Researchers found that participants in groups in which the collaborator held an opinion that differed from the majority scored higher on integrative complexity (1.88) than those in groups where all four members of the group agreed (1.63). The racial make-up of discussion groups had no effect on integrative complexity in either the second or third essays, indicating that the initial effect of race—found on the first essay—faded rapidly. But intellectual diversity—differences of opinion—actually did make something of a difference.

In order words, the racial diversity didn’t matter nearly as much as diversity of opinion.

Well of course. But as Robinson and Shaw say,

If our objective is for students to learn or more frequently practice “complex thinking” there would seem to be more direct ways of bringing that about than simply choosing some students whose ancestry puts them into a minority group. It would be better for professors to introduce novel and divergent views into class discussions and for admissions officers to favor students of all backgrounds who seem to be outspoken advocates for provocative ideas.

The problem with the discussion is this: remember the infamous Congressional birth control hearing involving no women? The problem there wasn’t that the hearing needed women to promote “complex thinking” (indeed the opinions of some of the men who spoke at the hearing were extraordinarily complex, and kind of BS ); it needed women just because observers wanted female thinking.

Now obviously the Robinson and Shaw piece was only addressing one study—and the whole purpose of Affirmative Action is not promoting diversity of thought, anyway, it’s addressing past grievances—but if we’re going to talk about the importance of diversity it’s important to keep this in perspective.

Ethnic minorities aren’t valuable on campus only if they increase intellectual complexity; sometimes they’re valuable just because they are ethnic minorities.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • Roger Clegg, Ctr for Equal Opportunity on May 30, 2012 7:31 PM:

    In Bakke, Justice Powell also wrote that preferring those of a particular race simply because they are of that race (see last sentence in this column) is "discrimination for its own sake" and flatly unconstitutional. And he was right.

  • Roger Clegg, Ctr for Equal Opportunity on May 30, 2012 7:47 PM:

    Oh, and Justice Powell in Bakke also rejected the argument that racial preferences can be justified because of historical/societal discrimination (see next-to-last sentence in this column). And he was right about that, too.

    The reason he was right on this point, btw, is that race is a poor proxy for being disadvantaged in this country. There are plenty of undisadvantaged African Americans, for example (and 86 percent of the African Americans admitted to the most selective schools are from middle- or upper-class backgrounds), and plenty of disadvantaged whites and Asians.