August 22, 2010

Diversity and Its Consequences

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Having recognized the absurdities of the current affirmative action regime, moderate liberals and conservatives have recently proposed shifting the focus from race to class during the admissions process. This “class-based affirmative action,” they claim, would benefit those who “actually need it,” while creating real social and racial diversity.In reality, this proposal doesn’t address the fundamental problems with preferential treatment. Moreover, it sheds some light on why it’s futile to establish “diversity” as a serious objective. The most potent critique of affirmative action is that it brings students to universities they’re unprepared for. As UCLA law professor Richard Sander showed in a comprehensive study of American law schools, the affirmative action regime has forced universities of every caliber to accept minority students with lower standardized test scores and grades than the average of the entering class. This leads to devastating results: Almost half of black law students place in the bottom tenth of their graduating classes. Furthermore, entering black law students were 135 percent more likely than whites to not complete their law degree. Worse, even the students who can succeed in these environments are always suspected of benefiting from preferential treatment. Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas can certainly attest to that. Proponents of this new approach fail to demonstrate why the academic performance of these disadvantaged students would be any better than that of the minorities who have been artificially boosted by affirmative action. This is a conspicuous omission, because all they’ve really done is replace the groups without changing the principle one whit.  For those who care about consequences — and, by extension, empirical data — they should know that Sander did conduct a quantitative study on UCLA’s experiment with class-based affirmative action. However, he found only that such a policy would increase diversity. He had nothing to say about its likely academic effects, mostly because not enough time had elapsed.  There is probably enough information today that could tell us something significant. I doubt we’d see anything markedly different from the results of our experience with race-based affirmative action. If true, this would certainly give us reason to pause before going ahead with this program on a large scale. However, even if we were to assume no negative academic effects — and that’s surely a stretch — we would still have to consider whether “diversity” is a compelling enough reason to begin a complicated new program of preferential treatment. What does “diversity” look like today, anyways?Let’s look at Cornell, where religious, social and ethnic groups abound. Even here, it’s hard to point out very many truly unique cultures. One gets the sense that upper-middle class norms dominate, and that they may have taken the place of deep cultural values.  Such marks the success of the assimilationist ethos of the early 20th century, but also makes for a poor diversity.It’s likely, then, that even if we bring disadvantaged students to campus, their own culture will be diluted by this dominant ethos. We should note that this is presaged by the proponents of class-based affirmative action: Indeed, even as they praise diversity, they ultimately hope that disadvantaged students leave their culture behind to join the ranks of the upper middle class. So even they don’t really believe that “diversity” is an end unto itself.  Here’s another problem: The groups already on campus who do exhibit unique cultural traits — who therefore could facilitate the teaching and learning idealized by “diversity” proponents — tend to stick to themselves. Indeed, either wary of what interaction with the outside world might bring or simply unable to converse with it, the unique cultural groups choose not to volunteer their identities to the broader campus. Why should we ever expect them to? We often forget that the argument for diversity is just a little bit presumptuous. Essentially, proponents can often argue something like this: We should bring in disadvantaged or minority students so that we can gain something from them. They’re just pawns in our nice little game of self-awareness. So who really cares about the consequences they face? At least we’re learning.The quest for diversity therefore leads to patronizing attitudes and worse academic outcomes for the students we supposedly help. It shouldn’t be a priority for admissions officers.Instead, they should make sure that the students they admit will benefit from the school — and not the other way around. And if some form of “diversity” emerges organically from that arrangement, it will likely be more genuine than that dreamed up by university PR departments. To paraphrase Allan Bloom, let’s let diversity take care of itself, and direct our attention elsewhere.

Judah Bellin is a jnior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin