Courtesy of Harvard University

Prof. Natasha Warikoo researches admissions practices at Harvard University.

October 18, 2018

Harvard Prof Describes ‘Diversity Bargain’ in Admissions in Light of Discrimination Lawsuit

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At a time when elite universities are facing criticism about diversity and admissions, Prof. Natasha Warikoo, education, Harvard University, came to Cornell to discuss her recent book on race in the admissions process and the consequences of affirmative action.

“I decided to study how people make sense of their social position through the college admission process … because this is a process all of these students had just engaged in,” Warikoo said in the Klarman Hall lecture. “But we also know that the outcome of admissions to these places are highly unequal.”

Warikoo’s The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities was published in 2016.

Warikoo visited Cornell to speak about higher education and admissions and their relationship with race as Harvard faces a suit against Students for Fair Admissions on potential discrimination of Asian Americans during the admissions process, and she addressed the suit following an inquiry by a student.

SFFA filed a lawsuit against Harvard in November 2014, alleging “that Harvard effectively employs quotas on the number of Asians admitted and holds them to a higher standard than whites,” according to The New Yorker. The group also claims that Harvard uses “racial balancing” during its admissions process. The bench trial began Monday, four years after the suit was filed.

“This lawsuit says it’s about Asian American discrimination, but it’s actually about affirmative action,” Warikoo said. “Edward Blum turned to Asian Americans as a way to end race-conscious admissions. This court case is unique in that way and seems to be a strategy to get at affirmative action.”

Warikoo is the first of two speakers invited to speak as part of the SOC 2220 Controversies About Inequalities class taught by Prof. Anna Haskins, sociology.

According to Haskins, the class is endowed, so it “has a little bit of money attached to it so that whoever teaches [it] can use the money to bring in speakers related to the class.”

The Diversity Bargain tackles the issue of meritocracy through the lens of Brown and Harvard’s admissions. She also drew comparisons between these two universities and Oxford and Cambridge in Britain.

“People care a lot about how people get into these colleges. These places have a lot of value,” Warikoo said, as she displayed headlines on college admissions from BBC News. She pointed to the constant coverage of college admission rates dropping as a sign of inherent meritocracy in both the U.S. and Britain.

Her book engages students at both Harvard and Brown to discuss meritocracy and admissions at these elite universities.

The lecture focused mainly on her interviews with white students, “because [they are the] the students with most privilege,” according to Warikoo. However, her book also contains interviews with black and Hispanic students at these universities.

From her interviews, Warikoo claimed that the students believed in the collective merit of the cohort, where everyone has a “hook.” She broke this down into three categories: athletic recruiting, legacy students and the diversity frame.

Based on the interviews she conducted, Warikoo found that “about half of white students – of all races actually – support legacy [admissions].”

In terms of diversity, she found that many students supported a more diverse student body, with many students claiming that “diversity is at the essence of Harvard of life.”

However, she said another issue arises as students begin to “commodify their peers’ racial identity.” She found that some students support affirmative action for “personal benefits.”

“Now this led to what I call the diversity bargain. The diversity bargain in the United States was that the white students support affirmative action because it led to personal benefits. Because it led to that collective merit and that was good for them,” Warikoo continued.

This creates problematic implications for the student body, which Warikoo identified as integration imperative.

“That is that students who are perceived to have benefited from affirmative action are then expected to integrate at all times, because that’s the bargain: you get admission and you diversify the white environment,” Warikoo explained.