Diversity: The Impossible Dream?

Saturday, July 30, 2005

One cannot help but applaud UC Berkeley’s new chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, for his “call to action” for greater ethnic diversity on the highly ranked university campus. It is hard to be an enemy of diversity, which most Americans recognize as one of our country’s proudest attributes.

We know, too, that our universities—especially our public universities—are responsible for serving increasingly diverse constituencies and that Chancellor Birgeneau’s efforts to create a more multicultural campus deserve serious consideration.

For the last 25 years, however, “diversity” has been invoked on seemingly any occasion and used in so many different ways that we have come to believe it rests on a set of basic assumptions shared by all groups. But the reality is there is no imaginary consensus on diversity. And it is clearly not a substitute for straight talk (which we very much need) about how admissions policies designed to increase the number of African Americans and certain other minorities were administered in the past.

In 1985, Harvard economist Robert Klitgaard noted in his authoritative book Choosing Elites that college administrators were “conspicuously vague” about their admissions policies. They preferred to point to the “diversity” they had created in the student population rather than specifically state how many students of which type they had admitted. This permitted them to avoid any suggestion that they may have set quotas or the extent to which they depended on numeric indicators or targets. Operating within a “code of silence,” they also did not disclose publicly how, when, or to what degree they took racial factors into account.

Chancellor Birgeneau understands that the lack of candor about many of the past covert practices is no longer permissible. What is required now in his diversity campaign is for campus officials to discuss openly and explicitly what they seek to achieve. Is the goal of diversity to achieve an ethnic mix of undergraduates that matches the applicant pool? the state population? the national population? none of these?

The all-out push for diversity has reopened questions about affirmative action’s purpose in higher education: Should it be targeted toward groups such as African Americans, who have suffered pernicious discrimination and should thus be given preference in college admissions? Or should it be geared toward promoting diversity across the racial and ethnic board, even at the expense of blacks? These are not rhetorical questions. Affirmative action, initially regarded as a remedy for centuries of cultural deprivation, has been trumped by diversity. Originally intended to be a secondary benefit of affirmative action, diversity has now become the primary objective.

If the elasticity of the term diversity has masked many kinds of questionable conduct, it should not be misconstrued as an argument against diversity and inclusion. What many observers question instead is the “identity politics” that fosters suspicion and creates misunderstandings. Some of the most troublesome concerns have arisen not only from the splintering of student groups along racial and ethnic lines but also from the emergence of separate academic departments dominated by race that often have not met sound academic standards. These are among the developments that on too many occasions have been rationalized away by administrators invoking diversity without openly acknowledging that diversity has become “untethered from integration” to the point of becoming “integration’s rival.”

The issue of racial preferences in higher education was first confronted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1978 Bakke case when Justice Lewis Powell’s five-vote opinion disallowed racial quotas but permitted race to be used as a “plus” factor in admissions to ensure a diversity of viewpoints in the student body, provided race-consciousness did not prevent all candidates from receiving full consideration. Powell’s ruling, however, had so many fuzzy edges to it (and was never joined by his fellow justices) that the difference between a pre-Bakke quota and a post-Bakke plus, as a lawyer for the Association of American Law Schools stated, was “nothing more than a smirk and a wink.”

In 2003, with the Court once again deeply divided, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the deciding vote in two different cases, ruling that race was impermissible when used in a “mechanical” fashion (such as giving extra points based solely on an applicant’s race) but was permissible in an “individualized” process where race was one of many relevant factors. It was, in essence, a restatement of Justice Powell’s Bakke option brought up to date.

But a major question remains unresolved: What exactly is the defining principle of permissible “individualized” admissions? Or, as UCLA law professor Richard Sanders has asked, is the difference between permissible and impermissible policies “still the difference between ‘a smirk and a wink’”?

But the Court’s ambiguous judgments about the acceptable and unacceptable use of race offer little practical guidance to Chancellor Birgeneau because Proposition 209, which Californians passed in 1996, prohibited any consideration of race or gender in affirmative action admissions decisions. Not intending to flaunt the law, the chancellor says he wants to explore whether more can be done to bring more African Americans and Latinos to the campus under the current “comprehensive review” admission process, which considers a variety of factors besides test scores.

Many critics of past race-based preferences believe that the decision to rely on more flexible individualized standards is an attempt to get around the ban on race in admissions. One way to allay such concerns would be for the university to publicize average high school grades and graduation rates for students with credentials similar to the so-called diversity applicants it is seeking to enroll. Both parents and students would benefit from such consumer information.

However, other important questions remain that the chancellor will need to discuss publicly. Is racial diversity a proxy for educational achievement? How much diversity does it take to enrich a campus environment? Are the academic benefits of diversity significantly greater in a student body that is 8 percent African American as opposed to 4 or 5 percent? Does racial diversity in the classroom foster intellectual development and motivation or better prepare students for future career opportunities?

In light of Chancellor Birgeneau’s commitment not to take race into consideration nor to diminish the value of academic criteria at a place such as Berkeley, the task of enrolling more underrepresented minorities will be formidable. For example, UC campuses in 2004 admitted nearly 2,200 fewer applicants with scores of 1,000 or below on the SAT, a drop of 26.6 percent from the year before, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of admissions figures. At UC Berkeley, the campus offered admission to 216 students with SAT scores of 1,000 or below, down from 313 in 2003.

The distressing fact is that black and Latino students continue to be admitted in numbers far lower than their share of the state’s college-age population. According to 2003 figures, Latinos accounted for 34.2 percent and blacks for 7.3 percent of the state’s graduating high school seniors. But the two groups apply—and are admitted—to UC at only about half those rates.

A recent Harvard study concluded that many of the public schools that enroll primarily black and Latino students have become little more than “dropout factories.” Unless necessary steps are taken to interrupt the cycle of high minority failure rates in our public schools, the pool of well-qualified minority students whom Chancellor Birgeneau is looking for to further diversify the campus—and who will also graduate at substantially higher rates than they did in the past—may be hard to find.