Seeking Diversity, Selecting Discrimination

George R. La Noue

The authors, Carey and Horiuchi, Dartmouth College professors holding named chairs, and Clayton, an undergraduate student, begin with the following proposition: “The media, politicians, and the courts portray campuses as divided over diversity and affirmative action.” As their book title suggests, the authors set out to determine if a “hidden” campus diversity consensus exists for using “underrepresented” group preferences in admissions and faculty hiring. It probably will be a surprise to most readers that these preferences are a “hidden” consensus on campus. The educational establishment and elite campuses consistently boast of their support for diversity actions and have added staff to implement a wide variety of diversity programming.

The authors, however, employ an unusual research method to show that students as well at a selective group of campuses are on board with the diversity train. The research method is called “conjoint analysis,” which as Inside Higher Education (IHE) states was “first developed by marketing analysts” and is a tool used, according to Carey, “to sell you pizza with all the trimmings.” The process essentially asks respondents what decisions they would make given different variables. In this case, students at Dartmouth College, the University of California, San Diego, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Nevada, Reno were asked what choices they would make in admissions and faculty hiring given the various characteristics hypothetical candidates presented. (10) About 2,000 students of the roughly 95,000 students enrolled at these campuses responded to the main survey. This is not a small sample, but whether its response rate was representative is unknown. A partial subset of three other campus surveys is found in the appendix.

According to the authors, scholarly excellence was the top priority for survey respondents and a majority of them opposed race-conscious admissions and hiring policies in the abstract by more than 2 to 1. (122) When considering individual candidates, however, students generally favored members of all traditionally underrepresented groups. Or as IHE put it, “the students [surveyed] prefer students of every race and ethnicity over whites. And they prefer faculty candidates in the same way.” Specifically, white respondents preferred Asian student applicants by 2 percentage points, 5 points for Hispanics, 7 points for blacks, and 13 points for Native Americans. (99) The preferences for underrepresented groups expressed by nonwhite respondents were even greater, with the highest support for preferences for one’s own group. The preferences patterns supporting nonwhite faculty were similar. (101) Women respondents were more likely to support minority preferences than men. (107) There is no way in this research to know why these preference differences exist. Were respondents expressing a view of necessary reparations for their perception of historical abuses or just reflecting their taste for persons different than usually encountered?

The book’s attention-getting pro-preference findings should be examined both as research conclusions and for legal implications. The authors acknowledge that their sample of admitted students “might differ from applicants who were not admitted or faculty job candidates who were not selected, including those who perceive their prospects were hurt by policies aimed at fostering diversity.” (7) Another factor might be the political identifications of the respondents. The book’s research shows that Democrat respondents were far more likely to support preferences than Republicans (118), so the hidden consensus might just reflect partisanship. Most Democrats have become committed to identity politics and race equalization as fundamental party propositions, while Republicans generally are opposed to these concepts. About three quarters of the survey respondents were Democrats, so that might account for what appeared to be a “campus” consensus.

Then there is the problematic concept of “underrepresentation” which is now an ubiquitous idea in higher education. Students may represent the various organizations they join and faculty may represent their disciplines, departments, and research interests. But in what sense would campus persons represent a race or ethnicity? It is considered inappropriate pedagogy to ask a student how “his” race feels about an issue. Also what groups should be measured to determine underrepresentation and against what standards? Underrepresented in terms of academic competence or as a portion of larger mass populations? There is some judicial support for admissions diversity, but none for proportional representation, though that seems to be the goal at many institutions. Campuses are quick to identify which are underrepresented groups, but vague about the logical corollary of which are overrepresented.

There is something that seems abstractly fair about creating more “representation” of the “unders,” unless the respondent realized that might reduce the numbers of admitted or hired Jews or Asians, for example. Admissions and jobs, if influenced by concepts of under- and overrepresentation, are zero sum games. How would students respond, if the diversity underrepresentation was identified by religion, geography, or ideology? The book’s survey questions do not present respondents with those alternatives.

The authors touch briefly on existing constitutional law regarding admissions, but ignore employment law. There is no reason to think their student respondents were familiar with this law. While the use of race in admissions is complex and still being litigated, its use in employment law is much more settled. The authors concede that, although students do not make admissions or employment decisions, their attitude “matters in their own right.” Students are “the largest group of stakeholders at every university” and “[t]hey have every reason to care deeply about what factors weigh and how, in both student admissions and faculty recruitment.” (7) But do students know that “customer preference” is a long discredited defense of racial or gender-based employer decisions? This student cohort would have no memory of the era when almost all airline attendants were comely young ladies because that was what male passengers preferred, or when African Americans were excluded from some department store positions because white ladies preferred white saleswomen. Would the student respondents be familiar with the language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that makes it ”unlawful for any employer to fail to hire or discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms or conditions or privileges of employment, because of the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” There is no diversity exception in employment law. Nor do the authors consider the 1986 Supreme Court precedent in Wygant v. Jackson, 476 U.S. 267 which found that making race-based teacher employment decisions to create “role models” violated both the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause and Title VII.

Would University of California, San Diego students know that voters approved Proposition 209, now a part of their state constitution, which bars “discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting”? If they did know that, how would they feel, if they knew some UC campuses are using a test for commitment to “diversity” to screen out faculty candidates, even before their academic credentials are assessed. That situation is not what the Dartmouth survey asked students to consider, but prescreening for diversity is a growing phenomenon in higher education. Would these students want to live in a world where they would be evaluated for many life shaping decisions on whether they personally were diverse or whether they had a record of supporting some ill-defined concept of “diversity”? It would have been a more useful real world experiment if the student respondents had been given some information about civil rights law.

The authors of Campus Diversity are cheerful about their results showing some support of admitted students for racial and ethnic preferences (208), but they do not explore the long-range implications of the politicization of the “diversity” mantra. They do not examine the use and misuse of diversity definitions and applications. Their survey data are not helpful in that regard. Do diversity initiatives reduce or create discrimination in academic decision making? The answer to that question requires a different kind of research which does not now exist.

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