Alan Ryan

April 11, 2003

As affirmative action goes back to the US Supreme Court, the widespread belief is that diversity is a good thing. But is it?

It's 25 years since the US Supreme Court decided - by the narrowest five-four majority - that the medical school at the University of California, Davis did not violate the rights of a white applicant if it took African-Americans whose test scores were lower than his. Last week, the Supreme Court revisited the battlefield. Three students are suing the University of Michigan: two are suing the law school and one the undergraduate college. All claim "their" slots at the university were filled by students admitted only because they benefited from racial preferences.

One of the 1978 minority, Justice William Rehnquist, is now chief justice; most of the others have retired. What hasn't changed is that the court splits four-four between liberals and conservatives, and that an astonishing number of cases are decided by which way one of two women on the court - Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - decides to jump. Last Tuesday, lawyers for the plaintiffs and the university spent the afternoon desperately wooing a 70-year-old lady. The solicitor-general was also there because the administration is against racially based affirmative action.

Connoisseurs of the absurd noted that George W. Bush has benefited from affirmative action all his life, from his admission to Yale University to being cut in on the Texas deals that made him a millionaire. His chief security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, says that she is the product of affirmative action, but nonetheless backs the administration's hostility to it. Colin Powell is more interestingly in favour: generals say that without it there would be no viable US Army. In Vietnam, a heavily non-white army came close to mutiny against its all-white officers.

UK observers of the American scene will draw many morals about the pros and cons of affirmative action. The vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol will no doubt be grateful that all he has had to do is write the occasional article defending the probity of his admissions officers, rather than spending money on expensive legal advice. But it all raises another topic less likely to strike the English eye - the cult of diversity.

It is an item of faith in the briefs filed on behalf of Michigan that diversity is a good thing in a university. Often, of course, diversity just means affirmative action by another name. Court rules out quotas but allows us to aim for diversity, so we have affirmative action but call it diversity. No to quotas, yes to targets. But there is a widespread belief that, leaving affirmative action to one side, being educated as one of a diverse student body is good for you; it makes for a "better education", however loosely that is defined.

There are two interesting points about all that. The first is that "diversity" has embarrassing origins. It seems to have begun as a way of keeping clever Jewish students out of Ivy League colleges without an explicit numerus clausus. Suppose you are filling a freshman class in the 1930s; the brightest applicants come from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. A large number are Jewish. Well, we need a football team, and that rules out some; and we ought to have some students from South Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona and California, and that will rule out more, and by the time we've let in alumni and faculty children, we shan't have too many Jews at all. The second world war mostly put a stop to upper-class anti-Semitism, but diversity didn't mean ethnic or racial diversity.

As the court observed in 1978: "Fifteen or 20 years ago, diversity meant students from California, New York and Massachusetts; city dwellers and farm boys; violinists, painters and football players; biologists, historians and classicists; potential stockbrokers, academics and politiciansI but very few ethnic or racial minorities attended Harvard College." When Harvard wanted to practise affirmative action, it called it "diversity," and the Supreme Court agreed that was fine.

The second interesting point, however, is that diversity doesn't seem to do anything for education. A recent survey found that students thought their education had not improved since their college became "more diverse" - that is, had more African-American and Hispanic students. The survey was conducted by opponents of affirmative action, and the news is not surprising; nor is the finding that students thought better of their education at better colleges. The response to the survey has been interesting, however. Critics have been saying that no matter what students feel about it, an education in diversity is just better. That's what liberals tend to think, but it'd be nice to have a few arguments in support of something other than a tautology. Meanwhile, Justice O'Connor seems to be leaning towards letting Michigan's admissions system through the constitutional sieve; we shall know in a few months.

Alan Ryan is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University.

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