The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two more cases challenging the use of race as a criterion in college admissions, as has allegedly happened at Harvard University (a private institution) and the University of North Carolina (public). On the surface, the argument turns on whether the desire for a diverse student body trumps many laws and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibit discrimination and guarantee equal protection to all. The question applies to virtually all universities because they are either public or accept government money.
The main argument in favor of discrimination in admissions is that diversity enhances the educational experience. But is it true that a student body needs to parallel, even roughly, the demographics of the general population to ensure that students are exposed to people from diverse backgrounds? In fact, we would argue that the very process of using affirmative action—read: “discrimination”—to enhance the numbers of designated identity groups can contribute to the tribalization of the student body rather than helping it cohere into a harmonious whole. Furthermore, even after receiving an affirmative action boost, minority students sufficiently qualified for a given university are already likely to have similar backgrounds to non-minority students, thus limiting the diversity of viewpoints and experiences that affirmative action allegedly enhances.
Nevertheless, it has become an article of faith that affirmative action, by enhancing narrowly defined diversity, improves education. In a letter to the Harvard community, President Lawrence Bacow said, “Diversity opens our eyes to the promise of a better future,” and, “I long for the day when [race does not matter], but we still have miles to go before our journey is complete.”
Digging deeper into the issue raises a fundamental question about the mission of a university. We believe that universities—and especially the more selective ones—should prioritize the following, in order of importance: the development of critical reasoning skills; the acquisition of a greater knowledge base and certain professional skills; and socialization. These priorities reflect centuries of precedent, including at institutions of higher education throughout Europe and Asia. The net result should be to turn out more productive individuals who can both achieve personal success and contribute to social harmony and national prosperity.
Some schools shuffle the order of these priorities or even radically deemphasize some of them. Doing so can produce graduates overburdened with debt and with lower lifetime earning capacity—and uncertain what to do with their degrees in gender or ethnic studies or “Disruption.” (Yes, such a major exists, at the University of Southern California, where the cost to attend is more than $77,000 per year.)
If universities stuck to their traditional priorities, the admissions criteria that matter most would be academic achievement and potential. Diversity of the student body would pertain only to socialization, the lowest of the educational priorities. Diversity of ideas and interests, however, contributes to higher-priority goals and thus deserves far more consideration than it gets. An applicant who designs robots or rockets, did an internship in an R&D lab, or wrote a published critical essay in high school should win extra points.
If racial preferences in admissions aren’t furthering the mission of a university, what are they doing? They become, effectively, a form of reparations, providing the potential “ticket” of a diploma to individuals who would otherwise have been deprived of that benefit based purely on academic merit. After all, a degree, particularly from a prestigious university, confers a lifetime benefit in terms of economic and other factors.
Though the idea of reparations to persons who have been wronged, as in restitution for theft, may have some justification, current university practices are different. They are a form of compensation (to the less-qualified students admitted) for past injury, given at the expense of those who bear no responsibility for the injury (the more qualified but rejected candidates). This is not “social justice,” or any kind of justice, which is correctly defined as the fair treatment of individuals.
The deeper question for the Supreme Court to decide in the battle over racial preferences is thus whether a university, private or public, should be allowed to dispense de facto reparations, even if existing law suggests that it is not permissible. This is essentially a preview of the sure-to-be contentious arguments that would arise if the federal government dispensed racially based reparations in monetary form to compensate for long-past injuries—something that California is actually considering. Thus, the Supreme Court’s ruling could affect many people beyond college applicants.
Harvard’s Bacow ends his letter to the university community by saying, “I remain confident that the rule of law—and the respect for precedent that perpetuates it—will prevail.” Law and precedent can be cherry-picked, however. Surely no one would propose returning to the era when, for purposes of representation in Congress, the U.S. Constitution counted blacks in a state as three-fifths of the number of white inhabitants of that state. Nor should we, for any purpose, count them or any other minority as seven-fifths.
Let’s hope that the court considers what is really at stake. The notion that a demographically representative class makes for better education is a smokescreen for the proposition that certain people deserve reparations. If Harvard and UNC really want to pay reparations, perhaps they should redirect the vast sums they spend on diversity, equity, and inclusion to charter schools.