Ever since the mania for diversity began back in the 1970s (sparked by Justice Powell’s opinion in Bakke that colleges could consider race as a “plus factor” in admissions decisions), the defenders of racial preferences have labored to produce justifications for colleges to use them. It isn’t easy to explain why applicant A should be favored over applicant B merely on account of the former’s ancestry putting him in an “underrepresented minority” group, but advocates of “diversity” keep trying.
Recently, University of Maryland physics professor James Gates Jr. delivered an address at North Carolina State, which was his effort at defending the value of diversity in higher education. Dan Way of the John Locke Foundation covered the talk and writes about it in this Martin Center article.
Professor Gates maintains that while it would be bad for colleges to use strict racial quotas (which the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional), schools should employ “holistic admissions” policies in order to admit a more diverse student body. Why is that good? Gates argues, “It’s the diversity of the thinking styles of the people who will engage in the intellectual conversation just like our musicians composing back and forth.”
That sounds nice and I’m sure pleased most of the audience. Diversophiles love to hear that they’re doing the right thing. Sadly, Gates doesn’t seem to realize that ancestry (especially now that humans are so mixed) is not a good proxy for diversity in “thinking styles.” How do admissions people know that a black applicant from let’s say Shaker Heights, Ohio (I chose Shaker Heights because that’s where the late John Ogbu of UC Berkeley did his research on the ill-effects of “affirmative action” on black students from successful families in that suburb of Cleveland) thinks any different than, say, a second-generation Vietnamese student from California, or a student with a mixture of all sorts of European ancestry from New York? Gates suggests that these people can make “a deeper dive in trying to get the know the potential of the students” and somehow divine which students have the right stuff to help inspire greater innovation.
I think that’s a completely unproven assumption. Gates points to his experience with MIT, where all of the applicants are highly talented and ambitious and says that the counselors there were able to go beyond “artificial metrics” and know which student would add the most of the school. I’m skeptical about that. Moreover, when we say to admissions people, “use holistic methods of deciding which students are best,” that amounts to a wink at filling racial quotas. Asian and white students who have demonstrated very high ability turned away to make room for “underrepresented” applicants who have lower demonstrated ability. One unhappy result is that many of the students admitted merely to increase “diversity” can only make it at an elite school by going into one of the weak majors where the work is not very demanding.
Professor Gates seems like a very engaging and thoughtful man, but I don’t think he has considered the hidden costs of trying to engineer “diversity” through racial preferences.