The Corner

Law & the Courts

Ethnic Diversity Improves Education? The Fisher Decision Is Not Based on Sound Science

As NR’s editors noted last night, the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of ethnic preferences in university admissions, concluding that the educational benefits of diversity are a compelling government interest. The majority opinion and the dissent argue over how much deference schools should be given — and how concrete they must be — in their assertion that ethnic diversity improves education.

My concern is more fundamental: The whole claim that diversity leads to educational benefits is scientifically suspect. When the case was argued back in December, I observed that the university based much of its case for diversity on staff testimonials; that the systematic evidence the university did muster was weak; and that it ignored contrary evidence.

I’m not the only skeptic on these issues. Earlier this year, Northwestern University psychologist Alice Eagly published an article in the Journal of Social Issues titled, “When Passionate Advocates Meet Research on Diversity, Does the Honest Broker Stand a Chance?” While not about education per se, the article shows how diversity has been oversold in a broader context. Eagly first notes the “chasm” between what advocates say about diversity and what the science actually says. As evidence, she cites a major meta-analysis of studies measuring diversity and group task performance. The average effect of both gender and ethnic diversity was found to be effectively zero, which she says is consistent with previous meta-analyses and more informal literature reviews.

Eagly goes on to criticize academics for either turning into advocates themselves — that happens a lot — or staying silent for political reasons when advocates misuse the research. Since the basic motivation for supporting ethnic preferences is really “social justice,” she states that advocates should make their case on those grounds rather than engage in science-gilding.

Interestingly, Eagly is herself a supporter of affirmative action for social-justice reasons, and she includes a warning for her own side: “The danger for diversity advocates is that in the longer run, the opponents of inclusive diversity goals may study the science and undercut false claims, probably with ‘junk science’ accusations that would not be entirely misplaced.” Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now!

Although we come from different places on the political spectrum, Eagly endorses the same “honest broker” role for academics that I do. Unfortunately, academia has a long, long way to go before that happens.

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