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Why do colleges have diversity plans?

It may seem an obvious question. After all, most colleges have diversity plans and frequently quote from them. When there is an ugly racial incident on campus, colleges administrators are quick to say how inconsistent it is with their diversity and inclusion policies. When colleges unveil a new recruiting plan, their leaders talk about how it is consistent with their stated values and hiring policies and practices.

But why do the policies exist? A paper published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that most colleges "assert that diversity provides compelling educational benefits and is thus instrumentally useful." That's not surprising, because several decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have given that as a reasonable reason -- within certain constraints -- for having an affirmative action plan.

What colleges aren't arguing, generally, is that seeking diversity is the moral thing to do, the paper says.

That omission is important, the paper says.

"We showed that instrumental rationales correspond to the preferences of white (but not Black) Americans, and both parents and admissions staff expect Black students to fare worse at universities that endorse them. We coded university websites and surveyed admissions staff to determine that, nevertheless, instrumental diversity rationales are more prevalent than moral ones are and that they are indeed associated with increasing white-Black graduation disparities, particularly among universities with low levels of moral rationale use."

The paper adds that many diversity policies are explained to attract support from white people. "These findings indicate that the most common rationale for supporting diversity in American higher education accords with the preferences of, and better relative outcomes for, white Americans over low-status racial minorities. The rationales behind universities’ embrace of diversity have nonlegal consequences that should be considered in institutional decision making."

The paper isn't saying that colleges shouldn't proclaim the educational value of diversity. But it's saying that they shouldn't leave it there.

"I think the major implications of the study are just that institutions should not overlook the importance of making a moral commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion," said Jordan G. Starck of Princeton University, the lead author of the piece. "Our data suggest that instrumental commitments may be easier to make because fewer people would object to them (and their broad appeal is certainly useful). And at the same time, our data suggests moral commitments from institutions may also be necessary to create the most equitable environments for underrepresented racial minorities. So, our take right now is not that institutions necessarily need to stop caring about the instrumental benefits diversity can provide, but that they would do well to also embrace a principled commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion."

He wrote the paper with Stacey Sinclair and J. Nicole Shelton, also of Princeton.

The paper argues that it's not surprising that the instrumental (or educational) argument appeals to white people. After all, colleges and universities submitting court briefs have stressed that white people benefit from going to college with nonwhite people.

"Instrumental rationales likely afford a greater sense of belonging to white Americans compared to moral rationales," the paper says. "While organizations acknowledging and celebrating racial diversity tend to make white individuals feel excluded, research in business contexts shows that instrumental rationales expand lay conceptualizations of diversity so that the term can be more inclusive of white people. This expansion provides white individuals a means of belonging in multicultural university contexts."

But the paper added, "Though white Americans may prefer instrumental rationales because of an increased perception of educational value, greater sense of belonging, and reduced social identity threat, there is little reason to think that racial minorities, particularly low-status groups such as Black Americans, would share this preference."

To study their hypothesis, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which they asked people to "to imagine they were a prospective student" and to answer "questions about each ostensible university as they read their diversity statements."

White participants preferred the universities with statements that stressed the practical benefits of diversity. Black participants preferred the universities with statements that stressed the moral issues.

Further, the scholars analyzed white and Black graduation rates at the (real, but not named) universities with different explanations for diversity.

"These data indicate that the disparities between white and Black students’ graduation rates increase as universities are increasingly instrumentally motivated, especially when they have little moral motivation."

The authors conclude, "We have shown that instrumental rationales are preferred by white but not Black Americans, that they are understood as suiting white students best, that they are the most common approach to diversity in higher education, and that, especially in the absence of a moral approach, they are associated with greater racial disparities in graduation rates. Together, these findings illustrate that the most common approach to diversity in higher education ironically reflects the preferences, and privileges the outcomes, of White Americans."

In addition, the authors called for more research on this issue.

"It is especially important to consider how different minority groups feel about and are affected by instrumental diversity rationales since we observed heterogeneity in outcomes across different minority groups and non-Black minority groups such as Asian Americans play a crucial role in contemporary litigation of affirmative action policies in higher education."

Terri E. Givens, the CEO and founder of Brighter Higher Ed and a former provost, vice provost and professor (and an Inside Higher Ed opinion contributor), said she only had time to review the paper briefly. But "it seems to have some validity. I know that the data show that most institutions are still struggling to increase admissions of minority students and improve outcomes. I also think that an approach that emphasizes morals (I prefer the word 'values') has a better chance at changing the culture of an institution to make it more welcoming to BIPOC students. Having specific goals and strategies is important."

Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said, "We can’t continue ignoring the moral rationale and the changing demographics of our country. It is about having these difficult dialogues on campuses and … through the hard work. Of course, I would agree with the findings that institutions should use both instrumental rationales and moral rationales for diversity equally. The entire year with Black Lives Matter, the protests, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others and the racist behavior of elected officials, the rise of white supremacy has galvanized Blacks, Latinx and young people of all races to protest and demand that our institutions, government and country address the moral, urgent need for equity, diversity and inclusion."

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