Here we go again.
The recent news that the Trump administration may use the U.S. Justice Department’s front office to investigate the use of affirmative action in colleges and universities demonstrates the challenge of clear and accurate communication regarding this hot-button subject. When a simple idea clashes with one that is complicated and nuanced, often the truth loses out.
Those who oppose affirmative action, calling it “reverse discrimination,” use the language of “equal treatment,” “color blindness” or “nondiscrimination.” They have a simple and powerful argument: treat everyone exactly the same. Easy enough as a sound bite. After all, who wants to argue for unequal or discriminatory treatment of college applicants?
The Justice Department used this type of language when it recently signaled that it intends to conduct “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions,” a statement that has been widely interpreted to mean that the department has affirmative action admissions in its sights.
The truth, however, is far more complicated and complex. While the language of “equal treatment” sounds fair, the effect of such supposedly “color-blind” practices in the college admissions context is the opposite of fair. In fact, when we fail to account for the differential experiences and varied contributions of applicants, we create a college environment that limits opportunity and impoverishes the learning environment for all students.
The truth -- borne out by decades of research and campus experiences -- is that having a racially and ethnically diverse student body is a critical component of an excellent education that prepares students for the complex and diverse world they will face after graduation. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has twice held that a public university has a compelling interest of the highest order in achieving diversity on campus. The social science fully supports the court’s conclusion.
Here's what we learned in the course of working at the University of Michigan on the landmark 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger cases, later affirmed in the 2016 Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin decision as well: all students, majority and minority, benefit from participating in a diverse classroom and exchanging ideas on a richly diverse campus. (While affirmative action opponents are fond of reducing the debate to racial identity, universities define diversity quite broadly in practice and look across the range of human experience, talent and identity to compose an incoming class.) Students learn from the perspectives of others -- especially when those perspectives run counter to common stereotypes. They discover how to work within a cross-cultural team, grapple with difficult conversations and re-examine their own assumptions. At a campus that is truly working hard on diversity in the student experience, students gain a powerful set of skills they cannot get anywhere else, which better prepares them to be successful in a global marketplace.
The positive impact of diversity is not just some “fuzzy” argument that educators came up with to defend their practices. University of Michigan political scientist and economist Scott E. Page has demonstrated empirically the ways in which diverse teams are better at solving problems. (If you haven’t seen Page’s talk on YouTube, we highly recommend it.)
The leaders of large, complex organizations understand this, and they are clamoring for campuses to create dynamic and diverse learning environments. When the Supreme Court heard Michigan’s cases, we were struck by the powerful, supportive amicus briefs filed by leaders in the U.S. military as well as an impressive collection of Fortune 500 CEOs. Those leaders argued persuasively that the strength of our military and the competitiveness of our business sector require employees who have experienced diversity on campuses and acquired the essential skills they need to operate in the world.
As Justice Lewis F. Powell observed in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, “People do not learn very much when surrounded by the likes of themselves.” Perhaps now, more than ever before in American history, we see problems that can arise when people retreat into echo chambers and do not encounter (and learn from) those with different backgrounds, life experiences and viewpoints.
If fairness is the baseline, consider this. “Treating everyone the same” does not account for vitally important factors in the consideration of underrepresented minority college applicants. Applicants from certain minority groups often do not come to the admissions competition on equal footing. Some minority students, though demonstrating great promise, have not had access to the level of academic preparation and economic opportunity that their majority counterparts have had. They come in disproportionate numbers from poor and struggling schools, putting them at a marked disadvantage when they take standardized tests or try to navigate the admissions process. (That may be true of students from rural schools as well, who also are beneficiaries of affirmative action in the college admissions process.)
Yet the students from such backgrounds who are admitted to top universities have excelled and shown signs of academic promise despite such obstacles, which illuminates their future potential. Given this picture, the inclusion of race as one of the many factors considered by universities allows them to look more deeply and holistically at all of the attributes that students might bring to campus.
Some have argued that focusing solely on low socioeconomic status can eliminate the need to consider race, but the numbers don’t support this. While universities do try to admit students from socioeconomic disadvantage, there are many more poor white students than minorities. Because minorities are minorities within every socioeconomic group, an approach based on class cannot, by itself, produce a racially and ethnically diverse student body.
Additionally, when we study the effects in states that have outlawed affirmative action, we find that, whatever the rhetoric, in reality the actual enrollment of minority students drops. At the University of Michigan, the evidence shows that the inability to consider race negatively affected student racial diversity despite a decade’s worth of race-neutral recruitment programs. In its amicus brief in the Fisher case, the university noted downward racial enrollment trends in the wake of 2007’s Proposition 2.
The truth is, there is no effective proxy for the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions.
We recognize that the arguments in support of affirmative action are complicated. They are high-definition messages in a low-definition world. The opponents of affirmative action have it easy: they can point to a student who didn’t get in, supposedly because of affirmative action (although we would argue that is never the reason). They can make their case in a sentence, a phrase or even a word like “fairness.”
As communicators and educators, we need to work harder than ever to clearly and persuasively convey the educational and societal benefits of a richly diverse university environment, as well as the educational and societal risks we take in severely limiting such diversity. Research suggests that the public understands these arguments. Pew Research Center surveys in 2003 and again in 2014 found that more than 60 percent of Americans support affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of minority students on campuses. But underneath those numbers is a racial and partisan divide that underscores our challenge.
The recent announcement of the Justice Department investigation has restarted our national conversation about affirmative action yet again. There will be a lot of simple catchphrases tossed around, but this much is clear: campus diversity is a tremendously important educational and societal good, and we must find ever better ways to communicate its importance.