The vanity of diversity

By Michael S. Greve

The Weekly Standard, July 20, 1998

Robert Berdahl is profoundly unhappy about the demise of racial preferences for admissions to the University of California. The lower enrollment of black students, Berdahl complains, “diminishes us. The royal us is Berkeley, the prestigious University of California campus over which Berdahl presides. His lament illustrates a curious twist in the civil-rights debate: Affirmative action is no longer defended for promoting racial equality, or minority rights, or equal opportunity for disadvantaged individuals. The defenders of affirmative action now rest their case on institutional needs, especially the purported needs of elite universities.

The groundwork for this defense was laid by the Supreme Court 20 years ago in Justice Powell’s opinion in the Bakke case, the high court’s first substantive ruling on reverse discrimination, and the first ruling to invoke diversity. Powell’s opinion permitted universities to use preferences (though not quotas) in their admissions procedures to ensure a racially diverse student population. The opinion described the compelling diversity interest as an institutional privilege. However, Powell’s diversity was plainly intended as a rationale to sustain race-based entitlement programs that could no longer be justified as remedial compensation for past discrimination. Though not a minority right, diversity was seen as a way for the institution to do good for black students.

Now, two decades later, institutional concerns have come to be viewed as ends in themselves. We must have racial preferences, the argument goes, so that elite colleges may remain racially diverse—irrespective of what good, if any, racial preferences may do for the favored students themselves. The preoccupation with institutional needs is most pronounced at elite universities in Texas and California, where the law now prohibits racial preferences in student admissions. At the University of Texas, racial preferences were banned by a 1996 appeals-court decision, Hopwood v. State of Texas. In May of this year, the University of Texas regents authorized a second attempt to persuade the Supreme Court to overrule the Hopwood precedent. Because of Hopwood, the university now complains, institutions in the state of Texas are at a competitive disadvantage in the recruitment of [minority] students. In other words, the University of Texas deserves to use racial preferences not because black and Hispanic Texans can no longer obtain a first-class education, but because they do obtain a good education elsewhere, and on better terms.

The same mindset is in evidence at Berkeley and at UCLA, where colorblind admission practices were mandated by the 1996 ballot initiative known as Proposition 209. Enrollment of black and Latino students at the two elite campuses has since fallen roughly by half. While substantial, this drop corresponds to higher minority enrollment at other,less demanding institutions in the University of California system, such as Riverside. The scholars Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom have argued that this shift may be a blessing in disguise. Many students who used to be quota-ed into the two flagship colleges predictably flunked out. (The drop-out rate among black Berkeley students enrolled before Proposition 209 was an appalling 42 percent.) Now, under colorblind admission norms, minority students, like white students, are sorting themselves into institutions from which they are likely to graduate.

UCLA professor James Q. Wilson has observed that what happens at Berkeley and UCLA is not a measure of the college opportunities open to people. Instead of obsessing over the racial makeup of a few elite campuses, Wilson suggests, we should examine the enrollment decisions of California’s minority students. Such a study would likely confirm the Thernstroms’ suggestion that the demise of racial preferences hasn’t deprived a single black or Latino student of the opportunity to pursue a higher education commensurate with his or her talents and ambition. In part, this is so because competitive schools outside California and Texas continue to administer preferences. But even if racial preferences in admissions were outlawed across the country, qualified minority students would continue to be recruited like star quarterbacks.

The education establishment does not bother to dispute these observations. No defender of racial preferences has seriously responded to the Thernstroms’ argument, and none is likely to pursue Wilson’s research agenda. The existence the continued existence of ample educational opportunities for kids of all races ought to be a point of pride for a democratic society. But for the establishment, it counts for nothing because, race-neutral admission practices fail to produce the desired color scheme at a few top-drawer institutions.

In an effort to disguise the naked pursuit of race for the sake of institutional vanity, some education leaders argue that racial diversity is essential to sound education. In the wake of highly publicized lawsuits over racial preferences in student admissions at their school, University of Michigan president Lee Bollinger and provost Nancy Kantor have defended racial preferences as a necessary means of preventing the university’s resegregation. Encountering differences rather than one’s mirror image, Bollinger and Cantor have written, is an essential part of a good education. Race is educationally important for all students, because understanding race in America is a powerful metaphor for crossing sensibilities of all kinds.

The runaway rhetoric of this argument barely conceals its chilling implications: Black students those admitted under preferences, and those who would have made it anyhow are a public good. The University of Michigan deemed them worthy participants in an institutional experiment in racial integration. The institutional purpose trumps any individual’s actual rights, interests, or preferences. The purpose, moreover, is not simply one educational model (among many others) that the University of Michigan has chosen to pursue. It is essential to every institution of higher learning. We are being asked to believe that no good education can be had at historically black colleges; that none was had at the pre-quota Ivys; that none can be had at state universities that, for demographic reasons, are predominantly white. Diversity-based race preferences, defended in Bakke as a permissible option, have metastasized into orthodoxy a prerequisite of any education worth having, at any institution of higher education in the United States.

There is not a shred of evidence that a public policy of preferring some minority students under separate and lower standards facilitates education or racial integration, and the claim goes against all reason and experience. Mutual respect and understanding the crossing of sensibilities, as Bollinger and Kantor put it require a credible presumption of equality. The public knowledge of dual standards erodes the purported benefits of preference-induced diversity.

For precisely this reason, colleges and universities used to treat their dual admission standards as a state secret. Public disclosures in the wake of Prop 209 and federal lawsuits have rendered this strategy impossible. But the establishment’s dogmatic faith has remained unshaken. This faith is being urged and enforced day in, day out by the American Council on Education, the Law School Admission Council, the Office of Civil Rights, and a gaggle of accrediting and professional associations.

Harvard professor Nathan Glazer, a recent convert to the cause of affirmative action, has a more cynical, or, as he calls it, realistic perspective. He argues that we should permit racial preferences, though only for blacks and only in limited areas foremost, in admissions to elite colleges. Glazer emphasizes the country’s special obligation to blacks, imposed by almost 400 years of slavery, followed by state-sanctioned discrimination, and he insists that the virtual absence of blacks from elite institutions would send a message of despair. In explaining his change of mind on affirmative action, he mentions unforeseen realities the collapse of the black family and the continued disintegration of inner cities.

But racial preferences cannot arrest (never mind reverse) social disintegration, and they can discharge the country’s special obligation only in a symbolic sense. In other words, affirmative action is a placebo at best.

However, the placebo tastes extremely bitter. Once affirmative action is widely known to be a make-believe policy, its message isn’t that elite institutions care about blacks but that they pretend to care. Perhaps the objects of their sympathies won’t be able to tell the difference. But even on this demeaning assumption, the affirmative-action message is decidedly mixed. If different and lower standards for blacks and, under Glazer’s proposal, for blacks alone signal concern, they also imply an assumption that blacks, alone among all ethnic and racial groups, cannot make it on their own.

Glazer states this premise with brutal candor in a recent article in the New Republic and without any awareness that the candor vitiates the policy. Affirmative action was extended from blacks to other racial groups and to women in large measure so as to elevate affirmative action from a humiliating special-assistance program to a general principle compensatory justice at first, then, starting with Bakke, diversity. The pretense that affirmative action is for all minorities those who need it and those who don’t is essential to the policy.

The only constituency that wants the affirmative-action placebo is the higher-education establishment. Competitive universities fundamentally don’t care that racial preferences are a make-believe policy. They want racial diversity for the sake of their own anxiety about appearances. During the Hopwood litigation, the University of Texas pointed to sustained discrimination in Texas elementary schools (including and especially districts that have been run for decades by federal judges) and argued that therefore the law school should be permitted to import two dozen black out-of-state students under preferential admission standards. There was no credible claim that this racial set-aside would do anything to remedy discrimination in the elementary schools of Texas, or that it was required for reasons of fairness and justice. Rather, the law school’s spokesmen argued that the school needed minority students to be perceived as fair.

Image is everything. While aspiring to elite standards, the University of Texas, Berkeley, UCLA, and similar institutions lack the confidence to be elitist or even to explain to the public (black, brown, or white) that meritocratic elite institutions, almost by definition, won’t be representational by any measure, including race. Elite universities want an egalitarian veneer of minority students.

The exalted notion of the place of elite universities in American public life the idea, as Glazer and others have argued, that Berkeley or Harvard must have a presentable number of black students because, otherwise, there goes American democracy in the end arises from the fact that the leaders of our prestige colleges have no elitist convictions, only pretensions. Confronted with the specter of meritocratic resegregation under colorblind norms, selective institutions will preserve minority enrollment by compromising their standards. President Bollinger knows this: Already, the University of Michigan has effectively abolished the SAT test as a principal admission criterion.

The place of elite institutions especially public elite institutions in a democratic society is always somewhat precarious. Still, the diversity establishment’s dire predictions of a fearful alternative if they are not allowed to maintain racial preferences resegregation or institutional collapse is a gross, condescending exaggeration. The muted public response to the resegregation jeremiads shows that, yes, the voters want diverse campuses, but not at the price of race discrimination. If a handful of elite campuses have fewer minority students than they think they should have, Americans will live with it. They do not believe that these institutions are remotely so important to American democracy, or that racial disparities at these institutions are remotely so devastating to blacks, as their leaders like to think. These sensible intuitions have failed to register with an establishment that views itself as a beacon of enlightenment in a sea of latent racism. Instead, elite universities extol their own importance and demand a special dispensation from the non-discrimination norms that apply to everyone else.

Among all our institutions, universities should be the last to receive such a dispensation. No other institution has done so much to inflame racialist passions. No CEO of a private corporation could survive the racial animosity, the self-segregation, the minority attrition rates, and the wallowing in identity politics that have come to characterize the nation’s campuses. No other institution has so unctuously urged candor in the race debate and so systematically concealed and lied about its own policies.

Up to a point, it turns out, we do exempt university leaders from the ordinary rules. To this day, elite universities insist that race is at most a minor factor in student admissions in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Were we to demand of university presidents the honesty and candor on diversity policies that we demand of, say, the management of Texaco, they’d all be in jail.

The institutional prestige of elite universities reaches far enough to avert such a spectacle. But it reaches no further.