Almost every academic claims to value racial diversity, but few are willing to openly advocate preferring one colleague or student over another on the basis of race alone. We acknowledge that our admissions and hiring processes are monitored closely to ensure adherence to diversity-friendly practices and affirm the importance of achieving racially diverse results. Nonetheless, to admit that racial or gender preferences might factor into our actual individual decisions would be tantamount to impugning people’s qualifications. We vow to achieve diversity at all costs—but would never deliberately select people simply in order to fulfil desired racial quotas.
Our discomfort with explicit racial preferences sits awkwardly alongside our rhetoric about the value of racial diversity. That which is valuable in a colleague or student ought to be meritorious by definition. Hiring committees favour applicants with teaching and research accomplishments because we value teaching and research. Wouldn’t valuing diversity likewise mean that we should favour people whose race advances our diversity goals? If we believe that racial diversity translates to a diversity of perspectives on scholarly questions and heightened sensitivity to the diverse needs of students in the classroom, why should we be embarrassed to select people in pursuit of those benefits?
No stigma would attach to, say, a professor of finance who was hired because the university prioritised her discipline. There might be jealous murmurs about the resources showered on that field, but the bad feeling would be directed at department heads and administrators—it would not necessarily lead to negative judgments of the individual concerned. Why, then, if institutional goals include growing the numbers of faculty and students from certain racial groups, should stigma attach to people selected in pursuit of that goal?
Yet there is a stigma. Many people understandably feel slighted by suggestions that they were interviewed or hired primarily because a university needed more people from their underrepresented racial group. The suggestion stings—and it’s an accusation that is often made unjustly and in envy. However, anyone who makes it to a finalist pool must be well qualified in more than one respect. So why not make the final decision explicitly on the basis of race, if we need more racial diversity?
Well, rightly or wrongly, most people see a trait like race as distinct from what they consider more relevant qualifications like scholarly achievements, pedagogical skills and administrative experience. To be selected for one’s race rather than for such qualifications is to not be considered the equal of one’s peers—and people do not accept unequal status lightly.
However, nearly all campus rhetoric and policies starkly contradict this obvious truth. Try finding a strategic plan, mission statement, or list of core values that doesn’t praise diversity, equity and inclusion. Try finding an administrator or spokesperson who won’t insist that greater diversity is essential to the academic mission. Race certainly seems to be at least as valued as academic accomplishments. And on the rare occasions when a professor openly opposes prioritising race over other qualifications in admissions and hiring decisions—i.e. asks us not to do that thing that we solemnly deny that we are doing—scholarly communities often rally to silence him. There’s certainly the appearance of consensus.
That seeming consensus is even written into job requirements. Aspiring academics must submit diversity statements outlining how they will work to promote diversity in their jobs and institutions instruct hiring committees to give weight to these documents. Many applicants mention their own racial identities in these statements: As an [insert identity here], I am especially passionate about being a role model for my community. Evidently, they take institutions at their word that being from an underrepresented racial group is an asset. But heaven help the person who says, of course we should favour this person—she’s an [insert category here]. It would be scandalous to suggest such a compromise.
No other compromise carries a similar taboo. There would be no scandal in, for example, hiring an applicant who had published slightly less than others, if her unique expertise were particularly important to the department. A department might likewise compromise, without shame, by favouring someone with teaching awards over an applicant with a more impressive publication record, if improving teaching quality was an urgent goal. We make compromises in order to obtain something we value as a matter of course, every day. We explicitly weigh up teaching versus research, risk versus reward, publication quality versus publication quantity all the time—but few dare explicitly state their preferences for applicants from much-needed minority racial groups.
It’s not that colleges and universities decline to put their time and money where their mouths are. Almost every campus has a large and growing diversity office. Universities often employ expensive diversity consultants. People on hiring and admissions committees attend diversity trainings. We are unapologetic about taking race into consideration in everything except the decision that matters most: which applicant should we select?
Perhaps this reluctance is due to a fear of legal repercussions. However, the law only forbids us from excluding people from employment on the basis of characteristics that are irrelevant to the job. . By that logic, race is a bona fide job qualification—as relevant as an applicant’s track record in teaching and research. Given the apparently overwhelming consensus on the salience of racial diversity to our educational missions, why could academic institutions not justify taking race into consideration in our hiring and admissions decisions? Given how often researchers claim that more racially diverse teams do better work, institutions could surely argue the point successfully if challenged in court.
I believe the double-talk on this issue springs from a well-founded suspicion that the apparent consensus about the central importance of racial diversity is fragile—even among those minority groups who supposedly benefit from it. We academics are ambitious at best, vain at worst. Few of us would find it acceptable to be considered subpar in our highly competitive fields. Of course, a great many—probably most—students and academics from under-represented groups deserve no such label. They would have secured admission or employment without affirmative action or diversity preferences. But they are caught in a lose-lose situation. The system doesn’t explicitly favour them, but nonetheless hints—just loudly enough to encourage resentment—that they were the recipients of unfair advantages. If we made it explicit that someone was chosen over another person because of her race, this would surely amplify the resentment, distrust and self-doubt.
But we need to be honest about our values and priorities. If the need for racial diversity must factor into our decisions, we should say so. Justice O’Connor makes a strong argument in favour of this in her 2003 opinion upholding affirmative action in Grutter v Bollinger:
In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. All members of our heterogeneous society must have confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide this training.
Tellingly, even this ruling frames it as a matter of ensuring that our educational institutions are open to all and that we select on the basis of talent and qualifications, rather than racial preferences. Our discomfort with such preferences shows through even in efforts to uphold them.
Not everyone is so conflicted, of course. Ted Spencer was the director of admissions at the University of Michigan when the school was sued for considering race in admissions decisions. In a recent interview, he asks:
How do you establish an admissions policy to bring in more students … who have not had the college prep in high school? How prepared are faculty members to teach students who aren’t as strong? How do you find those minority students? It takes commitment.
Spencer’s candour is laudable. He wants to admit racially diverse students, but he acknowledges that some of these students might be academically weaker than their classmates because they have not had the same schooling advantages (there’s no implication that race and intelligence are linked here, nor need we make any such conjecture) and he knows that their teachers will have to deal with that fact. He sees and accepts the compromises required to act on his values.
Some people, however, respect diversity goals but believe that the required compromises go too far. Favouring one group—even in the subtlest and most nuanced ways—inevitably means disfavouring another. This will always be controversial. People dislike unfairness as much on an individual level as they do on a group level. Also, history looms large in conversations about diversity. Even if we agree that people should be punished for the sins of their ancestors, this is an argument that cuts both ways. Many descendants of Asian and Eastern European immigrants may feel understandably resentful if they are held to higher admissions standards because of their race by university administrators, many of whom are themselves descended from white elites who accrued their family wealth by exploiting slaves and immigrants.
We could easily rebut such arguments, however, by keeping our unwavering focus on the present, especially if we believe that racial diversity and diversity of opinion are correlated. If so, then when academics and students represent the full spectrum of racial backgrounds in society, they are more likely to bring a broad spectrum of ideas and perspectives to academic discussions. The fact that some groups do not presently cultivate as many academic high achievers as others only makes it all the more crucial that we bring them into the academic fold as students, and that we select faculty members who will understand their needs and perspectives. Racial preferences should not be seen as compensation for past injustices, but efforts to build more effective academic institutions today. Just like the decision to hire someone with more teaching experience over a more prolific researcher or the decision to hire an economist, rather than a historian, this is about institutional needs rather than fairness to individuals.
Whether or not you, the reader, find that argument compelling is ultimately irrelevant. Though the Supreme Court is likely to overturn O’Connor’s equivocal ruling, the democratic process exists precisely so that popular movements can effect change. If the evidence demonstrates the importance of selecting for racial diversity, then the voting public will surely agree.
But what if many people—both in academia and in the wider body politic—are only paying lip service to diversity and do not truly believe that it is of sufficient value to justify discriminating against individuals on the basis of race; or at least cannot justify doing so often enough to effect system-wide statistical changes? Then we need to confront the deeper problem: the reasons why fewer members of certain minority groups are well prepared for university. No amount of public handwringing about white supremacy and the like will improve anyone’s academic preparation.
So why are members of some racial groups underperforming academically? That problem has long bedevilled educational reformers. To tackle it will require diligent, long-term work on many fronts, both on and off campus. Improving the well-being of the less fortunate and ensuring everyone has an equal chance to flourish is our duty as human beings—it is not just the province of academic admissions and hiring committees. We should do whatever our consciences allow (and be honest and clear sighted about any trade-offs this might require).
One thing is clear: any institution that consciously and explicitly prefers applicants from minority racial groups can no longer be said to be white supremacist. This is good. But if discriminating in favour of people on the basis of their race is inconsistent with law or conscience, then we should stop expecting admissions and hiring processes to yield outcomes that are more racially diverse than the available applicant pools. We must acknowledge that the paucity of applicants from minority racial backgrounds is the limiting factor and outline the actions needed to address this as early as possible.
And, whatever we believe, we must ditch the corporate doublespeak and obscurantist bureaucratese and be honest about what we most value.