The current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article defending affirmative action by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. The article is called "Why Diversity Matters" and most of it consists of the usual platitutdes: diversity is good, we need diversity, America has become more diverse, diversity enhances education, blah, blah, blah.
At one time America looked to its Ivy League presidents to provide intellectual leadership on national issues. Now hardly anyone knows who these people are, and even fewer pay attention to what they say. This is generally a good thing. Judged by the elevated standard of the past, most of these guys are pipsqueaks. But in academia, the pipsqueaks do matter. Bollinger has spearheaded the reactionary movement to protect affirmative action on the campus. He has fought have to prevent racial and ethnic preferences from being seen by courts as a straightforward violation of equal rights. In this he has been partly successful: racial preferences stagger on, battered but not yet defeated.
What interested me was this Bollinger statement: "By abolishing all public affirmative action programs, voters in California and Michigan...have not only toppled a ladder of equal opportunity in higher education and so many of us fought to build. They will almost assuredly make their great public universities less diverse--and have in fact done so in California where the impact has become clear."
Consider two scenarios for Berkeley or UCLA. In the first, the campus is 45 percent Asian, 48 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic and 3 percent black. In the second, the campus is 30 percent Asian, 55 percent white, 7 percent hispanic, and 8 percent black. Does the second scenario strike you as markedly more diverse than the first?
Actually it isn't. The fraction of minorities is roughly the same. The difference is that the first scenario is produced by merit. It represents merit-based diversity. It is a pretty good picture of what Berkeley and UCLA look like now. The second scenario is produced by racial preferences. It represents socially-engineered diversity. It is how Berkeley and UCLA used to look in the era of racial preferences.The advantage of natural diversity is that it achieves its goal without sacrificing merit. The disadvantage of socially-engineered diversity is twofold: First, it is unfair to qualified students who are denied admission. If you want to raise the proportion of under-represented groups, you have to lower the proportion of over-represented groups. But who are these over-represented groups? Basically they are Jews and Asian Americans. And they are over-represented not because they are discriminating against anybody but because they are out-performing everybody. So why should they suffer?
The second disadvantage of ethnic and racial preferences is that they often hurt the students they seek to help. How? By putting them into competition with students against whom they are mismatched. A Hispanic student who can do the work and compete effectively at San Francisco State University is admitted to Berkeley, where he is completely overwhelmed by the work and ends up at the bottom of the class, or worse, dropping out. California’s public universities had scandalous black and Hispanic dropout rates in the era of affirmative action.
I don’t’ see any evidence that people like Bollinger care. Their goal is to make the racial picture look good, to have a campus that “looks like America.” If they can issue press releases that say “Black enrollment up 15 percent,” they have achieved their goal. They simply forget to issue the other kind of press release that says that between one-third and one-half of the black students are failing to graduate. As Andre Agassi once put in in a TV commercial for a camera company, “Image is everything.”
The bottom line is that Bollinger is wrong. Yes, diversity is good for higher education, but the issue raised by affirmative action is not one of "diversity" versus "no diversity." It is a matter of the natural diversity produced by talent and hard work, versus Bollinger's type of socially engineered diversity. The National Football League doesn't look like America, the U.S. Congress doesn't look like America, Hollywood doesn't look like America, so why is it so important that UCLA or Columbia look like America? In this country what matters is not how you look but what you can do.