When a college administrator uses the word "diversity," it is a near certainty that a series of clichés or evasions will soon follow. Nowhere is this principle of contemporary academic life on starker display than the University of Michigan's attempts to defend its racial quota system favoring black applicants.
The Bush administration has filed a brief on behalf of the plaintiffs in a case challenging the quota system that is now before the Supreme Court, which -- by any fair reading of the law -- should strike it down. The court's recent jurisprudence says that racial discrimination by governmental bodies must meet a "strict scrutiny" standard, including that it serves a "compelling governmental interest."
What is the compelling interest in the Michigan case? The school maintains that students learn better in a diverse environment created by racial discrimination. This argument has become known as the "diversity rationale."
It has its roots in an opinion by Justice Lewis Powell in the famous 1978 Bakke case, striking down (sort of) a quota at the medical school of the University of California-Davis. Powell argued that diversity as a way to improve education was a "constitutionally permissible goal," because learning "is widely believed to be promoted by a diverse student body."
Michigan is straining to justify its quotas on exactly these grounds. Otherwise, as even one of the university's amicus briefs has conceded, Michigan's quota would amount to "the impermissible objective of attaining racial diversity for its own sake."
The problem is that Western learning thrived for centuries before anyone thought of racial diversity. Did Immanuel Kant suffer from the stultifying racial sameness of the University of Koenigsberg? Was Bertrand Russell hampered by the monochromatic classrooms of Cambridge?
The difficulty of defending the "diversity rationale" is presumably why Michigan had to call in a professor of psychology and women's studies, a member of its own faculty named Patricia Gurin. Much of Michigan's case hinges on her report attempting to prove the "diversity rationale."
The report is a parody of social-science mumbo jumbo, dotted with such terms as "social identity," "automaticity" and "minded thought." Gurin contends that diversity improves both "learning outcomes" ("students learn more and think in deeper, more complex ways in a diverse educational environment") and "democracy outcomes" (students are better able to "appreciate the common values and integrative forces that harness differences in pursuit of the common good").
This is, uh, not exactly hard science. As a devastating National Association of Scholars critique points out, what Gurin measures, in the main, is whether students participated in racial- or ethnic-studies courses -- an issue related to curriculum, not to admissions policies. Even students in an all-white classroom can be harangued about diversity.
As for Gurin's analysis of "learning outcomes," it includes students' self-evaluations of their "complex thinking." As the NAS counterreport puts it, "These variables measure, at most, whether students believe they should value complex thinking, not whether they are capable of it."
The one solid academic measure Gurin includes is college grades, and she finds no significant correlation of it with diversity. Indeed, a more comprehensive (and less tendentious) study published by two economists in the Journal of Economic Literature in 2000 concluded, "There is no evidence of the positive (or negative) effects of a diverse student body on educational quality."
What Michigan can perhaps demonstrate is that a relentless emphasis on diversity on campus tends to make students more liberal. Gurin counts, for instance, environmental activism as a positive outcome from Michigan's diversity policies. Another study that the school relies on contends that a "student outcome that is positively associated with individual diversity activities ... is political liberalism."
This hints at a deeper agenda: bending everything -- not just the admissions process, but curriculum and students' attitudes -- to creating more liberals, and thus more defenders of quotas and racial consciousness. For the University of Michigan, pushing this politicized agenda no doubt constitutes a "compelling interest." It shouldn't for the Supreme Court, or anyone else.