At Penn, it seems that the need for racial and gender diversity is never very far from anyone’s mind. Olympian figureheads remind us that “our quest for eminence [at Penn] depends on great minds that represent a wide array of perspectives and backgrounds.” Eager freshmen echo the idea more simply: “I love how diverse we are — I mean, we’ve got whites and Asians and blacks ...”
This enthusiasm is well grounded. Empirical study and common sense both indicate that diversity of thought fosters innovation and success. Furthermore, since “visible diversity” (diversity in race, gender, age and like variables) correlates to diversity of thought in many areas, it is not surprising that visible diversity has been found to contribute to innovative accomplishment.
What is slightly unintuitive, however, is the fact that Penn seems to emphasize visible diversity more than intellectual diversity. Penn’s Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence, for example, is replete with programs and statistics on recruiting women and minorities. But scarcely any concrete action is outlined to ensure that each department enjoys a diversity of intellectual viewpoints.
This is curious in and of itself. This begs the question: Which will contribute more to a student’s learning experience in, say, the Political Science Department — learning from a radical feminist and a conservative Republican who both happen to be men or learning from two conservative Republicans, one of whom is a man and the other a woman? Bearing in mind that Penn’s Political Science Department is already about 30 percent female and considering only the benefits brought to the University by diversity of thought, it would seem strange to emphasize recruiting more women over recruiting staff with a broader spectrum of intellectual perspectives.
But the question becomes even more puzzling when one considers the goals set by administrators in achieving visible diversity. Such goals typically focus on achieving a racial/ethnic makeup that reflects American population surveys.
At first glance, it would seem impossible to obtain more diversity of thought than can be achieved by a student body representative of the American population. However, this is not always the case for selective schools. This is because some historically persecuted minorities — Asians and Jews in particular — significantly outperform the general population in academic pursuits. Thus, it is possible to actually increase diversity at elite schools by admitting larger numbers of these minorities and smaller numbers of already well-represented ethnic groups.
It seems that many admissions offices have been slow to realize this. For example, prior to 1996, University of California, Berkeley admitted Asian applicants at rates about 10 percent below other ethnic groups. After California law forced UC Berkeley to disregard race in admissions in 1997, the gap between admissions rates for Asians and all other races snapped shut, and the number of Asians accepted to UC Berkeley climbed steadily from about 35 percent in 1995 to about 45 percent in 2012.
Media outlets like The New York Times deplored the fact that color-blind admissions had a negative effect on “underrepresented” minority enrollment. But it was generally ignored that racially-coded admissions policies at UC Berkeley actually decreased diversity in some cases by favoring white applicants over Asian applicants. Studies of multiple elite universities indicate this trend extended (and probably continues to extend) far beyond UC Berkeley — at least with regards to the test scores expected of Asian Americans in elite college admissions.
Interestingly, when the media underscores the destructive consequences of race-blind admission on enrollment from “underrepresented” groups, they tend to commit the same error — assuming that these groups are underrepresented by the difference between their presence in a geographic area and their presence on a college campus. According to The New York Times, for example, because 49 percent of California’s college-aged residents were Hispanic in 2011 compared to only 11 percent of UC Berkeley freshmen at the time, UC Berkeley suffered from a Hispanic “enrollment gap” of 38 percentage points.
The implicit assumption was that the enrollment gap would be eliminated and diversity would be achieved only when UC Berkeley’s campus was roughly half Hispanic and a whole lot less Asian.
Now, there may be reasons separate from the positive effects of intellectual diversity to adjust enrollment at UC Berkeley so that it reflects the population demographics of California. For example, it might be considered good for California to promote academic achievement in the Hispanic population. But past a certain point the costs in doing so would have to be justified by reasons other than the widely appreciated value of diversity on a college campus.
JEREMIAH KEENAN is a College junior from China studying mathematics and classical studies. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Keen on the Truth” appears every other Wednesday.
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