Failed Effort to Prove Diversity

George Leef, John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, September 30, 2008

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For years, there has been an academic industry devoted to justifying college “affirmative action”–the policy of giving preferences to some students over others based on group identification. Allegedly, that is necessary to achieve “diversity” on campus–a student body reflecting various racial and ethnic groups, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics. (People are different in far more ways than race and ethnicity, but to diversity proponents, only a few of those ways matter.)

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A paper published last March purports to find proof that diversity yields educational benefits. Authored by Steve Chatman, a researcher at the University of California, the paper “Does Diversity Matter in the Education Process?” has been extolled by Wake Forest professor Joseph Soares, who says (scroll down) that it is a “solid empirical study” demonstrating that diversity teaches students “to broaden their perspective and sensibilities.”

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The data that Chatman analyzes are questionnaires completed by a large number of students at the campuses in the University of California system. Students were asked:

How often have you gained a deeper understanding of other perspectives through conversations with fellow students because they differed from you in the following ways?

* Their religious beliefs were very different than yours.

* Their political opinions were very different from yours.

* They were of a different nationality than your own.

* They were of a different race or ethnicity than your own.

* Their sexual orientation was different.

Chatman says that the responses from students give “useful, if soft evidence of diversity benefits.” Unfortunately, this evidence can’t even be called soft. It’s nonexistent. Here’s why.

* First, self-reports are notoriously unreliable data. Many people are prone to saying what they think they ought to say on surveys. That is especially true here since, as Chatman admits, most of the students in the sample identify themselves as Democrats or learning toward the Democrats. {snip}

Also, for students who aren’t Democrats, answering that they had few or no “diversity experiences” leading to “deeper understanding” might give the impression that they aren’t sensitive individuals. That is something many people want to avoid, even on anonymous surveys.

* Second, note that the question is phrased in a way that leads to positive views about diversity. Diversity experiences are couched in language implying that they necessarily lead to “deeper understanding.” The only question is how often that happens. Lawyers would call that “leading the witness.” Logically, it’s possible that students might have diversity experiences that don’t matter at all, or even lead to antagonism, but they can’t report that.

* Third, exactly what counts as “deeper understanding”? {snip}

All that we can say for sure after looking at this data set is that a large number of UC students feel good about campus diversity. It tells us nothing at all about any changes in their behavior as a result of their “diversity experiences.” Diversity proponents make the assumption that it promotes “deeper understanding,” thus making society more harmonious, but these questionnaire responses offer no evidence of that. It’s quite possible that “diversity experiences” make no difference in real life.

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This study provides no evidence that diversity experiences in college have lasting, beneficial effects, but Chatman leaps to the conclusion that they do. He writes, “A stimulating environment of interchange among students that will help them succeed after college requires that the student body exhibit diversity in areas important to society. If students are to function effectively in a world with immigrant, political, religious, social class, and racial/ethnic differences, then the student body should include students with a variety of these characteristics.”

That’s a glaring non sequitur. The student responses Chatman analyzes do not tell us anything about the ability of graduates to “function effectively” in society. There isn’t an iota of evidence presented to show that students who have attended colleges with greater student body diversity are better at dealing with people than are students who graduated from colleges with little or no racial diversity. (Virtually every college has plenty of political, religious, and socio-economic diversity.) Chatman’s conclusion expresses the wish of diversity advocates, but his paper does nothing whatever to prove it.

He tries to shore up the paper’s weakness by pointing to statements by business executives that they favor admissions preferences for “underrepresented minorities.” In an amicus brief in Grutter v. Bollinger, General Motors asserted that it needs a work force “comprising people who have learned to work productively and creatively with individuals from a multitude of races and ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. . . .” Chatman attaches great significance to that statement, never considering the possibility that for General Motors (and other businesses), professing support for affirmative action is an inexpensive way of avoiding harassment from people like Jesse Jackson.

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To my knowledge, however, no evidence linking workplace effectiveness to the composition of the student body of an individual’s alma mater has ever been adduced. We shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for it, for the simple reason that workplace cooperation does not require deep cultural understanding among workers. Toleration suffices and most people have enough of that to get by. Highly diverse American workplaces functioned smoothly long before colleges started worrying about “diversity.”

Those who demand college “diversity” overlook the truth that every college campus is diverse. Human beings, even from the “same” group, are different in a hundreds of ways. {snip} The notion that Americans would have no “diversity experiences” if colleges didn’t employ racial preferences to ensure quotas of certain groups is absurd.

{snip} [It] is time for proponents of racial preferences to admit that this dispute is about politics rather than education.

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