THANKS TO the foot-chewing antics of Board of Visitors member Terence P. Ross, the University recently descended into a deep pit of controversy regarding the status of affirmative action. Open letters have been written, tents have been erected, vitriol has been spewed, and songs have been sung. Yet the situation that confronts the University is the same. The president and rector both are committed to continuing race preferences, but they must also admit the possibility that a legal challenge may end that policy. Such an admission does not reflect a form of paranoia. There are good reasons why an affirmative action admissions policy -- a good program -- could well be overturned in court.
An inspection of affirmative action boils down to the simplest of analyses. We have two categories: ends and means. If the ends are good, and the means achieve them without violating the Constitution, then the program need not fear an untimely demise at the hands of the courts.
Since the context of the preferences under study is educational, the ends we look at ought to be educational in nature as well. Students should be admitted to a University with the goal of producing the best possible intellectual community. Selection with an eye toward other goals is incommensurate with the purpose of a university. So if the use of race preferences is to be valid, the goal of the practice has to be the creation of a superior intellectual community.
Preferences are said to achieve this goal by supporting diversity. In the context of a liberal arts education, this explanation is more than adequate. After all, education in the college emphasizes familiarity with a variety of academic subjects. Essentially, educators hope that exposure to alternate viewpoints will enable students to approach problems from multiple angles, and thus become better critical thinkers.
Diversity of the population, therefore, is a beneficial addition to the educational experience that college provides -- allowing a diversity not only of study, but also of personal opinion and experience. Diversity provides a tangible benefit in a liberal arts education.
The question then becomes: Is this reasoning universally applicable? Suppose I were to consider a group of applicants to the Engineering School. Is there a benefit to be gained by ensuring that the pool of applicants is diverse? In this case, the matter is not so clear. In a technical field, a diversity of opinions, cultures and experiences does not offer so obvious a benefit to the students. Surely, their lives will be enriched by the presence of those who have different backgrounds, but in a technical field the academic benefit is not as certain.
When academic diversity is not a focus of education, the status of cultural diversity as a justification for race preferences in admissions is dubious. While the promotion of diversity is an end justified in the College, it may not stand up in court when the University tries to apply to the Engineering School or the School of Medicine. That puts the program at risk.
Yet we still have not discussed the means. Assuming that diversity is the goal, can race-based preferences achieve it? Here again, the program becomes dubious. A person's race frankly suggests nothing about his or her personal beliefs, life experiences, viewpoint or culture. To suggest that it does is to accept the racist's assumption that skin color can reveal some characteristic of a person. There may be a difference in tone between "black people are lazy," and "Asian people have strong families," but the statements contain identical logical flaws that make them prejudicial and racist. In reality, admitting people of diverse races diversifies nothing except the view.
Nonetheless, affirmative action may be on safer ground than the previous reasoning would suggest. To obtain an accurate idea of each individual applicant's perspective on the world would require an almost ludicrous amount of time from the admissions staff at the University. Already overworked, they would have to change so as to wade through even more data. And what form would it take? More essay questions? A bubble-in sheet? Either way, the admissions staff could be overwhelmed by a sea of mostly irrelevant information. Achieving the end of diversity would become almost impossible.
The system as it stands is a compromise. Admittedly, selection on the basis of race is not adequate to ensure diversity. But using race in conjunction with the essays and scores we already require is the best way to simultaneously maximize both diversity and admissions efficiency.
What the administrators here at the University do not know is whether that compromise will satisfy the courts. We can't find out until we're challenged. The use of race-based preferences is a well-intentioned policy. We should, however, be aware that the policy is not as sound as it could be, and thus may present a legal problem for the University.
(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)