Affirmative action, and its role in the American university system, has always been a contentious issue. With the Supreme Court granting certiorari last month to Fisher v. The University of Texas, affirmative action is once again at the front of the debate over higher education. The case involves two white applicants, both rejected from the University of Texas at Austin, who filed suit claiming that the university’s admissions policies unconstitutionally discriminated against them on the basis of race. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the most recent affirmative action case before the Court, the majority ruled that the Constitution “does not prohibit the [University of Michigan Law School’s] narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”
Although many support affirmative action as a way to correct for past and/or present racial discrimination, universities rely on this diversity argument to justify their race-based admissions policies. Stanford is no different, referencing on its web page a “commitment to diversity” that includes, but is not limited to, diversity in terms of race and ethnicity. Were Stanford to eliminate affirmative action practices, Stanford’s student body would become less racially diverse, similar to what happened with the University of California schools after Proposition 209 prohibited race-based admissions policies in 1996.
Indeed, this Editorial Board believes avoiding racial homogenization in elite educational institutions is certainly a worthwhile goal; among other positive benefits, a university with more diversity (defined broadly) can attract a larger applicant pool and improve the experiences of all students. However, we believe that the traditional diversity argument for affirmative action has troubling components, primarily in treating underrepresented minorities – Hispanics, Native Americans and African Americans – as a means to the educational outcomes of whites and Asians, the two predominant groups at top universities today.
In Grutter, the majority affirmed the Law School’s policy to admit a diverse group of students who, among other things, would “‘contribute to the learning of those around them.’” On its face, this practice is hardly objectionable – we all want our peers to improve our overall experience. But at its core, this practice treats these “diverse” students as a means to the education of the white/Asian majority. Although this may not seem pernicious at first, in practice we often see the less appealing effects of the diversity-as-a-means argument.
At Stanford, the debate over the presence of ethnic theme dorms is one such unforeseen effect. A 2010 article in the Stanford Review argued that the presence of ethnic theme dorms “denies the significant benefits of a diverse residence to the rest of the Stanford community.” Regardless of one’s stance on ethnic theme dorms, the article points out a valid hypocrisy in the traditional diversity justification. Stanford is committed to admitting minority students who, among other things, create a racially diverse class. But at what point does this commitment end? If we are to take the Review article at face value, some students clearly believe that white students at Stanford have a right to live with students from a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds, regardless of the wishes of those minority students.
This logic is deeply troubling. Underrepresented minorities should not be at Stanford because their presence benefits a particular group of students. No student at Stanford should be viewed as instrumental in that way. Though we support race-based affirmative action to bring about a more diverse student body, we reject the justification that diversity should be promoted as a means toward improved educational experiences for the majority group. Rather, this Board feels there are other compelling reasons for increasing diversity that do not rely on treating one group as instrumental to another. Stanford, and other elite institutions, should begin to fully explore the nuances of their affirmative action policies and ultimately frame them in a more appropriate manner.