Abigail Fisher is a white Texan who applied to the University of Texas and was denied admission. On Oct. 10, NPR further explained that Fisher claims the denial was caused by her skin color; that is, because the University of Texas utilizes race conscious admission policies, otherwise known as affirmative action. As the Supreme Court is now hearing her case against the University of Texas, and affirmative action at large, we would do well to consider the issue, too.
On the surface, it appears this is a competition of values: fairness versus diversity. I argue this is sadly oversimplified.
Opponents of affirmative action generally maintain the policy is inherently unfair. The party asserts that it is ridiculously unfair for a white person who is “more qualified” than, say, an African-American, could potentially lose a job or college placement because the African-American person is African-American. The African-American student is simply thought as “less qualified” than the white student, highlighting the unfairness of the situation.
Proponents of affirmative action champion the policy’s prioritization of diversity. Affirmative action ensures institutions will thrive with people of diverse backgrounds. After all, with regard to universities specifically, education is now being conceptualized to include things like multicultural competence and intercultural communication. If we think the aforementioned things are importance in a holistic education, then filling classrooms with diverse students makes sense.
In terms of the proponent argument, I am surprised by the almost tunnel-vision focus on racial diversity. Does it not follow that other forms of diversity can contribute to an employee or student’s experience just as meaningfully? By the logic of diversity, college admissions should consider gender, religion, class and other forms of classification so as to diversify the student population.
According to The New York Times of Oct. 13, during the Supreme Court arguments regarding Fisher, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy skeptically responded to the university lawyer’s argument, “So what you’re saying is that what counts is race above all.”
The aforementioned article offers a wonderful indictment of current affirmative action: “On college campuses, administrators have insisted for years that they care about disadvantage, beyond race, but they have done relatively little about it. They have preferred a version of diversity focused on elites from every race.”
Nonetheless, I think the opponent’s appeal to fairness is problematic. There are several instances in which special consideration is given to applicants: athletic students, children of alumni and international students for example. Suppose one argues these groups are given their special status because of the unique perspective they provide in the classroom. If one accepts these reasons for favorability, affirmative action is perfectly reasonable.
Ultimately, I think affirmative action has merit. At the end of the day, I don’t think admissions programs are (or at least should not be) black and white. While each side of this explosive argument attempts to caricaturize the other, the standards admissions departments should be multifaceted: grades, standardized test scores, leadership roles, diversity and such.
Each of these facets offers a distinct look into a person’s identity and any attempt to limit that look is short-sighted.
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