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January 23, 2003


Media coverage of the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision to rule on challenges to the University of Michigan’s admission policies has mistakenly equated affirmative action with diversity, as if the two concepts or public policies were joined at the hip.

Affirmative action promotes preferential treatment for minorities, generally black Americans, while diversity, as at Michigan, seeks to establish an environment in colleges and universities aimed at enhancing the learning process. Diversity and affirmative action are not redundant.

The Supreme Court’s decision to adjudicate the University of Michigan’s litigious use of race for achieving diversity for its law school and undergraduate students is better understood by viewing the issue comprehensively. Michigan concentrates its efforts on broadening its student demographics on diversity, not on an affirmative action strategy that conjures up discredited quotas, preferences and set-asides that treat white applicants unfairly. Civil rights legislation is supposed to be color-blind and not color-favoring. It is repugnant, even unlawful, to achieve benefits for one race by unjustly discriminating against another race. Diversity, an endgame necessary for the delivery of sound and enduring learning outcomes, is not freighted with cumbersome and warped affirmative action baggage.

It is true that another way that affirmative action is used is as an affirmation of the American dream for individuals who have heretofore been locked out from the realization of that aspiration. However, affirmative action is in effect infirmative action, an action that disenfranchises some white people, is not fair, just or democratic. For this reason, we applaud Michigan’s conduit of diversity as a palliative for retaining the good intentions of affirmative action while avoiding its malignancies. And let’s be clear about one thing: Ours is not a case of old wine (affirmative action) in a new bottle (diversity). At the heart of affirmative action is, essentially, preferential treatment for black Americans, whereas at the heart of diversity is the promotion of a principle, advocacy of a policy, a championing of a social philosophy that favors all — blacks, whites, yellows and browns. In the university setting diversity enhances the learning environment for all students.

Many educators look to diversity as a pot of gold for their academic landscapes. It is their credo that the diverse classroom is a salutary environment for learning, mutual understanding and critical thinking. Derek Bok, formerly the president of Harvard and dean of its law school, argued that “the need for diversity in the professions requires diversity in the classroom, but it is not a phony [need],” for without diversity one can only imagine “what a dull class it would be.”

Diversity is just that, people of all races and ethnicities, men and women, young and old, liberals and conservatives, straights and gays, smokers and abstainers, Republicans and Democrats, pro-choice and pro-life, those who swear by the NRA and those who swear at it. Trite as it might sound, the landscape of America is what diversity really comes down to.

To those who associate diversity with mediocrity, we respond that excellence in any human enterprise is coterminous with diversity. Diversity broadens and deepens the range of human potential, creativity, wisdom and experience that paves the way to a better future for all.

But diversity is by no means confined to improving higher education. Plato declared that the best way to judge the quality of a nation is to observe how that nation treats its poor, its sick, its underprivileged. When he delivered his second inaugural address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, viewing a nation ravaged by the Great Depression, sought an Rx for “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Hubert Horatio Humphrey insisted that compassion is not weakness, concern for the unfortunate not socialism.

As a concept, diversity, as is the case for other natural, social, and biological phenomena, does not stand by itself. Charles Darwin maintained: “The truth of the principle that the greatest amount of life can be supported by great diversification, is seen under many natural circumstances…” and “a set of animals with their organization but little diversified, could hardly compete with a set more perfectly diversified in nature.”

Economists counsel that the investor who’s wise diversifies. Cutting-edge scholars in human intelligence Howard Gardner and Robert J. Sternberg promote a diversified and wide-ranging definition of intelligence as opposed to the narrower and more conventional definition of IQ.

The makeup of student bodies is not the only university venue in which diversity is trumpeted. Colleges purposely recruit and retain professors of varying background and interests. Even individual departments strive to maintain an extensive (aka diverse) spectrum of faculty specialties and academic backgrounds. What’s more, in hiring professors universities openly court minority candidates, in order to diversify their faculties and improve instructional quality and breadth. Why is it any different for the university to deliberately seek diversity amongst its students?

The world is diverse, complex and heterogeneous, as should be the configuration of students attending our colleges and universities. E pluribus unum.

Robert Perloff is distinguished service professor emeritus of business administration and of psychology at Pitt ( Fred B. Bryant is professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago.

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