Study Challenges Case
For Diversity at Colleges
At the heart of almost every argument
for affirmative action in university admissions, including
the one made by the University of Michigan in its
current case before the Supreme Court, lies an assertion
that racial tolerance and the educational experience
itself improve with a diverse student body.
Yet that may not be the case in the
eyes of students, faculty members and administrators.
A new study has found that diversity does not improve
the perception of educational quality or ease racial
tensions on college campuses. In fact, it may aggravate
"Surveys are always questionable,
including ours," said Stanley Rothman, an author
of the study who is a professor emeritus at Smith
College. "But it shows that those who argue diversity
will improve the education of everybody haven't made
their case. The data does not support them."
The study, published in The International
Journal of Public Opinion Research, a peer reviewed
journal, and The Public Interest, a conservative-leaning
magazine, was financed by supporters of legal challenges
to affirmative action and has not yet found its way
into the public debate on the subject.
But it stands in stark contrast to earlier
studies supporting the educational benefits of diversity,
and poses a direct challenge to the academic research
the University of Michigan is relying on to defend
the use of racial preferences in admissions.
"A racially and ethnically diverse
university student body has far-ranging and significant
benefits for all students, nonminorities and minorities
alike," wrote Patricia Gurin, the Michigan professor
of psychology whose research figures prominently in
the university's legal arguments.
"Students learn better in a diverse
educational environment, and they are better prepared
to become active participants in our pluralistic,
democratic society once they leave such a setting."
While Mr. Rothman's study did not concern
itself with the latter point - that diverse colleges
produce more civic-minded adults - it evaluated the
question of educational quality by asking about 4,000
students, faculty members and administrators on about
140 campuses what they thought about the instruction
offered at their universities. They also asked what
they thought about the students around them, and whether
discrimination existed in their college settings.
If, as proponents contend, diversity
benefits the educational experience and promotes racial
understanding, then as minority representation increases,
so, too, should one's satisfaction with the college,
esteem for fellow students and sense of freedom from
discrimination, Mr. Rothman and his colleagues argued.
But the survey found that racial diversity
produced none of those benefits. As the proportion
of black students on campus increased, the regard
for the educational experience declined, the opinion
of student academic preparedness and work ethic fell
and claims of discrimination became more common.
Given that the survey did not ask participants
to explain why they felt as they did, Mr. Rothman
was reluctant to speculate on the reasons behind their
opinions. Indeed, the explanations could include old-fashioned
racism and the perception that affirmative action
had relaxed admissions standards, leading to an underprepared
student body and a less challenging curriculum.
But Mr. Rothman emphasized that the
data was not statistically compelling enough to prove
that racial diversity actually harmed the educational
experience, only that there was no evidence to show
that it improved matters.
Financial support for the research came
from the Earhart Foundation and the Randolph Foundation,
two small institutions that have supported conservative
research organizations and scholars. While the Earhart
foundation acknowledged its reputation for doing so,
it emphasized that it only supported "advanced
academic study," not polemics.
The Randolph Foundation, by contrast,
would not talk about what it supports and why. But
tax records show that it has financed several organizations
dedicated to eliminating affirmative action, including
a $145,000 gift in 1999 to the Center for Individual
Rights, the group that helped orchestrate the legal
challenge to Michigan's admissions policies now before
the Supreme Court.
Nonetheless, the study's authors have
earned respect from academics on all sides of the
affirmative action debate. Seymour Martin Lipset,
another of its authors, is the former leader of the
American Sociological Association and of the American
Political Science Association, two posts that have
earned him a sterling scholastic reputation.
That did not insulate the study from
criticism, though. Just as Professor Gurin's findings
have attracted critics, so have Mr. Rothman's.
Gary Orfield, a Harvard education professor
who has conducted similar research and whose method
was criticized by Mr. Rothman, called the study "a
set of weak correlations" with a "completely
inadequate response rate" that flies in the face
of "generations of desegregation research."
Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor,
also took the study's method to task. In particular,
she questioned whether the researchers had incorrectly
emphasized race in the study, when their own findings
showed that the selectivity of an institution had
more of an impact on attitudes about educational quality.
Still, she agreed that the persistence
of racial discrimination, even on the most integrated
campuses, seemed plausible. "They may be onto
something," Ms. Guinier said. "Universities
cannot simply add more students of color and expect
miracles to happen."