The need for a representative academia

A red-brick building with a large copper dome behind a portico with six Doric columns approach by steps. In front are two red-brick pathways and a lawn.
Planetarium at the University of North Carolina, one of the institutions whose affirmative action policies are being challenged in the Supreme Court

Last week the BBC’s File on 4 ran a feature on affirmative action, the American academic policy of taking aspects of an applicant’s background, including their race, into account when awarding university places. This is facing challenge in the Supreme Court this summer, with a group calling itself Students for Fair Admissions suing two major universities, Harvard and the University of North Carolina, over affirmative action policies they allege discriminate against white and Asian students. It’s a fairly balanced programme; they interview a Black Harvard student from Florida, both of whose parents were murdered and who did benefit from the policy, as well as an Asian applicant refused by all the colleges he applied to, who made some good points about the stereotypes about Asian students (that they are hothoused, i.e. spend all their time studying, have no life, lack personality and their intellectual pursuits have no benefit to society). Towards the end, they interview two women who stressed the importance of AA to alleviating social injustice and of including Black people’s stories in academic discussion. But a very large chunk of the programme was given over to an interview with Edward Blum, the founder of “Students for Fair Admissions”, but who is not a student but a lawyer and a conservative legal strategist with a history of litigating against affirmative action policies, not always successfully even with a conservative-dominated Supreme Court.

The interview with Blum took up about a third of the programme and despite mentioning beforehand that he was associated with litigation against affirmative action, they gave him too much time to tell us his life story and to expound his beliefs and did not mention his political background, question whether he might have an agenda or challenge his assertions. He mentioned Spelman College in Atlanta, a women’s historically Black college, and questioned whether the women at that college, which had an overwhelmingly Black student body (a few white and no Asian or Hispanic women), found that the lack of diversity impoverished their academic experience at all, and suggested that they did not think so. He claimed that students were being unfairly refused places because universities believed that they had enough students from their background. Finally, he dropped in a bit of ‘concern’ that a Black student at an Ivy League college might not face any suspicion about whether they had gained their place fairly, or as a result of AA, a standard argument of its conservative opponents. In fact, nobody get a place at university solely because of their race, or to fulfil a quota, which is illegal; rather, a hard-working and promising student from a disadvantaged background might be favoured over a wealthy student with the excellent results one might expect from a well-endowed private school.

They did not put it to him exactly why having a diverse academia was so important. Getting a place at university and a degree is not like winning a TV quiz show. It is not competition for its own sake. Universities develop philosophies, social theories; they train the technologists, doctors, social workers and teachers for the next generation. With a student body, and subsequently a faculty, of people who had grown up in wealth, had been to private schools (or at least state schools in affluent areas) and came from dominant ethnic groups which had no major history of discrimination, a university will produce professionals and intellectuals who have no exposure to marginalised people as equals, only as academic subjects or as subjects of news stories; this will lead to discriminatory results, such as doctors who assume that a Black person’s illness must stem from drug abuse, or that Black people do not feel as much pain as white people (or who must be feeding a drug habit if they demand painkillers), or social workers and teachers who believe myths about cultures other than their own and allow this to influence how they treat children, or people in need in their community, because nobody at college challenged the myth when it was repeated by a tutor or in a textbook, or technology such as skin detectors that will not detect brown skin, and algorithms assumed to be unprejudiced but which in fact reflect the prejudices of those who fed the data in.

Academia is not just a degree factory where students study for bits of paper that are passports to better jobs. It is a powerful institution whose graduates often go into powerful professions whose decisions and work affects people for generations to come. There is sometimes a reason why an admissions policy that might appear unfair actually serves a very important purpose, especially if the ‘unfairness’ is to someone who came from privilege (and I do not just mean white privilege but wealth). And as one of the interviewees on File on 4 pointed out, their advantage at the admission stage did not mean they did not have to work hard to get their degree; he outperformed a lot of the privileged students once admitted to Harvard Business School. The system means that some students who came from a background that made studying difficult as an adolescent can achieve a lot more in adulthood, but a place does not mean you are guaranteed a degree. While the situation in the USA depends on the Supreme Court which is expected to rule some time in the summer, it is important to understand how AA works, what it is not and why what it sets out to achieve is important.

Image source: William Yeung, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution (BY) 3.0 licence.

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