Challenging the Racial Diversity Argument
The National Association of Scholars refutes research on the educational benefits of campus diversity
By Ronald Roach
On the heels of federal court rulings in the University of Michigan’s defense of race-conscious affirmative action in its undergraduate and law school admissions, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) has issued a report this month refuting research that says campus racial diversity is correlated with educational benefits.
The research, which was conducted with data largely compiled by a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) research institute, has helped the University of Michigan build a legal argument around the idea that campus racial diversity improves student learning experiences.
The NAS report, Is Campus Racial Diversity Correlated With Educational Benefits?, has come under fire from officials at the University of Michigan and the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA. The report, authored by Dr. Thomas E. Wood, executive director of the California Association of Scholars, and Dr. Malcolm J. Sherman, associate professor of mathematics and science at State University of New York at Albany, elaborates on an earlier NAS critique of the University of Michigan’s defense in the undergraduate admissions lawsuit Gratz v. Bollinger, according to NAS officials. The NAS filed an amicus brief in July 2000 in the Gratz case. The brief argued against the idea that racial diversity on a campus is linked to positive educational outcomes.
Michigan officials have argued that the recent NAS report repeats arguments that the federal court already addressed in the Gratz case ruling. On Dec. 13, 2000, federal district judge Patrick Duggan in the eastern district of Michigan ruled in favor of the university in the Gratz lawsuit, upholding the university’s use of affirmative action in admissions. Duggan noted in his decision that the “university defendants have presented this court with solid evidence regarding the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body.”
Officials have also dismissed NAS’s claim that critics of the HERI research have been unfairly excluded from access to the data. Although the plaintiff’s attorneys unsuccessfully sought the UCLA research data from the University of Michigan, NAS officials said they did not contact HERI directly to request the data.
While HERI officials have confirmed that it was not their policy to release the data, they have made exceptions for the University of Michigan and the Mellon Foundation.
Despite the counterattacks from University of Michigan and UCLA \officials, NAS officials maintain that the University of Michigan has misrepresented research findings in order to defend race-conscious affirmative action policies. The University of Michigan contends that the UCLA database demonstrates a correlation between “racially diverse student body and positive educational outcomes,” a finding that is not verified in the data, according to the NAS’s Wood.
Wood says the Michigan analysis, which was presented by Dr. Patricia Y. Gurin, the chair of the university’s psychology department during the Gratz case, based its conclusions by “sleight of hand” techniques. The Michigan analysis was based on data from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP), a major database project begun in 1966 and based at UCLA’s HERI.
“Unable to show a connection between the racial diversity of a student body and alleged educational benefits, the university resorts to a methodological confusion, arguing first that racial diversity is positively related to four intermediate ‘campus experience variables’ and, next, that these are in turn, related to the claimed educational benefits,” Wood says.
The four variables are enrollment in ethnic studies courses, attendance at a racial/intercultural workshop, discussion of racial issues and interracial socialization, according to the NAS report.
Wood told reporters at a news conference in Washington that the presence of a racially diverse student body is not necessary for nonminority students to have exposure to the first three variables cited by the Michigan analysis. He noted that the fourth variable, interracial socialization, was shown to have a weak connection to educational benefits.
“It should be obvious that the first three variables cannot be regarded as a rough proxy for racial diversity on a campus,” Wood says.
Wood, nevertheless, pointed out that the chief flaw with using the HERI-CIRP data is that the principal researcher, Dr. Alexander Astin, concluded in 1993 that peer group racial diversity did not have any positive direct effects on academic outcomes.
“This is the central finding; all other points are irrelevant,” Wood declared during the news conference.
The day after the release of the NAS report, a federal appeals court stayed a federal district judge’s order that the University of Michigan law school quit using race as a factor in admissions. A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the order by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman was disrupting the selection of the incoming law school class.
Friedman, in late March, had struck down the law school’s affirmative action policy, declaring that the state had no compelling interests in a diverse student body. He later denied the university’s request to stay the decision pending its appeal. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Friedman’s denial of the stay.
While Friedman’s ruling runs contrary to that of his colleague Duggan, who affirmed the argument in the Gratz undergraduate case that campus racial diversity produces educational benefits, the cases are proceeding along legal tracks where the diversity argument for affirmative action is likely to remain a factor in ongoing appeals. NAS officials are hoping their research leads to a reassessment of the idea that racial diversity has positive benefits for higher education.
Wood, who is well-known as a co-author of the Proposition 209 referendum, which upon passage ended race-conscious affirmative action in California, not only believes that a new reading of the CIRP diversity research should be considered in the Michigan lawsuits, but that higher education leadership in America should address the question of diversity’s impact.
“I think an interesting and lively debate will result. We’d welcome it,” Wood says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com