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Higher Ed’s Most Common Rationale for Diversity Favors White Students More than Black

“Why does your school value diversity?” 

Ask a university administrator that seemingly simple question and they’ll likely give you one of two rationales. One is instrumental in nature: “diversity provides varying viewpoints that are educationally fruitful for everyone.” The other is moral: “diversity is intrinsic to building a just society and undoing years of systemic racism.”

Circle 312343 1280But is one rationale more effective than the other? And do certain students prefer one over the other? These were the driving questions behind a recent study conducted by a team of researchers at Princeton University.

Titled “How University Diversity Rationales Inform Student Preferences and Outcomes,” the study analyzed diversity statements at universities across the U.S. and surveyed roughly 1,200 participants, including students, admissions officers and parents/caregivers. 

Ultimately, the researchers came to three conclusions: (1) universities use instrumental rationales more than moral rationales in their diversity statements; (2) White students tend to prefer instrumental rationales while Black students tend to prefer moral rationales; and (3) Black graduation rates were lower at schools that favored instrumental rationales.

“Together, these findings illustrate that the most common approach to diversity in higher education ironically reflects the preferences, and privileges the outcomes, of White Americans,” the study notes.

What’s interesting, however, is that universities didn’t always favor instrumental rationales. In fact, the study’s authors note that early diversity efforts used moral rationales. Brown v. Board of Education, for instance, mandated integration “out of concern for human dignity” and affirmative action policies were originally defended on the basis that they countered discrimination.

Dr. Stacey SinclairDr. Stacey Sinclair

Just what caused universities to transition from mostly moral rationales to instrumental rationales is hard to definitively say, but Dr. Stacey Sinclair, a psychology professor at Princeton and one of the study’s authors, has a hypothesis.

“We’ve been lucky, as we’ve talked about this research to different audiences, to encounter some of the people who were behind this reframing of diversity or who sought to make the instrumental case,” Sinclair said. “And I think that their efforts were in response to waning support for affirmative action and other efforts to foster diversity at that time.”

In other words, as support for diversity programs decreased in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sinclair thinks advocates adopted instrumental rationales to “make a different case for diversity as a way to preserve those efforts.” 

Pair that with judicial courts increasingly favoring arguments that diversity “promotes learning” and “prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce,” and instrumental rationales became the norm. Or as another author of the study, Jordan Starck, put it: “From a legal perspective, I think you’re on a safer ground in terms of being able to get less pushback from different stakeholders and community members.” 

Stark is a graduate student currently pursuing a joint Ph.D. in psychology and social policy at Princeton.

Jordan StarckJordan Starck

He also has a hypothesis for why Black students favor moral rationales over instrumental rationales.

“What we suspect is the case,” explained Starck, “is that a moral rationale for more diversity sends a really strong message. When you use moral language to justify an action or to embrace a moral imperative, it shows … Black students that universities really care about making sure they belong and that they’re included and have an equitable experience … or that they won’t be subject to prejudice or social stereotypes.”

As for why White students favored instrumental rationales, the researchers think the language used in instrumental rationales (i.e., “everyone benefits from diverse perspectives”) allows White students to see themselves as beneficiaries of diversity too.

That argument is supported by Natasha Kumar Warikoo’s book The Diversity Bargain — which is what originally inspired the study, said Sinclair. In her book, Warikoo argues that White students “reluctantly agree with affirmative action as long as it benefits them by providing a diverse learning environment—racial diversity, in this way, is a commodity, a selling point on a brochure.”

Adding to Warikoo’s argument, the Princeton researchers also speculate that because the language in instrumental rationales broadens diversity to include ethnicity, class, politics, gender and religion, White students might feel more included and less as a threat to the school’s diversity statement, potentially explaining why they favor instrumental rationales.

But while those other dimensions of diversity are important, they risk “diminish[ing] the attention given to the prospect of racial inequality,” states the study, which found that a broadened definition of diversity translated into less racially-diverse hiring practices. According to the study, hiring managers at instrumentally motivated firms were “less interested in hiring a racial minority as a means of increasing a firm’s diversity” and were more interested in “candidates who contributed to diversity along other mentions [e.g., religion and nationality].”

Natasha Kumar Warikoo’s book “The Diversity Bargain,” which inspired the study.Natasha Kumar Warikoo’s book “The Diversity Bargain,” which inspired the study.

“These findings indicate that instrumental rationales diminish the extent to which people focus specifically on racial representation in their diversity pursuits,” write the authors. “If instrumental approaches to diversity produce social contexts in which people are less attentive to the prospect of racial inequality, then they should also correspond with more racially disparate outcomes.”

Indeed, the researchers found those disparate outcomes when looking at Black graduation rates. While White graduation rates remained the same at both morally motivated and instrumentally motivated schools, Black graduation rates fell at schools that emphasized the instrumental benefits of diversity more.

Just what’s causing that disparity is “exactly the question we’re trying to figure out,” said Starck. “We don’t think the diversity statements themselves are causing negative outcomes for anybody. But we think that these statements represent something about university culture and what its priorities are.”

Just as hiring managers at instrumental firms were less focused on racial diversity, Starck speculates that universities with instrumental rationales may be less focused on racial diversity and, thus, less attuned to the unique plights of racism.

“These instrumental diversity rationales don’t necessarily bring any attention to discrimination, inequality or disadvantage, which are real things that students have to contend with,” said Starck. “So if a university is only caring about diversity of perspective, it might not be attending to these real issues that underrepresented students have to contend with and then not providing the support and resources to mitigate those concerns.”

Thus, “a mindful course of action would be to sit with a moral framework for diversity, and think of what programs would flow from that,” said Sinclair.

That doesn’t mean universities should abandon instrumental rationales, added Starck, but that universities should consider how their own rationales might be affecting culture and policy.

“At this point, this research is really just a call for organizations to … pay attention to these rationales and think through how they might be affecting campus and community health,” said Starck, “To think through their reasons for providing diversity in a way that makes their campuses more equitable and inclusive.”

Jessica Ruf can be reached at [email protected] 

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