Why Diversity? For the Sake of Learning

By Scott S. Cowen
Published in The Times-Picayune, January 28, 2003

I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with using race as a factor in the college admissions process. Call it naiveté or idealism; I can't help but conceive of America as a place of equal opportunity and access where preferences should not be needed.

Unfortunately, the America I hope for is not yet a reality. Preferences as part of the college admissions process are a reality in America and have been for some time.

It is very rare to find a four-year college or university that has a truly open admissions policy. Most colleges have a well-known preference for students with higher test scores. Colleges often give preferential treatment to the relatives of alumni (known as legacies), prospective students from certain parts of the country or the world and athletes, for example.

Many of these preferences are readily accepted, even though each in its own way is a form of institutionalized discrimination. Yet, we hear very little about the weaknesses and bias that abound with these preferences; instead, the battleground is race. Ironically, however, a preference by race is one of the few we can really justify on the basis of educational value. This is the most compelling argument for recognizing race in the admissions process. (I recognize that the argument can also be supported on grounds of social justice, but that argument often leads to racial divisiveness.)

In recent years, there has been a plethora of empirical evidence to suggest that there is a strong positive relationship between diversity of all kinds and student learning. This evidence supports anecdotal reports by students that learning is enhanced when done in a diverse and integrated setting.

Race should be thoughtfully weighed, along with other preferences such as geographic origins and community involvement, so as to ensure a diverse class -- without diminishing the importance of a student's academic credentials.

Without such flexibility, universities are left with less effective so-called race-neutral alternatives (e.g., percentage plans, socioeconomic preferences), each of which is intended to diversify admissions by race, albeit indirectly.

In fact, these race-neutral plans can have unintended discriminatory consequences.

For example, the most popular are the percentage plans, used in Texas and California, where a university agrees to accept a fixed percentage -- the top 10 percent of all students graduating from all high schools in a state. For this method to work, you would have to assume that schools are largely segregated, are equally strong academically and have similar rigor in their academic offerings.

Common sense dictates that these assumptions are rarely true. Therefore, this method is unlikely to achieve true racial diversity and may also unfairly lock out otherwise bright students who fail to make the top 10 percent in academically rigorous schools while awarding achievement to those who make the top 10 percent in less academically rigorous systems.

In addition, the percentage plans are not applicable for admission to graduate and professional schools.

The University of Michigan cases before the Supreme Court are of primary importance to higher education and society in general. In fact, this may well be one of the most important social issues our country faces in the first decade of the 21st century.

My hope is that the public discourse on this important issue will be civil, thoughtful, fact-based and focused on the best way for our universities to achieve racial diversity and academic excellence.

I do not believe these goals are possible if race is ignored in admitting students to our institutions.

Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University. Writer's Note: Tulane University is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in the 1996 Hopwood vs. University of Texas case that race can be used by universities to remedy past discrimination but cannot be used as a factor in the university admission process to attain diversity.

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638