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Rethinking the Value of Diversity after the End of Race-Based Admissions Decisions

The recent Supreme Court decision in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College has sparked great discourse in the week since the decision, and in particular, fear amongst those who worry about losing a key tool to fight the legacy of discrimination and the continuing disadvantages that impact people of color in the US. In its decision, the Court’s majority ruled that admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. While a range of others, including Justices Jackson and Sotomayor, have laid out dissents and critiques of the decision, I have seen little discussion of the path forward for those who seek to ensure that more people from families and communities that have been impacted by racial prejudice over the nation’s history can benefit from a college education in the future.
You will read a different perspective here, building from experiences at four different universities – an HBCU (Historically Black College/University), a private university, an Ivy League university, and a state flagship university – all of which give evidence that the decision against race-based polices could lead to a needed rethinking and sharpening of how we focus admissions policies. For those who disagree with the ruling, there exists a silver lining—an opportunity to enhance and refine the tools we employ to strive for a future characterized by greater equity. And a rare and likely pivotal opportunity to increase awareness about the true value of diversity, and its related challenges, in institutions of higher learning.  Before we can understand that opportunity, we must first acknowledge that grouping by race is a very broad tool that can hide important differences within racial groups. This is a lessons that I learned, starting with my first year in college.

When I arrived as a first-year student at Howard University, the students were almost all Black, but represented every part of the country and every income level. Beyond that, it was fascinating to learn about those who emigrated from outside of the US and how different their culture and outlook could vary from American-born students: While some related to the experiences of African-Americans, others saw themselves as wholly apart and different. As an HBCU, a course in “Afro-American studies” is part of the required curriculum, leading to many conversations inside and outside the classroom about race’s impact in society, and giving students a clear knowledge base to build upon.  Those differences made it clear that all Black persons are not the same.

I remember one African-born student, who argued that because of his birthplace, he was divorced from the legacy of slavery of those born in the US - his sentiment as “apart from” other Black students wasn’t the last time that I heard of this difference. He felt disconnected from many of the perspectives, trials and challenges that many of the African-American students felt were a standard part of American life and history. This was not the only time that I heard this sentiment – I have heard this several times in college and beyond.  These perceived differences - and the heterogeneity of the Black experience more generally - re-emerged in my dissertation research on suburbanization and the Black middle class, as several of my foreign-born interviewees saw themselves as different than others. If some feel that the history of centuries of institutionalized slavery and discrimination in the US didn’t apply to them, it raises the question of whether they should receive the same benefits as those who do share that history. The truth is more than skin deep.

Race Relations in the Modern South

In my junior year of college, I was a participant in a student exchange program, leaving Howard for Duke University in Durham, NC. I had left an HBCU that was founded to expand higher educational opportunities in the wake of the Civil War to take classes at a prestigious majority-white institution with a history of official discrimination and segregation and a more recent reputation of progress.  It was a place where most students didn’t have the kind of background that I received at Howard on addressing race, so while I was there, I accepted an invitation to say a few words at a celebration for the first official Duke University holiday for Martin Luther King Day (well over a decade after the federal holiday took effect).  It was then that I recognized how different the experiences could be for African-American students in different schools - there were many at Duke who were fighting for mere recognition that I had taken for granted. 

There were more lessons that I learned at Duke - one was that a place with few Black students, those cultural differences within the Black population that were so important for distinguishing yourself at Howard became much more minor -  most of the Black students seemed to know of each other and came together for key events. From my perspective, this “coming together” was necessary for University-wide changes, such as pushing for MLK Day to be fully recognized and celebrated, or even for a successful gathering of enough folks to hold a good party on a Saturday night.  

I had many other takeaways from my time at Duke, but one clear memory was that in an urban policy class, I came face to face with a clear-cut example of institutional racism - one of my fellow students told the story of how their parent refused to hire Black workers after a bad experience, and wasn’t shy about doing so. It was clear that some classmates had sympathy for the parent’s perspective, while others of us (Black and white) were aghast at the story we heard. A good, eye-opening discussion followed. That was the second time at Duke that I felt that it was good for me to "be in the room" - I sincerely believe that having me and other African-American students in the class made a clear difference in what some of our white classmates learned and took from that conversation.  While we all learned about each other’s perspectives, it was clear that meeting intelligent Black classmates contradicted the narratives that some had heard from their parents and others.  It was also valuable to hear the perspective of those parents so that I knew more about the "real world" that my father and grandfathers tried to prepare me for: one with great opportunity, but where some people still held prejudices. This is the world that “affirmative action” policies were intended to help fix by increasing opportunity, and this was a conversation that proved the value of diversity on campus.

Socially, I had fun at Duke - I got to know my classmates from different backgrounds and learned from their experiences, I went to Cameron for some great basketball games, I attended parties with sororities that did not have chapters at HBCUs and joined the classic Myrtle Beach trip after finals. I had friendships with persons across racial groups and it became clear that diversity is crucial in higher education, especially at elite universities. I realized my classmates were the type of folks who would run the world when they graduate, and I was glad that we had the chance to interact and learn from one another. The combination of our diverse backgrounds, varying perspectives and talented faculty with sufficient resources all supported the generation of profound insights and deeper understandings across our subjects. But despite all of those good qualities at Duke, I was glad that my HBCU experiences and foundational classes had prepared me for the discussions on race and class that came up there.

Africans and African-Americans in the Ivy League

While my previous university experiences gave me an appreciation of the range of what it means to be “Black” and the value of diversity, these points were reinforced when I attended an Ivy League school where I was surprised to find fewer African-Americans than the statistics would indicate. When I arrived at Princeton University for graduate school, I found out that the main student organization for Black students was named Akwaaba - a Ghanaian word for "welcome." It was my first signal of the large proportion of Black students who were not born to African-American parents, but were from African, Caribbean, or other backgrounds. I soon realized that the "minority within a minority" group of African-Americans was not as much a part of campus life as their international colleagues.  While other schools had Black student groups for years, the Princeton Black Student Union was only formed/reconstituted during my second year (there may have been a similar group decades earlier) and was less international in its focus. I became chair of the Black Graduate Caucus (a group for graduate students) around the same time, and we held several events for students and worked with university leadership on a range of issues. 

Often, all individuals of African descent, including African-Americans and others from the African diaspora, are collectively categorized as "Black," concealing the diverse range of experiences and identities within this group. At Princeton, I saw that many opportunities had gone to those Black students who were not African-American, and African-Americans were not getting as many of the opportunities as the stats may have indicated. The challenge goes back to why the 14th amendment and the other Civil War Amendments were adopted: to address the freedom of enslaved people and their future as Americans.  At least five Princeton Presidents owned slaves, and those enslaved persons and others like them are the ancestors of today's African-Americans. This is the legacy that Princeton and other schools like it must work to address. While I appreciate the worldwide struggle of Black persons to achieve equality, I am particularly aware of the debt that these institutions owe to African-Americans.  I am not convinced that general efforts do enough to address the causes of today's racial disparities for African-Americans - the descendants of US slavery. A series of constitutional amendments, civil rights legislation and court decisions may have expanded rights, but did not close all gaps. It leads me to this conclusion:

A focus on those who have personally suffered the impacts of discrimination would better target the benefits from policies and practices meant to address that history of discrimination

These lessons throughout my time as a student have helped me understand the value of racial diversity in education, the importance of understanding the differences within racial groups, and the potential for overestimating have served on several admissions committees over the years, and I respect that process, as getting multiple perspectives on students is important.  There were many perspectives on students, and often this helped us to come to good conclusions on finalists.  However, I shuddered when I saw a person identified as a “diversity candidate” who I previously knew was from an elite background and not someone who considered himself a person of color in other circumstances. I do not knock anyone for maximizing their advantage in an application process, but I thought of others who were just as qualified but faced much greater obstacles, and felt the description of “minority” candidate was far too broad to have real meaning if this person was qualifying for that advantage. 

The false narrative of "deserving spots” and the false confidence from limited statistics 

I have read some arguments that diversity policies, including those in this recent case, require that certain persons "take spots" from other persons, and that supporting opportunities for any one racial group harms those of other groups. I cringe every time I hear it and think of the empty argument that Jackie Robinson and others were "taking the spots” of white ballplayers. The truth is that all ballplayers who played in the majors before integration were cheated, as they banned racial diversity until the late 1940s, preventing Negro League Legend Satchel Paige from pitching against American League legend Babe Ruth. And Satchel's Hall of Fame arm deserved that chance - he would not have "taken a spot" from a white pitcher, but if he and other Negro Leaguers had been given a chance to play in the majors earlier, the quality of baseball would have been improved (despite their varying qualifications, training and other resources that weren't the same.) Similarly, no one is “owed” a spot at an elite school, and a diversity of talent improves the overall quality.

Graduation rates are high at elite schools - there are a lot of qualified people who enter, and there are a lot of resources available for all students. To dispel the myth that “less qualified” Black students are somehow taking the spots of more qualified students, a recent study has shown that graduation rates are equal to or higher than white students at several Ivy League schools, including Princeton.

Similarly to baseball, there are a lot of stats in the admissions process, and there are more talented people than there are spots. Unfortunately, the stats used in admissions are not as good at identifying the differences. There are two major issues: first is that the threshold of "likely to be successful at this university" is not a simple one. A higher SAT or GRE score doesn't translate to a better student, and any article that attacks diversity policies by using those scores is at best misleading. In courses I have taken and taught, I have seen students (many of them international) with impressive English scores on the GRE and high GPAs who fail to hold a conversation in class or express thoughts clearly, while others with similar (or lower) scores are the "glue" that holds a class together.  Relying on standardized tests does not rule out the person who may has been “taught to the test” or attended an academic program that did not prepare them to debate ideas and thrive in an American university setting, particularly a graduate seminar where analysis, critical thinking and ability to express oneself is key. 

Compared to my colleagues at each university I attended, I had high scores on standardized tests, and my GPA at each institution was high enough that I have academic awards and multiple degrees to show for those efforts. That gives me the confidence to say that elements such as average class rank, standardized test scores and prior GPA are individually insufficient to judge a group of students’ intelligence, ability to participate actively in an academic environment, or their future prospects.

It takes more than test scores, class rank or GPA to understand someone's potential for success, and the comprehensive approach used by many admissions committees is a better solution. To use another sports analogy: if admissions were as track and field, it would be easy.  The fastest eight people would get eight spots.  But the real world gets messy for college admission - a person's family situation, geographic location, health issues, financial situation, educational experiences and other pieces of their personal history add complexity to the usual measures which are not as comprehensive as it may seem. It's as if we were trying to measure speed on the track when the lanes are of varying lengths, inclines, widths and surfaces for each runner. Two people who are equally talented could have very different results.  The same goes for those who are equally intelligent and capable in admissions processes.  Any analysis that tells us “that X% of Y racial group with high scores were admitted” and compares that with percentages from other groups that are “less deserving” to get in is at best an oversimplification of the situation, and a dangerous base for declaring “unfair” admissions.

Moving Forward and Adjusting for the Future

Regardless of the rubric used, there are more smart people than there are spots for many elite schools, so many highly qualified people won't get in, regardless of the method used. That's the simple truth, so admissions committees have a tough job. They must select those who bring the most to their campuses, both individually and as a collective group of incoming students.  To that end, we should all embrace a more complicated admission system, one that has enough of the elements to measure all the qualities that may make a student a good fit at a particular school, and include in that a consideration of the student's life experiences, their ability, and their potential. Universities must also consider the student body as a whole, and their goals around creating diverse learning environments and addressing the legacy of discrimination on their own campuses and in the world around them. I see a glimmer of hope in the words at the end of the Court’s recent decision: "At the same time, nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university."

This then puts the onus on universities to develop admission systems that consider all of the qualities and abilities that an applicant can offer and the ones that their university needs, and that should include those related to racial inequities, but not race itself. I can envision a process where a qualified applicant who has lived in a racially isolated neighborhood with poor resources and other challenges, has dealt with racism in their childhood and overcome that may be a great student of strong character that you may want at your university. It is the job of university administrators to develop processes that include that – this not only follows the Supreme Court’s decision, but reflects the fact that everyone in a racial group is not the same.

On to my final academic experience: on July 1st 2023, my term as chair of the University of Maryland School of Architecture Planning and Preservation's Board of Visitors officially ended.  While I still serve on the board, I was glad that one of my final emails that came to my inbox as chair was the June 29 open letter from the President and Deans of the University responding to the Court’s decision. They described their consideration of race as one of 26 factors and explained that “we believe strongly that diversity and excellence are intertwined” and that the “educational value of campus diversity is one we will not sacrifice.” I'm glad to see that colleges such as UMD are working to move forward within the new rules set by the Court, and are committed to working towards creating the great educational experiences that their students deserve, while addressing some of the challenges of the past and present that limit opportunity.  

“When the world zigs, zag” is attributed to copywriter Barbara Noakes - it is elegant in its simplicity and applicable to this case. If admissions processes partly based on race are no longer acceptable to this court, the temptation to zig and play into the fallacy that racial differences do not exist should be ignored.  

Instead, we should go the opposite and appreciate all of the different forms of understanding a student’s potential for success: every student should have to write about the qualities / benefits that they would bring to a school and the community as part of the admissions process.  Students of color who identify as such should be specific about the impact of race on them, including challenges that they, their families, or their communities have faced, or the impact that their academic success would have on that community. Admissions committees should develop constitutionally acceptable policies to value those statements and take into account their institution's history and need to have a diverse learning environment. As part of that, schools should own up to their histories of discrimination and/or slavery, and make special efforts to reach out to potential students in communities that were impacted by those actions. If done right, this approach would be more focused than past approaches that assumed that everyone in a racial group should be treated similarly. It’s time to zag.


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