Perhaps anticipating a defeat for affirmative action in the Fisher v. University of Texas case about to be argued before the Supreme Court, Columbia University political philosophy professor and former Dean of the College Michele Moody-Adams has just suggested moving away from a fixation on affirmative action and "Toward Real Equality in Higher Education." Whatever happens in Fisher, she argues, "we must recognize that controversies about race-conscious admissions have unhelpfully narrowed the debate about equality of educational opportunity and diverted attention from the extraordinary inequalities that continue to exist."
As "an African-American alumna of a selective college" and high-level administrator at Cornell and Columbia, Prof. and former Dean MM-A acknowledges that "diversity" (her quotes) is "unquestionably valuable," but unlike nearly all diversiphiles she recognizes that "it can lead institutions to view minority students as mere means to an end: essential embodiments of "diverse perspectives" whose greatest value to the institution lies in their capacity to help fulfill institutional goals." (Can? How could it not, since the official rationale for admitting some minorities who would not have been admitted but for their race or ethnicity is so that non-minority students could be exposed to them?)
Since most colleges are not selective, her criticism continues, "the percentage of minorities at selective institutions has little to do with the educational opportunities available" to anyone. Nor is she persuaded by the "trickle-down effect" defense of affirmative action, a prediction that minority students would devote their careers to expanding opportunity in their communities. "Not surprisingly," she writes, "minority students have turned out to be like students in general: By and large, college students do not feel obligated to define their personal goals in the context of broader social goods." (Not surprisingly? If it is not surprising that minority students are just "like students in general," what is the point of lowering admissions standards for them so they can provide "diversity" to others?)
Prof. and former Dean MM-A is clearly no conservative. She has no use for "familiar criticisms that affirmative action undermines a system that is otherwise based wholly on merit," and she rejects the view that selective institutions do or even should "reward only those applicants with the right combination of talent, hard work, and ambition -- who really 'deserve' a place in those institutions." In suggesting that the pursuit of "diversity" should be subordinated to efforts that promote "real equality of educational opportunity," she echoes a long line of leftist criticism of affirmative action (see a good example here) as little more than a tattered bandage, or worse, on the open wound of American racism.
Interestingly, many conservatives agree that affirmative action is and has been a generation-long diversion from confronting the real problems afflicting blacks in American society. In the long last chapter of his recent book, Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Dilemma (watch this space for a forthcoming review), Russell Nieli argues that affirmative action was born as a response to the urban riots of the 1960s but the plight of those who had provided the initial impetus was lost "in the ensuing decades in the never ending controversy over racial preferences." What Nieli calls "the sorry plight of the black underclass" disappeared from the national radar screen. "The 'affirmative action response,' focused mainly on the black middle class," he concludes, "has diverted our gaze from the place it really belongs and done much to undermine interracial sympathy and goodwill."
Who said left and right never agree?