The trial under way in Boston, in which Harvard University is charged with discrimination against Asian applicants, raises many legal questions. But it also forces us to consider critical sociocultural ones. Although diversity does have some educational benefits per se, how should it be defined, and can it be achieved in a nondiscriminatory manner?
The case against Harvard is both statistically persuasive and ugly. The university is accused of using as a critical element in its admissions a vague "personal rating," which according to the plaintiffs, was systematically jiggered to be lower in Asian applicants than for other applicants in such personality traits as "likeability," "integrity," and "courage."
For the sake of argument, let's accept that diversity in the student body, per se, is a good thing for "elite" universities. But then, we need to ask whether it trumps the rights of individuals to be considered on their merits, what constitutes merit, and even whether discriminatory preferences are invariably good for those individuals who "benefit."
First, what makes an "elite" university elite? Part of the answer is circular, because graduation from such an institution begets success not only through the educational and research opportunities at the school, but also through its alumni network. But another explanation is the above-average ability of such schools' students to excel in learning, critical thinking, and research, and therefore in future achievement.
College students are more likely to fail, drop out, or feel unwelcome if their classmates are generally well above them in ability. Educational remediation is often attempted but also often falls short. The response is too frequently to become less demanding on students who fall behind when assigning grades or assessing progress. This "solution" does not serve the interests of the institution because the value of the "ticket" (i.e. degree) can only go so far in advancing the student's future in the absence of superior ability and rigorous standards.
In short, the consideration of any admissions criterion beyond ability may actually harm the individuals by setting them up for the expensive failure that comes with dropping out of college.
There is another, less obvious phenomenon that we as authors observed during our undergraduate years at M.I.T. The vast majority of students there began with expectations of a degree in engineering or one of the hard sciences (physics, math, materials science, meteorology, computer science, etc.). However, the student body included many of the best scientific minds of their generation, and grading was on a curve. So, inevitably, some aspiring engineers, mathematicians, and physicists found themselves relegated to majoring in economics, political science, or subjects in the humanities. The majority of these students who washed out of their intended course could have succeeded at an institution better matched to their abilities. (This poor-fit phenomenon may also trickle down to students at less elite universities who may have been better served by learning a trade.)
Another question is whether it makes sense to pursue diversity by skewing the admissions criteria through the use of highly subjective admissions factors such as Harvard's "personal rating," or whether there is there a better way. We believe at least part of the answer may be found in successful charter school programs, such as the Success Academy in Harlem in New York City.
This is not to argue that all charters are better than public schools. But both types of schools can and do surface students of exceptional ability (the better schools, more), and those pools are often extremely diverse. If a university works hard enough and smart enough to identify the subset of students that matches its typical incoming class in ability, it should be able to construct a class with minimal compromise of diversity.
Aggressive search and outreach for qualified and diverse students could be superior to simply reacting to the applications received. Incoming classes selected this way might vary much more from year to year in their racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic composition than those currently selected through traditional affirmative action. But isn't that the objective of "diversity?"
In this era of cheap and easily-available DNA sequencing and databases, even the definition of "diversity" is becoming less meaningful. Is a student who is 1/16 Black, Asian, or Hispanic a "minority" for diversity purposes? What factors define inclusion versus exclusion for those purposes? The use of statistical race or ethnicity as an admissions or diversity criterion is fundamentally arbitrary.
Affirmative action should be, we believe, a process by which a school devotes resources to identifying a wide pool of candidates whose abilities are commensurate with the school's character. The well-documented bloat in the amounts of money spent on administrators should be redirected toward the proactive search. The actual admissions process could then be about academics, arts, sports, leadership potential, and so on. If in any particular year, the ethnic or racial makeup changes, so be it.
Harvard may argue that it is already applying a process like the one we have proposed. But the year-to-year consistency of the racial and ethnic mix in its classes is strong evidence that this isn't so and that its primary focus is the outcome. It is difficult for groups like the plaintiffs in this case not to experience this as discrimination.
Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Both were undergraduates at M.I.T.