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Unity through diversity

From Where I Sit illustration (3 October 2013)

US colleges and universities are once again facing scores of applications for incoming classes, but this year the process is more complicated. The US Supreme Court’s decision last June in the case of Fisher v University of Texas at Austin has left admissions officers perplexed about how to prove that the use of race is “necessary” to “achieve the educational benefits” of a diverse student body. How many race-neutral alternatives must they try first?

Meanwhile, with affirmative action always a political hot button, the case has sparked wider discussion. One idea that continues to resurface is for the US to move towards the French model, using social class as a more constitutionally defensible and politically palatable proxy for race.

The pioneer in this movement was one of France’s most elite institutions, Sciences Po, which in 2001 launched a programme eliminating entrance exams for 10 per cent of its students recruited from schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Yet the use of mobilisation positive, as the French call it, still provokes visceral opposition to what is generally perceived as a mask for racial preferences in a country where any consideration of race is taboo. The French Constitution itself firmly recognises “equality before the law of all citizens without distinction of origin, of race or of religion”. Muddying the waters is the fact that for the French, race is tied up with religion and the dramatic rise in the country’s Muslim population, many of whom come from, or have roots in, the former French colonies.

As the debate over the Supreme Court decision has swirled through the US and French press, what has struck me is how the diversity rationale gets lost in numbers, centred on inputs in terms of students admitted and outputs in terms of student achievement and career success. This obscures the educational process that mediates between the two. While levelling the playing field for disadvantaged students, compensating racial minorities for past social injustices and integrating them into the professional classes are important goals, equally important is the value of student diversity in enriching classroom interaction and strengthening social and political cohesion. The more diverse the classroom, the more textured the discussion and the better students come to respect other views and develop the tools for civil discourse. Of course, this assumes that academics are willing and able to harness those differences positively.

I have seen this aspect of diversity play out in my own teaching. As the population of New York City has grown more racially, ethnically and religiously diverse, so has my student body, increasing the intensity of classroom discussion. For my students, race is no longer black or white but comes in many hues. Particularly in my Children and the Law seminar, majority assumptions about immigrant and racial minority families provoke pointed responses that challenge misunderstandings. It is not unusual for students to politely spar over these issues.

Regardless of how the situation turns out in the US, higher education officials on both sides of the Atlantic should not overlook the significance of racial diversity – in all its colours and however achieved – in breaking down prejudices and leading to a more integrated society. Nor should faculty members discount their critical role in tactfully mining those differences.

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