Race and Ethnicity in student enrolment: a new twist to the Affirmative Action Conundrum

The journey to achieving more diverse and inclusive organisations can often meet unforeseen barriers.

On Monday last week a trial began in Boston which could have far-reaching implications for colleges in the United States (and possibly beyond) which are confronted with a host of objections to the way in which most of them seek to enhance the diversity of the student demographic profile. The case is expected to end in the U.S. Supreme Court. It involves a complaint about what is perceived to be affirmative action but the aggrieved group is not, as is usual the white majority, but a minority group having Asian ethnicity.

Harvard University is being sued by a group called Students for Fair Admissions Inc led by an activist called Edward Blum which alleges that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions policies. The plaintiffs’ case is based on the assertion that’s Harvard is applying a quota which results in the number of Asian Americans who are admitted being limited. The Plaintiff’s argument rests on the premise that academic scores are the only “objective” way to assess the suitability of candidates and that if the makeup of the student body is not reflective of how each racial or ethnic group has performed then the result is inevitably discriminatory.

Harvard, in response, asserts that grades and scores are not the only factors which are taken into account when deciding on admissions: academic excellence is one of many criteria which bear on how the student body should be composed. But it also has regard to a range of other considerations including race and a holistic assessment of the personal characteristics and achievements of each applicant.

The position of Harvard has been supported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a large number of experts and other colleges and institutions which believe that the suit is an assault on the principle that universities have a legitimate goal in promoting diversity and inclusion.

We at Symmetra believe that failing to have regard to the benefits which diversity of thinking and heterogenous backgrounds can bring to educational institutions and other organisations is mistaken because it deprives students of the richness of a whole variety of views and experiences which exist when diverse individuals interact.

Indeed this very point has been made by a number of Asian Americans themselves. Jeannie Park, president of the Harvard Asian American Alliance commented:

“We have always said that we believe in the consideration of race in admissions as a means of supporting diversity and creating equal opportunity…. Diversity creates the best educational environment for everybody, including Asian Americans”

Another Asian American writing in Time magazine about this case noted:

“By equating colour-blindness with equality, Blum and his supporters wrongly assume that everyone begins on an equal footing. That is hardly the case….

Colour-blindness also masks racial inequities in standardised tests which are not a neutral or accurate measure of merit or predictor of success….”

The issues here raise questions which are relevant beyond the USA and certainly for us in Australia as to how selection for a whole range of institutions should be approached .The case brings into stark relief the different notions of “merit” and how preconceptions and biases of what constitutes merit can have a negative impact on enrolment in educational institutions as well as recruitment in business. When we recognise that diversity is a positive factor for organisations we may start to look at candidates in a new light and ask what benefit can this person’s experiences and perspectives bring to our organisation.

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