I got some feedback, positive and negative, on the Justice Scalia/Affirmative Action piece. One person asked an interesting question about different admission criteria for football players, and that gave me something to think about.
In Fisher v University of Texas, Fisher was not denied admission because her slot was filled by a minority student. Rather, in order to insure diversity UT applies different criteria for minorities, and by being held to higher criteria, Fisher successfully argued that this violated her rights.
So why has no one ever made the same case over athletes? Most universities not only aggressively recruit talented athletes but give them scholarships and some of the nicest perks on campus, even though they may have lower scores and grades than other students. So how did universities come to value athletic diversity over social and experiential diversity? And why don’t other students sue over that grossly unequal treatment?
At face value, that doesn’t seem to be the same as admitting minorities, because athletics attracts donations and students. First of all that was exactly my earlier point, including weaker students can be a way to advance the mission of the university, whether that mission is athletic success, or inclusive dialog.
And not all athletics attracts money and students. Consider that minor sports almost always lose money, and yet there is a strong correlation between the wealth and prestige of a university and the number of teams it fields. By their actions, universities clearly feel that including diverse athletes and sports advance the mission in ways beyond the big and spectacular.
Many schools also make exceptions for students with a diversity of other, unprofitable skills that do not attract big media, such as music, dance, or writing.
Universities go out of their way to include variety. The most selective schools spend gobs of time pouring through applications, and one of their missions is to build a diverse student body. For instance, a soldier who was maimed in battle would receive much attention from any admissions committee, so long as her grades and scores indicated she had a reasonable chance of success.
Universities also go out of their way to include students who are celebrities, or whose parents are celebrities or otherwise successful people. I can’t imagine any school in the world would deny admission to Malala Yousafzai even if she scored zilch on her SATs. Quite a number of schools have Nobel Laureates on their faculty, but if Malala enrolls at Stanford in the fall, it will be the only university in the world to have a Nobel Laureate in the student body.
Again, many of the foregoing examples are based on strategies for promoting the visibility of the institution. But each university would also argue, quite reasonably, that enrolling students with different talents and experiences adds to the education of everyone. Students with different experiences enhance theoverall intellectual environment, stimulating discussion, debate and intellectual growth, in the classroom and around the campus. The experiences of physically challenged students, of single parents, of international students, and of those who struggle to overcome the odds in order to get a good education, all of these diverse voices improve the institution and the intellectual development of the students and faculty.
Consider that if Malala had never been shot, if she had never won the Nobel, if she had never become an activist for girls’ education, and if her test scores were a little low, I still can’t imagine than many universities wouldn’t seriously consider her. Just her struggle to get an education in war-torn and traditionally sexist Afghanistan should make her an attractive addition to any campus.
The word ‘story’ comes from ‘history’; in French they are still the same word, histoire. All of our sciences, all of our practical traditions, all of our research, is the story of the problems we have solved, and the story of those we have yet to solve. In a way, all that universities teach is history, the history of problems, and the history of solutions.
We cannot study these problems, we cannot understand our history, if we do not include those who have lived and witnessed it.
If universities include some students precisely because they have struggled against prejudice and marginalization, and then exclude others simply because they belong to a less fashionable ethnic group, then I cannot see why that is not also discrimination.
Picture: Byron ‘Whizzer’ White, courtesy CUBuffs.com. White was a standout student and All American halfback at the University of Colorado. He also won a Rhodes Scholarship, and after a year playing professional football as the highest-paid player in the country, he studied at Oxford. There he befriended another Rhodes Scholar, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who later appointed White to the Supreme Court. While a Justice, White would often participate in basketball games in the Supreme Court gym, ‘The Highest Court in the Land.’
Without the inclusion of weaker students on his high school and college football teams, would he have done any of it?