Harvard Study Shows Impact of Diversity
Gary A. Orfield and Dean K. Whitla, both professors at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, announced Wednesday the results of what they say is one of the first studies to directly link diversity to educational outcomes.
Orfield and Whitla hired the Gallup Organization to survey 1,820 students from the Harvard and University of Michigan law schools. Of those surveyed, about 90 percent of the students felt that diversity had a positive impact on their education.
"It was an educational process that affected everyone pretty deeply," said Orfield, who is co-director of the Civil Rights Project, the Harvard institute that sponsored the survey.
Nearly two-thirds of the respondents said that diversity improved class discussions, and roughly 62 percent said diversity clearly or moderately enhanced their ability to work more effectively and get along better with others.
But critics of the survey say that the questions of the impact of diversity on the students are vague.
"To say that most law students have benefited from diversity begs the question 'What is diversity?'" said Edward Blum, executive director of the Houston-based Campaign for a Colorblind America (CCBA), a non-profit organization that lobbies against racial preferences. "How do we know when we have achieved it?"
For the survey's purposes, Orfield and Whitla focused on racial and ethnic diversity.
Orfield contends that affirmative action in admissions is necessary in order to make up for past discrimination and to ensure an educated population.
"We still have a very unequal playing field out there, and in some ways it's becoming more unequal," Orfield said.
The survey results indicate that Orfield is not the only person who holds that belief. 80 percent of the survey's respondents support maintaining or strengthening existing minority admissions policies.
But the CCBA argues that such results are misleading, especially given the nature of the survey, which was conducted primarily over the telephone.
"Telephone surveys in matters of sexuality and matters of race are uniformly skewed," Blum said. "People respond to a race question much differently over the telephone than they do in private."
In addition, the organization says the questions were loaded to get the responses the surveyors desired.
"I think it's ironic that these questions were given to law students," said Marc Levin, executive director of CCBA. "Many of these questions, if they were presented in a courtroom, would be considered leading questions."
Blum said the question on admissions policies should have been more pointed.
"'If standards had to be lowered in order to admit racial minorities to this law school in order to achieve diversity, would that be acceptable or not?'" he suggested.
"If that had been asked," Blum said, "then I think the vast majority of law students would say that standards must be applied uniformly and evenly between the races and men and women."
Affirmative action, or the preferential treatment of minorities, was brought to the national spotlight in 1978 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in
Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, ruled that race could be a factor in determining university admissions. At the same time, the Court ordered that Allan Bakke, a white student who felt he was wrongly discriminated against because of minority quotas, be admitted into the medical school at the University of California at Davis.
In 1996, citizens in Texas and California challenged the Bakke decision. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that the University of Texas School of Law's admissions policy wrongly discriminated against white students. And in a referendum in California known as Proposition 209, California citizens voted by a 54 to 46 percent margin in favor of outlawing preferential treatment for any group.
The CCBA sees the Harvard study as another attempt to grab onto the fading strength of the Bakke decision.
"Over the last five years, we have made so much progress," Levin said. "Those on the other side seem to be grabbing for any straw they can."