I say it’s a thorny issue for a couple of reasons:
First, affirmative action means different things to different people. Many on the left, for example, see it as a mechanism to ensure fairness and as a mechanism to increase diversity. Both of these are admirable goals. Those on the right, however, typically view affirmative action policies as violating principles of fairness and they strongly suspect that they erode merit to the degree that they create and institutionalize discrimination. Both sides can be correct, of course.
Second, affirmative action can be done in a way that helps to ensure fairness and that broadcasts opportunities to minorities. Few, I think, are opposed to affirmative action done in this matter. However, affirmative action can also create substantive distortions in the admissions and hiring process. These distortions work to disrupt reasoned assessment of a candidate’s merit and potential or, worse, they can easily slide into quotas or mandates to hire.
Third, efforts to create diversity through affirmative action often result in supporters over-emphasizing the benefits of affirmative action and downplaying the costs. Perhaps this is to be expected. However, supporters often have to justify engaging in behaviors that would, under any other scenario, be classified as discriminatory. Now, I understand that discrimination comes in different flavors and that we can legally discriminate under certain conditions. Even so, there has to be a compelling state interest that justifies the discrimination. What happens, however, is that supporters of affirmative action often wish to deny that discrimination is sometimes part of the process. Instead, they engage in a remarkable level of deliberate intellectual obfuscation.
Finally, I’m reminded of a comment by Jonathan Haidt who said diversity can often be divisive. I’ve been thinking seriously about this for some time and will post something later. His point, however, highlights a fact that often goes unrecognized. Affirmative action sometimes generates a strong sense of injustice and unfairness amongst those who do not benefit from these policies. Perhaps the phrase “who do not benefit” is too shallow. Maybe I should be more accurate and say “who are excluded” by these policies. The point is, when universities practice exclusion in hiring or in student admissions they generate suspicion and animosity.
So, what about the data?
There are now a couple of studies that show that women applying to STEM positions in academia are preferred to male applicants by about 2:1. That is, hiring committees are predisposed to hire women STEM faculty over men.
There are also several studies on the effects of affirmative action on law school admissions, university admissions, and student performance. These studies are rather remarkable in both detail and finding.
Conservatives in academia want a diverse environment--indeed, we are an important and undervalued part of having a diverse university. When I think about it, we are likely one of the smallest minorities on campus. Yet how we arrive at a diverse environment is important.
I do not favor discrimination so I do not favor affirmative action for conservatives, even though there is compelling evidence that conservatives are discriminated against in many fields. At the same time, I do not favor discrimination for any other group or against any other group.
My advice to conservatives and to other minorities is always the same: Work hard. Study. Address your intellectual shortcomings. If you suck at math, take more math courses. If you need help with writing, take a course in writing. If you cannot get into Harvard, go someplace else. If your LSAT, GRE, SAT, ACT scores aren’t so good, study more and retake the test. Don’t expect to be admitted or hired because of your race, ideology, gender, hair color, sexual proclivities, background, or simply because your awesome.
Here is a post by Robert Cherry on the subject: