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August 2, 2023+Matt Recla
+Viewpoint Diversity+Campus Policy+Public Policy

What Does the SCOTUS Affirmative Action Ruling Mean for Viewpoint Diversity? Not Much. (OPINION)

In the short time since the Supreme Court ruled against the direct consideration of racial identity in college admissions, scholars, administrators, journalists, and pundits alike have speculated about its impact on student diversity in higher education. Most have understandably focused on ensuring diversity in future admissions. However, on the measure of viewpoint diversity — arguably diversity’s most critical aspect for institutions of higher education — this ruling has no direct impact. Why? Viewpoint diversity is not directly impacted because, subjective experience aside, one’s viewpoints are not contingent on one’s held or assumed racial identity.

Individuals may provide a genealogy for their views that includes considerations of a held racial identity (or gender identity, or religious identity, or political identity, etc.), but I have yet to find a viewpoint whose genesis is exclusively located in a personally held or externally labeled identity. Students could compellingly argue that they would not hold a particular view without holding a particular identity or without having had a particular combination of experiences because of that identity. They are no doubt sincere, yet it is also true that other students can espouse the same view while holding different identities and having had different life experiences. It would seem to follow that this ruling has no necessary impact on viewpoint diversity.

"I have yet to find a viewpoint whose genesis is exclusively located in a personally held or externally labeled identity."

This idea seems uncontroversial and has widespread agreement, yet the immense work that identity representation does in our assessment of diversity in higher education creates a conflation disconnect whereby the Supreme Court’s ruling is tantamount to an attack on diversity. Here are a couple ways this plays out.

One way is in terms of demographics. I work at a college in a state that banned the use of “preferential treatment” in public education on the basis of race in 2020. According to the US Census Bureau, over 90% of state residents of Idaho identify as “white.” (This number is 80% if counting only those who identify as “not Hispanic or Latino.”) At the institution where I work, 72% of students identify as “white.”

If one uses race or ethnicity as a practical proxy for diversity, there would seem to be a problem in my locale before we even get to a discussion of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Some would argue that the historical legacy of racial discrimination has already done its work, and that any ban on consideration of race ensures that legacy remains in place. While that viewpoint is worth discussion, I’ll note here only that drawing a conclusion solely on the basis of demographics is insufficient.

Another way the “attack on diversity” might play out is by citing perceptions of impact.

Some are undoubtedly concerned that as a result of this ruling — or perhaps more accurately, the media coverage from this ruling — a number of students will feel (at least temporarily) that their viewpoints are unwelcome or less welcome than before. The extent to which this will occur is debatable, but to dismiss this possibility entirely is wishful thinking and a bit callous. If one associates a held racial identity with one’s viewpoints — and I am not suggesting one should or shouldn’t — this ruling may be impactful. It is also likely that for the majority of students, faculty, and staff, this will register very little impact for the same reason: They do not understand their views as predicated on a held racial identity.

It remains an important question to me whether our institutions of higher education would be better off continuing to have policies in place in order to effectively continue to combat the legacy of historical inequalities on the basis of racial identity. Those who conclude justice has finally been served are on no surer footing — so far as I can see — than those who conclude the Supreme Court ruling was a travesty of justice as a result of rampant partisanship. And critics who suggest that de facto affirmative action based on other social categories remains untouched by this ruling make a point surely worth further discussion.

"The only way that this Supreme Court ruling can impact viewpoint diversity on college campuses, mine or others, is subjectively."

My point is more specific. The only way that this Supreme Court ruling can impact viewpoint diversity on college campuses, mine or others, is subjectively. If I understand this ruling to be limiting my ability to express my views on campus, and if I self-censor as a result, then viewpoint diversity has indeed been impacted, because my voice has been limited. But it has not been limited because of the ruling in any objective sense.

Identities of any kind — as social constructions — are a proxy measure for achieving diversity. That is not to say that they are never an appropriate measure, though following Goodharts law there is always danger of them becoming a target. However, what we primarily value “among students and across campus” are the diversity of views and the individuals who hold them in all their complexity. What this means is that we can and should continue to encourage students and colleagues to express their viewpoints, including on this very issue, and we should value their contributions.


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