From Where I Sit - Unity through Diversity: News

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, October 3, 2013 | Go to article overview

From Where I Sit - Unity through Diversity: News


US colleges and universities are once again facing scores of applications for incoming classes, but this year the process is more complicated. The US Supreme Court's decision last June in the case of Fisher v University of Texas at Austin has left admissions officers perplexed about how to prove that the use of race is "necessary" to "achieve the educational benefits" of a diverse student body. How many race-neutral alternatives must they try first?

Meanwhile, with affirmative action always a political hot button, the case has sparked wider discussion. One idea that continues to resurface is for the US to move towards the French model, using social class as a more constitutionally defensible and politically palatable proxy for race.

The pioneer in this movement was one of France's most elite institutions, Sciences Po, which in 2001 launched a programme eliminating entrance exams for 10 per cent of its students recruited from schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Yet the use of mobilisation positive, as the French call it, still provokes visceral opposition to what is generally perceived as a mask for racial preferences in a country where any consideration of race is taboo. The French Constitution itself firmly recognises "equality before the law of all citizens without distinction of origin, of race or of religion". Muddying the waters is the fact that for the French, race is tied up with religion and the dramatic rise in the country's Muslim population, many of whom come from, or have roots in, the former French colonies.

As the debate over the Supreme Court decision has swirled through the US and French press, what has struck me is how the diversity rationale gets lost in numbers, centred on inputs in terms of students admitted and outputs in terms of student achievement and career success. …

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