Gurin v. Powell

Diversity, Diversity!! We know it is great stuff, but the question remains: How great is it? Patricia Gurin, Ph.D., retired professor of psychology, former chairperson of the Department of Psychology, former interim Dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, has attempted to cast some light on that question in testimony submitted to the courts in connection with the University of Michigan's admissions lawsuits. Here she begins the "Summary and Conclusions" section of her report:

A racially and ethnically diverse university student body has far-ranging and significant benefits for all students, non-minorities and minorities alike. Students learn better in a diverse educational environment, and they are better prepared to become active participants in our pluralistic, democratic society once they leave such a setting. In fact, patterns of racial segregation and separation historically rooted in our national life can be broken by diversity experiences in higher education. This Report describes the strong evidence supporting these conclusions derived from three parallel empirical analyses of university students, as well as from existing social science theory and research. (Expert Report of Patricia Gurin: Summary and Conclusions)
In that same section, she also claims, "Students learn more and think in deeper, more complex ways in a diverse educational environment" and that
Students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills.

In a speech given to a meeting of the American Council on Education, University President Mary Sue Coleman made similar points:

Nearly everyone in this room is an educator and many of you have spent years teaching undergraduate and graduate students. What I'm going to say next is something we long have known to be true from our own experience. Now we have developed an impressive record of social science research that demonstrates the positive educational outcomes linked with diverse class environments.

Students learn better in a diverse class. They are more analytical, and more engaged. The teaching environment is more enlightening. The discussion is livelier and more representative of real-world issues. These students are more open to perspectives that differ from their own and they are better prepared to become active participants in our society.

Most people recognize the value of having students of different races and ethnic origins live and learn together. (President Mary Sue Coleman's Address to the American Council on Education, February 17, 2003)

The problem is: Gurin's "empirical analyses" really don't prove much of anything, and they certainly don't prove what we would expect, based on Gurin's summary or Coleman's claims. We would expect phrases such as "Students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings" or "positive educational outcomes linked with diverse class environments" to have something to do with the ethnic or racial or gender mixes found in a typical classroom. A calculus class with all white males would not be diverse; a physics class with five African-Americans, five Latinos, five Asians and five white people, with the same number of males and females would be very "diverse."

Gurin's measures of "classroom diversity" are not what we would expect. In her first study, the measure is whether or not a student took an "ethnic studies course." In her second study, it is measured by "Extent of exposure in classes to information/activities devoted to understanding other racial/ethnic relationships" and "Had a course that had inportant impact on student's views of racial/ethnic diversity and multiculturalism." (Expert Report of Patricia Gurin: Appendix C, The Studies, Methods and Measures)

The "outcomes" Gurin measures are also questionable. For example, "Have learned a great deal about contributions to American society of other racial/ethnic groups" is listed as a "democracy outcome." (Appendix C) Such learning is a fine thing, but it is also, we would think, the sort of thing taught in ethnic studies classes. So the correlation between "classroom diversity," as defined by Gurin, and that particular "democracy outcome," as defined by Gurin, is unremarkable.

Thus, Gurin's testimony is not based on genuine scientific research. It is merely an expression of opinion that pretends to be scientific research.

Even though the main point of all the "emperical analysis" Gurin did was to bolster Justice Louis Powell's claim (in his Bakke opinion) that "...the interest of diversity is compelling in the context of a university's admissions program...," her opinions diverge from those of the Justice.

The Bakke decision struck down a medical school's use of racial quotas in its admissions program. Powell, however, claimed that there were constitutionally permissable ways schools could take race into account for the sake of diversity. Diversity in a student body would contribute to a "robust exchange of ideas" (Powell in Bakke quoting from an earlier court decision) and enhance opportunities for informal learning in the course of "unplanned, casual encounters." (Powell in Bakke quoting from Bowen, "Admissions and the Relevance of Race," Princeton Alumni Weekly 7, 9 (Sept. 26, 1977).) It was all automatic. Put together the right mix of people and diversity would go ahead and do its magic.

Gurin favors what we might call managed diversity. In a response to a critique of her report, Gurin writes: "Like all resources, structural diversity must be used intelligently to fulfill its potential." (Evidence for the Educational Benefits of Diversity in Higher Education: Response to the Critique by the National Association of Scholars of the Expert Witness Report of Patricia Gurin in Gratz, et al. v Bollinger, et al. and Grutter v Bollinger, et al.) "Structural diversity" is Gurin's term for the percentage of "students of color" attending a school. (Appendix C) By itself, it is not enough: "Universities have to create educational programs and to foster actual interaction with diverse peers for campus racial diversity to have an impact on students." According to Gurin, the University of Michigan accomplishes this "through admissions policies that create a student body that is diverse" and "by promoting curricular and student life policies that help shape the very interactions that are critical to the positive impact of diversity. . ." (response to NAS critique)

In the "Conceptual Model of the Impact of Diversity" section of her report, Gurin writes:

Structural diversity is essential but, by itself, usually not sufficient to produce substantial benefits; in addition to being together on the same campus, students from diverse backgrounds must also learn about each other in the courses that they take and in informal interaction outside of the classroom. For new learning to occur, institutions of higher education have to make appropriate use of structural diversity. They have to make college campuses authentic public places, where students from different backgrounds can take part in conversations and share experiences that help them develop an understanding of the perspectives of other people. Formal classroom activities and interaction with diverse peers in the informal college environment must prompt students to think in pluralistic and complex ways, and to encourage them to become committed to life-long civic action. In order to capitalize amply on such opportunities for cognitive growth, institutions of higher education must bring diverse students together, provide stimulating courses covering historical, cultural, and social bases of diversity and community, and create opportunities and expectations for students to interact across racial and other divides. Otherwise, many students will retreat from the opportunities offered by a diverse campus to find settings within their institutions that are familiar and that replicate their home environments. (Expert Report of Patricia Gurin: Conceptual Model of the Impact of Diversity)

Gurin reveals a taste for high drama in her account of an incident that occurred during a "first year seminar on groups and community." A white female student complained about being regarded as a white person, not as an individual. Then she broke down in tears. A black male approached her, saying "I just want to be an individual also. But every day as I walk across this campus . . . I am categorized. No one knows what my thoughts are, or if my thoughts align with other African-American students. They just see me as a black male. And at night, they often change their pace to stay away from me. The point is -- groups do matter. They matter in my life and . . . they matter in your life." Concerning the inevitable multicultural epiphany, Gurin writes, "The students learned about the meaning of groups and the meaning of individuals in a way that they won't soon forget. . . . Real interaction with diverse others in a classroom makes this learning powerful and indelible." (response to NAS critique)

What motivates this transition from Powell's reliance on informal interaction to Gurin's obsession with ethnic studies courses, all in the name of democracy?

I can only speculate: I suspect there is a fair amount of residential segregation at U of M due to the presence of the all black Trotter House and perhaps other all or mostly black living situations. Residential segregation obviously reduces opportunities for informal contact. I also speculate that there is a fair amount of curricular segregation, with black students taking Black Studies courses, etc., disproportionately. Thus, the normal amount of informal social interaction one might hope for will not materialize. Ethnic studies courses might compensate a bit for the lack of real classroom diversity. Managed interactions might help obscure the fact that segregated living quarters are still to be found on the campus of the University of Michigan. Again, I'm only speculating.

If I say, "Listening to classical music does not make you smarter," I'm certainly not condemning classical music, I'm simply disagreeing with a statement that is sometimes made about it. So it is with diversity. We love it because we are diverse peoples in a diverse society and we love ourselves and that's all there is to it. We can do without the phony science, without the management of our encounters, without the psycho-drama.

Regardless of our political differences, we should all respect the importance of truth telling in our institutions of learning and research. I hope more people take the time to look into this issue and form their own conclusions. The reputation of our alma mater, our "nurturing mother," is at stake here.

The University of Michigan's motto is Artes, Scientia, Veritas. That last word, in my opinion, is the key to everything.

Copyright © 2003   You may make paper or electronic copies of this essay for your personal use.

The author has lived most of his life in Southeastern Michigan. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1977.

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