Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Toward a less grandiose conception of higher education

So I am reading the slip opinion of for Fisher v. Texas, the University of Texas affirmative action case. It of course quotes at length from Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court affirmative action case concerning the University of Michigan's law school. It is possible that I am just being cranky, but one of the weirder facets of both this opinion and Grutter is all of this talk about building a diverse "leadership class" and that it is apparently necessary for it a)to be diverse, so as to have "legitimacy" and b) that even the individuals within it who are not "diverse" to have some threshhold exposure to diversity to be better leaders.

This conception of students at selective colleges and universities as members of some elite class of Platonic philosopher guardians is nice, and I suppose I should be flattered that I have been presumably included in the group. Except that neither of the selective-ish institutions that I have attended really seemed to be in the business of fostering anything close to a Platonic philosopher guardian class. There were a small number of hyper-networked over-achievers hellbent on cracking into the Washington power structure, true. But there was also my friend who wound up living in a van for awhile, and the two acquaintances who moved to San Francisco to start a band. I'm sure there are also plenty of future stay at home moms, and others who make piles of money doing boring-to-me things with numbers and chemicals that I don't understand, who are not really leading anything in a broad sense. This is not meant as a slur against any of these people; the numbers and chemicals guys are actually creating jobs and moving the economy forward. The stay-at-home mothers raise great kids, etc. By not heating up an apartment in winter, the van guy helps solve our nation's fossil fuels problem.

But the point is that even the most exquisitely sensitive admissions office is going to pick lots of people who are not destined for philosopher guardianness. That is probably as it should be. There are not that many jobs at The New Republic. Hyper-networked aspirant philosopher guardians are kind of annoying, and they should be discouraged from these pursuits as much as possible. All of this fretting over getting the perfectly diverse mix of these philosopher guardian class right seems kind of twee and annoying. More institutional humility from these schools and their admissions officers would be nice.


  1. So at our law school alma mater I wrote an averagely-received seminar paper in which I argued that "democratic legitimacy" would replace "diversity" as the compelling interest narrowly pursued by government action.

    I don't think the most plausible reading of O'Connor's words in Grutter about higher education producing leaders with legitimacy is your assertion that it is about a Platonic philosopher guardian class.

    On the contrary, it's both more and less grandiose (and maybe that's a problem). It's less grandiose because "leaders with legitimacy" is just as much about mid-level civil servants and small business managers as it is about Fortune 500 Boards of Directors and Obama's Cabinet. But it's more grandiose for the same reason - claiming the power of the higher education as this major, and perhaps final, instrument of democracy.

    There's the legitimacy of our elite decisionmakers "looking like America," and there's the legitimacy of my local sandwich place "looking like America." If either looks like an apartheid regime, legitimacy is lost.

    Or so I would say.


  2. There's the legitimacy of our elite decisionmakers "looking like America," and there's the legitimacy of my local sandwich place "looking like America." If either looks like an apartheid regime, legitimacy is lost.

    Agreed, but I think trying to apply a democratic legitimacy standard in lieu of the diversity one gets you to ridiculousness pretty quickly. The threshhold question becomes, how many students does one need from a particular group before a university becomes democratically illegitimate? Would it be fine if it used preferences to get to seven percent, but somehow democratically illegitimate if only three percent were from a certain group?

    Also, "democratic" and "legitimate" can pull apart from each other if one defines "democratic" as "majoritarian." Take the California case: political majorities want universities not to use race preferences. Can the University of California then claim that it needs to use racial preferences to maintain democratic legitimacy, even though that is actually the opposite of what the majority of voters casting ballots in the 209 election wanted?

    Also, I assume that your proposed approach would still keep the narrow tailoring requirement intact, leaving room for debate about whether a given program is narrowly tailored enough to achieve the desired end?

  3. ***"There's the legitimacy of our elite decisionmakers "looking like America,". . . If [it] looks like an apartheid regime, legitimacy is lost."***

    Yet when Congress was all WASPs it seems to have been less corrupt. Not un-corrupt, just less so than today. If Congress was composed of 100% black folks, and they passed only classical liberal legislation (and repealed the bad stuff) I'd be ecstatic, even though Congress wouldn't "look like America." So who cares if the reverse were true—same results, except all old white men?

    Let's judge people by their actions and forget the racial/ethnic BS. Should we boycott law schools because there are so many Jewish professors (but Jews make up such a small percentage of the U.S. population)? Of course not. Unjust laws and actions cause governmental illegitimacy. The racial/ethnic make-up of our elite has nothing to do with legitimacy.

  4. Isabel - I thought your response was thoughtful and makes good points and I have no easy rebuttal. But I didn't want to let it rest without saying so.