Diversity, Oui ou Non!

Interesting and conflicting developments are occurring on the affirmative action/diversity front in the US.


The American Bar Association accredits law schools in the US as part of its activities. It recently adopted a policy requiring law schools seeking accreditation to demonstrate the steps they take to ensure diversity amongst their students, faculty, and staff. However the US department of Education has raised concerns that such a requirement could force law schools to break the law in four states that ban the use of affirmative action. The Department of Education could potentially refuse to recognize the American Bar Association’s authority to accredit law schools.  People in the legal education arena are not of one voice on the issue of increasing diversity in law schools by linking it to accreditation. It still remains to be seen how this issue will be resolved.

Meanwhile economists are wrestling with their own approach to accommodating diversity and merit. For the last couple of decades the American Economic Association (AEA) has banned advertising in its jobs newsletter that discriminates “on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, sexual preference, or physical handicap.” In the last several years it has enforced this restriction strictly, for example even banning phrases that encourage applications from specific underrepresented groups. However some of the Association members were quite unhappy with this rigidness contending that it prevented increasing the proportion of underrepresented groups amongst economists. They mounted a protest and succeeded in getting the advertising policy loosened so that job advertisements may now contain language encouraging people from federally-recognized underrepresented groups to apply.

However the most intriguing piece in the American Economic Association’s story concerns how to deal with religious educational institutions. Such institutions are legally permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion. So advertisements from religious educational institutions legally could require belonging to a particular religion as a condition of application. However the AEA has decided that consistent with its new approach to treating race, gender, etc., it will publish job advertisements that encourage applications from people belonging to particular religious groupings but will not allow advertisements that make such religious affiliation a requirement of the job. Some people contend that such finessing is silly since there is no point in not informing people that a discriminatory, albeit legal, criterion will be applied to candidates.

Clearly, there is more disagreement about diversity and affirmative action curently than there used to be a few years ago or perhaps those opposed to affirmative action and increasing diversity are simply more vocal and effective now. The issue of balancing social concerns with competitive selection is something that will not go away till inequality of opportunity at the systemic level has been removed. This may take a while since politicians and the public seem to have little interest in bearing the cost of making structural adjustments to the economy and society that would result in the systematic opening of equality of opportunity to everyone depending on the progress they make through their lives right from birth.

(Some of the material in this post draws upon reports published in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

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