Reaffirming the Value of Diversity in Light of the SCOTUS College Affirmative Action Decision

Health Equity

The recent Supreme Court ruling striking down decades of race-based affirmative action in college admissions has reopened, once again, the national discussion about our commitment to diversity in institutions of higher learning. There are many reasons for the Court’s decision at this particular point in time, some of them informed by the politics of a charged partisan moment, and some by a genuine disagreement about goals of affirmative action efforts. In addition, the Court’s action does not affect the vast majority of undergraduates going to American universities and colleges, making the practical impact of the case limited. However, a high-profile ruling such as this one stands to challenge a hard-won national commitment to diversity in colleges, universities, and workplaces, and as such it is important to revisit some key thoughts on the value of diversity, and why, in particular it matters to those who are in the work of producing health.

There is abundant evidence on the practical benefits of diversity. Citing just one high profile report, an analysis by McKinsey & Company showed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to enjoy financial performance above the national industry median. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on their executive teams were 33% more likely to enjoy such performance. In an academic analysis of more than 9 million papers and 6 million scientists that studied the relationship between research impact and five classes of diversity—ethnicity, discipline, gender, affiliation, and academic age—ethnic diversity was most closely associated with scientific impact. The paper found that ethnic diversity increased impact by more than 10% for papers, and more than 45% for scientists. These data support what is, to many of us, intuitive about greater diversity in organizations: it is a positive influence. Diversity means greater potential for new ideas and approaches—the lifeblood of any dynamic group. It can also help reduce the groupthink that can result in missteps. If everyone thinks the same, no one is in a position to raise the alarm when the group is moving in the wrong direction. In the educational setting, diversity means creating a learning environment where students can learn from those who are not like them, grounding learning in the real world. Diversity can help ensure that there will always be—within groups—perspectives that fall outside the majority, which can help keep any collective from falling prey to the blind spots that can inform poor decisions. The data supporting diversity’s salutary effect on organizations, reflect how, far from undermining excellence, diversity and inclusion are actually key to supporting it.

Separate and apart from the benefits of diversity in the present, there is a strong case to be made for the importance of diversity in all institutions as part of an effort to undo centuries of injustice that have kept many groups out of elite educational or occupational institutions. The ubiquity of structural racism, in particular anti-Black racism, in the United States has long shaped opportunities available to Black Americans, and formal efforts to diversify colleges are small steps toward rectifying historical wrongs. Other groups have also, of course, faced such injustices and exclusions, including Chinese immigrants, persons of Latine origins, women, and essentially all groups who were not among the original land-owning White Protestant men who had full citizenship rights from the moment of the country’s founding. Diversifying elite institutions is then an inherent value, but also represents the creation of pragmatic opportunities, historically denied, to all groups, who can then ensure equity of such opportunity to a broad range of groups hereafter. Construed in this manner, diversity stands to be a social good, and there is a robust case to be made for the contribution that diversity today can make for a better society in decades to come.

At least implicit in any rejection of efforts to increase diversity is the notion that in order to promote diversity we are sacrificing “excellence.”  The argument that excellence is at odds with diversity is a distraction, built on a far too narrow understanding of excellence. Certainly, there are some cases where excellence must be quite narrowly defined. For an airline pilot, for example, excellence means being able to consistently provide a safe flight for passengers and crew, and there is no getting around this definition. However, in almost all contexts, there is ample room for rethinking our definition of excellence. Thinking about the Supreme Court decision and the need for excellence in universities, let us consider, for example, rocket science. In many respects, excellence is quite specific in how it supports this field. The equations that send a rocket into space are not subject to different forms of interpretation, and there is no margin of error in their use. However, sending rockets into space is much more than just the equations and the physics. The key contribution of diversity may not be in rethinking how rockets work, but in envisioning a new, better direction for what we use rockets for. When excellence is defined in these terms—as a still-meritocratic pursuit, but one which is less bound by settled habits and conventional wisdom—it can help our endeavors reach new heights.

Just as we can, in this moment of heightened attention to the issue of diversity, be well-served by reimagining our notions of excellence, we can also benefit from ensuring we are being honest about our conception of diversity. There has been much comment, in the days of intense scrutiny following the recent Supreme Court case, about how diversity has been construed very narrowly by many elite universities, in many ways undermining the very principles that efforts to promote diversity were trying to promote. While some of this was undoubtedly driven by pragmatism (i.e., universities’ efforts to appear “diverse” when their constituencies called for it), some of this is also likely a reflection of our limited imagination about the scope of diversity. The occasion of the rejection of a relatively easy way to diversify campuses—by accounting for race as a single factor—should push us into thinking more broadly about diversity. Much of our contemporary pursuit of diversity is founded on the acknowledgment that, for generations, paths to success were closed to people from certain groups due to factors of identity. That we are now engaged in a project of trying to correct this injustice is very much to the good, and this needs to remain the case in whatever ways possible within the bounds of the reshaped legal landscape.  However, it is important to highlight that, even as racial and ethnic diversity matters in a country that has long been haunted by exclusion on race and ethnicity, and perhaps matters more than diversity on other factors, diversity remains far more than making sure a certain composition of identity groups is represented to the exclusion of all other considerations. Leaving aside the fact that such a reductionist approach fails to account for inclusion, it is worth asking—is this true diversity? At some level, of course yes, it suffices as a baseline introduction to diversity—and it is certainly better than where we were in the past—but it is also possible to think more expansively about diversity.  A key benefit of bringing together people with different experiences and identities is the different perspectives their unique experiences can inform. This includes different opinions, skill sets, political beliefs, and spiritual outlooks. Creating a more expansive conception of diversity is critical to the long-term viability of the project to create a diverse and inclusive world.  This paves the way for the creation of opportunities for persons of all identities, to bring together ideas from a full range of life experiences and backgrounds to the end of generative excellence that moves societies forward.

The Supreme Court decision called affirmative action “zero-sum,” referring to the admission of a set number of people from certain groups to a finite number of university spots.  But a broader pursuit of diversity means accepting that we are all better off if everyone has opportunities to excel, and that inclusion of the many can lead us to a better, healthier world. This moves our thinking beyond the short-term quantitative to the longer-term values of inclusive excellence. These ideas have made steady inroads in the conversation about diversity, particularly in the academic space. Given the data in support of diversity’s positive effects on organizations and teams, it is clear that embracing diversity need not involve long-term tradeoffs at the expense of excellence. Core to this is ensuring that the diversity we embrace is full diversity. When diversity is able to flourish, when it can support a full range of identities, backgrounds, perspectives, it is poised to be a powerful force for maximizing human potential in any setting.

Why does this matter? Why is it so important that we make a robust case for diversity and inclusion, by engaging with objections to it? It matters because diversity and inclusion are central to creating a healthier world. Fundamentally, health is concerned with supporting the wellbeing of populations, and by “populations,” we mean as many people as possible. We cannot effectively promote health among such a diverse constituency without reflecting, and learning from, the people we serve. Diversity and inclusion are also core to a forward-looking public health, achieving excellence by including a range of perspectives, leading us to better solutions to the task of creating a healthier world.

Galea S. Reaffirming the Value of Diversity in Light of the SCOTUS College Affirmative Action Decision. Milbank Quarterly Opinion. July 26, 2023.

About the Author

Sandro Galea, a physician, epidemiologist, and author, is dean and Robert A. Knox Professor at Boston University School of Public Health. He previously held academic and leadership positions at Columbia University, the University of Michigan, and the New York Academy of Medicine. He has published extensively in the peer-reviewed literature, and is a regular contributor to a range of public media, about the social causes of health, mental health, and the consequences of trauma. He has been listed as one of the most widely cited scholars in the social sciences. He is chair of the board of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health and past president of the Society for Epidemiologic Research and of the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine. Galea has received several lifetime achievement awards. Galea holds a medical degree from the University of Toronto, graduate degrees from Harvard University and Columbia University, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. His book Within Reason was published by University of Chicago Press on December 1, 2023.

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