31. Affirmative Action: Is it Just?

Author: Kyle Ottaway, First Year

Is it just for universities to accept some students based on their ethnicity, skin color or background and not on merit alone? When considering whether affirmative action is just or unjust one must consider why it is being done.  Are less deserving students being admitted because of previous offenses to their ethnicity or race, or is it because the university is trying to create a more diverse learning community? It is easy to think it is unjust to accept students to an academic environment not purely based on their previous academic accomplishments; after all, they are trying to convene with like minded people to become as educated as possible. However, it also makes sense from the university’s point of view to accept diverse students to teach their different customs and life styles to other students. Affirmative action is just, but only if it is done to create a unique environment that the most deserving students cannot create.

For simplicity, and ease of explaining the justifications of affirmative action, let’s assume that all less diverse applicants are more proven academics than the diverse students admitted for affirmative action. While that is clearly not true, for arguing affirmative action, it is relevant.  Affirmative action does not include the diverse students who are worthy of admission based on academic standards alone; it applies only to the ones who do not academically qualify.

When colleges and universities participate in affirmative action they do it for one of two reasons.  The first, and the unjust, way is to accept students with a lower academic record as an apology for previous offences to their religion or ethnicity.  That is wrong because it is allowing the ember, which is the emotion from the previous wrong doing, to continue smoldering, instead of extinguishing it and moving on. By letting previous issues live on, social tensions have remained a lot longer than necessary. Affirmative action is also apologizing for wrongs committed by previous generations. People of the current generation cannot apologize with any sort of sincerity because they had no part in committing the atrocity, another sign that racial tensions have lived on far too long. The students who are being rewarded for previous crimes often have had no direct connection with the crimes; they are essentially collecting on the hardships of other people within their culture.

The second way to approach affirmative action is to use it as a tool to make a more diverse community for learning. By being around people from all different backgrounds, students will learn about alternative traditions, cultures and habits. Becoming more learned about different cultures first hand has immeasurable benefits that only being around like people could not create. The twenty-first century is becoming a more global society with every year, which is why it is more important than ever to become familiar with the people of world while in college. 

The issue surrounding admitting some students into universities that do not entirely deserve to be admitted instead of more deserving students can be seen as violating people’s rights, discriminating against them for being the more common race or religion. The easiest way to describe the difference in how universities see affirmative action and how applicants see it is to put it in terms of the goals of each side.  Universities have a very utilitarian mindset; their goal is to make as many people as educated as possible, knowing that they cannot please everyone.  Utilitarianism generally measures citizen happiness, because its original application was as an idea for running a government. When speaking about universities, however, happiness will be replaced with education, because the main goal of a university is to educate. A famous example of utilitarian thinking is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Theoretical City Of Omelas, discussed in detail in her book The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas, it is where everything is good and everybody within the city lives a virtuous life, however, in order to maintain the “good life” one child must sit neglected and malnourished beneath the city in a room with no windows. Every citizen in the city is aware of the child and its pain, but chooses not to do anything because, to the people of the city, the one child’s pain is worth the collective happiness of everyone in the city. In terms of college admission, the students who are denied because affirmative action admittance was made instead are the people underneath the city. The denied students are under the city because the university believes that sacrificing their education to promote a better education for the other admitted students is worth the disappointment felt by the denied students. For the universities it is all about the experience while in college (the city); they are not concerned with the denied student’s affairs. For a university, denying some worthy students for some more diverse students is worth the disappointment felt by the worthy; the worthy students are seen as a marginal loss to the benefits the diverse students will offer. The acceptance of the diverse students will lead to greater gain/ happiness than they would have gotten from the worthy students.

However, how the applicants see it is very different. They have a more libertarian mindset; they just want to be judged fairly, which to most students is on credentials alone. And because the way they were born is out of their control they do not like to be judged for admission on anything but academic qualifications. What they do not see is time spent in college is not just a time to become more “book smart”; it is also a time to grow as a person, and only being around like-minded people will limit the number that one can grow. The issue with the libertarian idea of thinking is applicants are assuming that because they are applying to a school the only thing they are getting judged on is their academic prowess, but that isn’t the case. They are being judged on their family’s income, where they live, their athletic ability and much more, all of which applicants cannot change. History has proven race and religion to be touchy subjects, so it can be easy to offend people, but by constantly dancing around tough subjects it allows previous generation’s problems to extend into new generations. Affirmative action is like proposing a tax on imported goods; imported goods will become more expensive for the consumer, allowing goods made domestically to remain cheap, making it more economical for the consumers to purchase domestic goods. Affirmative action is the tariff, the diverse students are the domestic goods and the imported goods are the less diverse students.  The less diverse students have to be better too than usual to still be selected for admission, while the more diverse students’ requirements for admission are held artificially low. The goal of universities is not to only accept the most deserving students; it is to teach the accepted students the most while they are enrolled.

In Michael J. Sandel’s thought provoking book Justice: What Is The Right Thing To Do? he talks briefly about affirmative action and he brings up a very interesting point: “If scholarly excellence were the sole or even predominant criterion, Harvard College would lose a great deal of its vitality and intellectual excellence…The quality of the educational experience offered to all students would suffer” (Sandel, P.321). Harvard has a very long list of worthy applicants for only a few spots every year, but they make a point to not accept only the students with the highest SAT scores and the best GPAs. They seek students who are unique and who bring something to offer, whether it is their heritage or their family situation. They are essentially discriminating on students who are less diverse. Harvard is an excellent example for qualifying affirmative action because they get to choose whom ever they want to attend their university; they have the unique ability to craft the ideal class. Harvard’s uniqueness stems from its long history of being among the best American universities. Many other schools cannot parallel the prestige that comes with being a Harvard graduate; because of the prestige, upon acceptance everybody chooses to attend. By being able to assemble their ideal class they further prove that affirmative action is necessary, but only to improve the educational experience for all the students.

The universities should not be promoting diversity as a sort of common good; their goal is not to correct social problems with diversity. They should only be doing what they are best at, which is educating students. When universities begin looking at things other than educating young people, they begin to stray from their goal. They either do okay at everything (social problems and education) or great at one thing.  For example, in the study of economics, firms should only create what they have the comparative advantage in; otherwise they lose money to other firms who have comparative advantage in their new territory. When universities look past education towards correcting social problems they are no longer able to compete in education and were never able to compete in correcting social problems. It is a losing situation. If they simply focus on what they are good at they will be much better off. The less diverse students have to be better than usual to still be selected for admission, while the more diverse students’ requirements for admission are held artificially low. While it does seem unfair for the diverse students to be held to a lower standard than the less diverse students, it is important to remember university admission is not a fair process. Universities are only interested in building the best class possible, even if that means denying some academically proven students for some students who will bring more diverse learning to campus.

Affirmative action is just, but only if it done to increase the intellectual curiosity of the students. It is not violating people’s rights to be chosen based on ethnicity or religion because, like socioeconomic status and geographic location, it is impossible to change. The problem is that it is harder to justify to people they were not accepted because of race or religion than it is because of their economic status. Although applicants feel they deserve to be looked at fairly, universities are looking to serve the best education for the accepted students, which means sometimes accepting a diverse student in order improve the experience for many other accepted students.

Work Cited

Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do? New York: Farrar,Straus and Giroux, n.d. Print.

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