The Once and Future Wallace


Diversity and Affirmative Action: A New Philosophy
and Model for College Admissions

By Charles H. Smith

    Most of us probably have a pretty good intuitive feel for what the word "diversity" means: loosely, it is about "having variety" or "multiformity," or defining "a state of many internal differences." Beyond such simple definitions, the term has been applied in many ways: both as a generality, and to portray certain more specific aspects of the natural and social world. Here I should like to take a quick look at one these portrayals--of the relation of diversity to an engaged society--and attempt to identify a weakness in our current approach to education whose correction might be of some value in reaching our social goals.

    Diversity represents a fundamental state of being, of existence. Two basic things that can be said of any such state of being are: (1) that it has reached its present state through some manner of historical process/genesis, and (2) that in active operation it fits into some sort of greater environment. If our collective experience and logic are any guides, it is invariably the case that a historical process of development involves an internal storage of information that ultimately serves persistence within that greater environment. Thus it is, for example, that our genetic code, the product of millions of years of selective assimilation, serves us as biological entities struggling to survive under basic environmental constraints of temperature, pressure, and other ambient variables.

    Many studies focus on only one of these two fundamental perspectives. Fields such as history and paleontology tend to emphasize the first matter, whereas ecology and economics look more toward the second. In biology both elements of study are pursued, with attention to the matter of diversity recently becoming so focussed that a new compound word has been invented to draw attention to it: "biodiversity." Generally, the object of discussion is some apparently discrete form such as an individual, a species, or a population. But we can also legitimately look at the stage upon which such actors play their roles--that is, at the ecological conditions that promote the development of individual "things." Let us consider a couple of examples.

    The tropical rainforest regions of the world, with their luxurious growth of vegetation and seemingly endless variety of animal forms (especially insects), are often viewed as evolution's most productive theaters. But this impression is actually an incomplete one, confusing mere biomass tonnage and speciosity with the overall process leading to the same. Yes, it is true that in terms both of species diversity and total standing biomass, the tropical rainforests rank first among the world's ecosystem types. Note, however, that this reality tells us only that these areas represent the greatest storehouses of genetic diversity; to see the whole evolutionary picture some additional factors must be taken into account.

    The Achilles heel of the rainforest as a productive system lies in the fact that too much rain falls there for its own good. Tropical soils are constantly being inundated and they rapidly deplete, whenever exposed, through erosion and/or a general process of chemical out-leaching of nutrients. The ecosystem's characteristic adaptation to this stress has been to host a community structure in which there is rapid, opportunistic growth such that the vast majority of the nutrients available to the system are tied up in the living matter itself (and its massive dead woody support structure) at any given time. The biogeochemical cycling process sustaining the ecosystem--that is, nutrient turnover vital to the all-important process of primary productivity of plant matter through photosynthesis--is actually rather inefficient there. Relatively little of the system's total nutrient base is available at any given time to sustain primary productivity and the rapid decay process that aids in recycling vital resources to return use.

    By contrast, the mid-latitude grassland ecosystem is much more productive. Relatively little of the system's nutrients is lost to leaching, or to long periods of unavailability while tied up in nonproductive superstructure. Instead, each year a good portion of the available nutrients in the soil are assimilated by growing, photosynthesizing, vegetation, which is then either consumed by animals or itself dies at the end of the year. The process of decay ultimately releases the nutrients tied up in dead matter back to the soil, and to availability again in a year or two. Primary productivity of plant matter is actually greater in this environment, as is the amount of animal biomass it can sustain. We of course know this well: agriculturally, such regions are known as the "breadbaskets" of the world for their productive capabilities, and historically have sustained great herds of herbivore giants.

    This contrasting state of affairs is also reflected in differences in the secondary characteristics of the biodiversity in each ecosystem. Species populations that inhabit the tropical rainforests tend to be made up of fewer individual organisms, and exhibit smaller distribution ranges. This reflects the greater stability levels there, and the ability of small species populations to develop niche associations which link them very closely to other populations. Species from the grassland regions, which are environmentally less stable, tend to be more opportunistic in their habitat utilization, and exhibit physiological adaptations more attuned to the various inclemencies of a changeable climate and varying habitat. Highly specialized adaptation to time and place is more the order in the tropics, where, for example, a fantastic array of protective body colors and shapes have evolved in response to the opportunities provided by close and constant proximity to a large number of other species.

    And, finally, there are important differences between the overall supra-species level constitutions of each ecosystem. Within the tropics not only is speciosity higher, but so too is the diversity of the higher taxonomic groups such as families and orders. And, importantly, not only are there more of the latter, but the ones that are there tend to be more primitive (in the biological sense, simply meaning "of earlier derivation"). It is to the tropical regions of the world that one should go to have the best chance of encountering so-called "living fossils"; such forms are, again, indicative of the relatively dominating repository character of such areas.

    Note, then, that the differing characteristics of productivity between rainforest and grassland areas are not due to any one simple characteristic of the stability or harshness of the two ecosystems. The climate of grassland regions is undoubtedly more harsh and fluctuating than is that of the tropics, but in the matter of primary productivity the stability of the ecosystem is not the primary consideration. To build a productive ecosystem in a biological sense--that is, to optimally promote photosynthesis and all that follows--one must have a biogeochemical cycling process that rapidly turns over a great percentage of nutrients, and an array of species in the community that is attuned to assimilating and using them, and not merely to binding and highly specialized interactions with other species. In the latter case we are speaking primarily of the production of diversity through mere complexification; in the former, a constant renewal of function that serves diversification of ecological association as well.

    There is an important point to be gathered from this digression into the evolutionary ecology of biodiversity, and it is one which biologists themselves have been slow to perceive. This is, again, that there is a big difference--both epigenetically and in terms of directly observable structure--between the evolutionary function of an ecological setting that promotes the storage of diversity, and one that promotes its constant renewal and locational re-assignment and integration.

    While resisting the temptation to draw parallels that are too literal, let us now take a broad look at some not dissimilar considerations on the meaning of diversity within the university setting.

    For hundreds of years now the most recognizable mission of institutions of higher learning has lain in their roles as bastions of expertise and knowledge. Two familiar and dominating symbols of this role have managed to maintain themselves: the teaching faculties of such institutions, and the massive "halls of ivory" physical plant of the typical college campus (perhaps exemplified par excellence by the institution's library, repository of what is, literally, the written record of the history of civilization). In the face of these potent icons the goal of the education process itself--"productivity," not only in a multi-faceted intellectual sense but in a sense of societal improvement--has never quite received the spotlight it deserves. Students were indeed "educated," but without a unified view as to just what that education was supposed to accomplish: either for the students themselves, or for society in general. At worst knowledge became a unidimensional tool: that which one could use to assimilate money; less negatively, the focus was mostly on accumulating knowledge, more than it was using it unselfishly.

    Importantly, in recent years a consensus has slowly emerged that is serving to replace the latter order. It is now proposed that the main function of the university should be to produce well-rounded and thinking graduates: individuals who can apply general principles of critical reasoning both to solving specific problems in specialized settings, and to considering and ameliorating more general problems at the societal level: i.e., to becoming "responsible citizens." This does not mean, of course, that the usefulness and importance of the role of the university as a simple repository of knowledge is now denied (or that we are no longer interested in "making money"!), just that we are seeking approaches in which our institutional productivity is defined in terms extending beyond the mere storage of knowledge.

    This re-orientation of mission is significant for the very same reason that it is not useful to look to the volume of genetic diversity and biomass alone for clues regarding the functional meaning of the "state of being" we term biodiversity. Within the natural world, maximum primary productivity--and thus the potential for doing biological work in both the short and long term sense--happens when relatively undemanding environmental conditions act upon a set of relatively flexible gene pools to produce adaptable populations capable both of self-reinvention, and fitting into and contributing to the structure of new community frameworks. This "fitting in" process may or may not involve developing some truly new adaptive structure at the genetic or morphological level, but it must in the long run enhance the overall turnover properties of nutrients and other resources within the ecosystem--or risk a slowdown of turnover that will ultimately affect that very rate of "fitting in."

    Perhaps we can promote the same kind of object productivity in a higher education setting by deliberately setting out to attract a maximally "diverse" student body, and then letting it flourish within a "relatively unconfining" learning environment. But it doesn't seem we can hope to move in this direction before we manage to change our views on what it is that constitutes "diversity" within student populations, and on this basis produce a model of student body integration that lends itself to a practical selection mechanism aiding the process. We move in this direction here by starting with the diversity model.

    In earlier days most students were selected for admission to college primarily as a straightforward function of perceived measures of their intelligence, especially as indicated through course grades and standardized aptitude test scores. A few were also accepted as a function of their possessing "special skills" in athletics or the arts, or because of great wealth or a family relation to alumni. In short, "internal qualities" factors dominated consideration for admission, and the notion that an unusual ethnic, economic or geographic experience might present an "external" factor equal in importance to enhancing the college learning experience was acknowledged only obliquely, if at all. This kind of unidimensional thinking worked tolerably well for as long as eligible and actual student populations remained relatively homogeneous--say, into the 1950s--but at that point the lack of diversity became its own issue on college campuses. Unfortunately, the "repository of knowledge" model of higher education has been unable to successfully address this problem. Early coping efforts, including many of those still in effect, concentrated on trying to set things right by dwelling on remedial strategies focussing on "internal qualities" factors, especially those associated with the biological quality "race." But, we must acknowledge, the setting of quotas and the like, through extreme applications of the affirmative action concept, itself violates principles of equal opportunity. This is not the philosophical route to assuring either maximum diversity or maximum productivity within the campus setting.

    Earlier I suggested that the most productive biological settings matched an efficient ecosystem-level resource turnover process to individual species populations that are able to turn the resulting opportunities for "making a living" into evolutionarily-successful adaptive strategies--and then to move on to do the same thing elsewhere, under new circumstances. Such "biological experience" ends up being codified genetically, but apart from the kinds of biodiversity indicator measures discussed earlier, the results are difficult to separate into their ecological and evolutionary influences. Within human social systems, however, this is, at least in principle, somewhat easier to do.

    It is not much of a stretch, it seems, to suggest that productivity of thought and interchange at the higher education level is likely to be maximized, in analog to the biological setting, through a healthy mix of student backgrounds exhibiting qualities born both, and perhaps equally, of natural abilities and varied experiences. While we may feel this to be implicit in our general direction at present, perhaps it is time to make the effort explicit. Doing so will make it easier to deal with a number of issues that remain contentious within the old "bastion of knowledge" model. Let us briefly consider one example.

    Heretofore race has proved a difficult challenge for those who wish to develop a fair social integration model at the college admissions level. Whatever level of responsibility we may feel for righting historical wrongs, many cry foul when individuals from minority groups are given, or appear to be given, preferential treatment in admissions decisions. In fact, it is difficult to defend the idea that any particular individual should be given preferential treatment merely because of some accident of racial genetics. At the same time, however, it is just as difficult to deny that the group experience of some minority population--especially an oppressed one--should be considered as anything less than crucially relevant to an institutional mission professing a central interest in the education of "responsible citizens." Further, it is likely that those who have most experienced such oppressions will be able to speak most authentically of them: experience matters.

    The solution to this dilemma--at least with regard to admissions policies--is simply to recognize only the external, experiential element in race as a fit criterion for admission decisions. And, importantly, this element must be recognized as but one of a number of such elements contributing to overall student population diversity, and integrated accordingly. The best way to illustrate this further is to present an actual example of how such an integration model might be set up in practice.

    Consider first the following nine characteristics, intended (for the sake of argument, at least) to identify important native and experiential qualities in a candidate pertinent to maximizing diversity within an incoming student population:

(1) Received an ACT or SAT score in the top ten percent. A primarily internal factor.

(2) Graduated in the top ten percent of his or her class. A primarily internal factor.

(3) Was captain of his or her school's debating team, president of its student government group, or inducted into the National Honor Society. A primarily internal factor.

(4) Achieved all-conference or all-state recognition in any sport. A primarily internal factor.

(5) Resides more than one hundred miles from campus, and not within the home state. A fairly obvious external factor: geographical distance from source is very likely to reflect degrees of difference in overall experience.

(6) Is a citizen of (or at least resides in) another country. Another external factor.

(7) Is a member of a minority race in this country. A primarily external factor; again, for reasons of differing overall body of experience, and how this is central to creating a learning environment producing "responsible citizens."

(8) Is a member of an economically disadvantaged population in this country. A primarily external factor, for the same reason.

(9) Is the child or grandchild or otherwise a close relation to an alumnus. An internal factor, significant in its potential for helping to strengthen community spirit through continuity of involvement.

    The reader is perhaps anticipating that a simple, cumulating, point system is about to be set out for consideration. This is not the case. The point here is to promote a system that encourages the final cause of diversification in general, not that merely selects particular individuals. This can be accomplished as follows.

    On his or her application the prospective student will respond in the affirmative or negative to the preceding nine factors (or whatever selective factors are decided upon); "affirmative" is initially assigned a "1," and "negative," a "0." The data across all applicants are then totalled and proportionalized: once the sum of ones down each column is totalled (for all candidates), each "1" in each column for each candidate is divided through by this total. If, for example, two hundred applicants scored in the top ten percent on the SAT/ACT, each of their initial "1s" on that factor would be divided by 200, producing an outcome "score" for each of those candidates of .005. And so on for all nine factors. Finally, the nine outcome scores for each applicant are simply summed across the table to generate a single summary statistic that can be compared to those of the other applicants, and ranked.

    By creating such proportional values that sum to one for each of the nine diversity factors, each factor ends up weighted equally with respect to how it contributes to the attempt to shape the nature of the student body--without individualizations. (Of course, according to purpose each factor could secondarily have various weightings.) Different institutions may in fact want to end up with different outcome profiles in this respect, but no matter what that profile may be, the overall effect will be to promote an increase of diversity within the student body. In the most elite schools, the weighting factor for SAT/ACT scores will actually mean little, since almost all applicants will pass this criterion, leaving each person's outcome score on that factor a very small fractional value. There will then be a subtle influence exerted on such institutions to increase, perhaps, the number of their international students (where relatively fewer applicants meet this criterion, a higher fractional value will contribute to each total score). Meanwhile, less privileged institutions that experience smaller application rates from students who have high test scores or grades will end up in effect putting greater weight on applications from students who do have them. In all cases, a proportional system of this type will have the effect of producing an application acceptance pattern that will tend to equalize the contribution of all sources of diversity to the intellectual community, thereby enhancing the odds for high productivity, and meeting their mission.

    A system of this type has a number of practical advantages. First, it makes it easier, on a year to year basis, to target specific prospective populations for greater recruitment efforts. Along the same lines, it offers a nearly perfect mechanism for institutional assessment efforts, as the continuing goal will be to balance the number of students scoring a "1" on each factor. Neither would such a system need to interfere with other absolute standards set for admission (for example, the achievement of some minimum GPA in high school), or with decisions made on the basis of altogether special talents (in sports or the fine arts, for example). It is, simply, a way for rationally administering a ranked "first cut" (or, better yet, prioritizing financial aid offers) that directly addresses the issue of increasing student body diversity, and thus a forward-looking productivity.

    The particular nine factors I have identified above are set out here for purposes of illustration only, as is this specific proportions-based scheme for their integration. A more fully thought-out system might be set up in the form of state or national standards, or even organized individually to meet the perceived special needs of a particular institution. More to the point is the general philosophy that we are in need of a system of student population integration that recognizes that what I term "external," or "experiential," factors are as relevant to the evolution of diversity on campus and in society as are the more commonly recognized "internal" factors associated with grades or test scores or (incorrectly, I believe) racial biology. Schools with differing absolute capabilities might on this basis act similarly in their efforts to promote diversity, and thus a kind of productivity viewed in terms of fully educated citizens, within their education environment.

    To summarize: in the view set out, diversity is recognized as a condition antecedent to a well-rounded productivity, a perspective that inherently recognizes the functional roles of both internal and external forces in effecting change. In the university environment it is not only a student's IQ or race (both internal qualities, at least insofar as the backing genetics go) that bears on productivity of thought and interchange at the higher education level, but also his or her varying experiences. The latter may also be regarded as ingredients crucial to the generation of any institutional dialog that purports to train "responsible citizens."


Return to Writings Menu
Return to Home

Copyright 2007 by Charles H. Smith. All rights reserved.
Materials from this site, whole or in part, may not be reposted or otherwise reproduced for publication without the written consent of Charles H. Smith.