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Affirmative Action and Its Effects

The History of Diversity as an Education Value

In November 2020, an appellate court agreed with the lower court that Harvard University’s effort to diversify its student body did not involve intentional discrimination against Asian American applicants. In summer 2021, the Supreme Court has requested the views of Biden’s Department of Justice on the case. In the meantime, new research reveals that a belief in the educational value of diversity was a critical part of the original motivation behind affirmative action. This idea that diversity is educationally valuable—or the “diversity rationale”—is often seen as coming out of the seminal 1978 Regents of California v. Bakke Supreme Court case. But IPR sociologist Anthony Chen and co-author Lisa Stulberg of New York University find that it started much earlier.

Protestors support the lawsuit against Harvard in October 2018.In Bakke, the court struck down racial quotas in the admissions process, but held that race could still be used to foster racial diversity. “The diversity rationale is not really a creature of the ’70s,” Chen explained. Examining historical records dating back to the 1960s, he and Stulberg discover something else: “It’s actually a creature of the early 1960s, which is a very different moment in American political life.” The two researchers focus on little known but critically important conversations in the early 1960s, when admissions officers and administrators at top universities saw that American society was changing. They decided that their institutions should take the lead in enrolling students who differed from the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants who had long made up their student bodies. Those like Wilbur Bender, Harvard’s dean of admissions during the Eisenhower era, believed that classes of diverse students improved education. He set out to disseminate his ideas in 1961, just after the country had elected its first Roman Catholic president—John F. Kennedy. Chen and Stulberg’s findings challenge the idea that the diversity rationale was hurriedly concocted in the 1970s to justify racial preferences that could not otherwise survive legal and constitutional scrutiny. They call into question the intense skepticism that is often brought to bear on the underlying motives of schools that wish to compose a diverse class for its educational value.