Two lessons on diversity from Smith College

by Curt Rice —

The “obvious” tension between diversity and quality leapt onto the front page this week through a debate at Smith College. And just in case you’re unsure, the putatively obvious connection is that increasing diversity decreases quality.

The debate at Smith presents a new twist on this issue, and it offers at least two lessons to university leaders everywhere.

Smith alumna, Anne Spurzem, started this round of discussion with her letter to The Sophian.

Spurzem opens her letter by noting the attention given to diversity issues in Smith’s admissions process.

I read your article about [President] Carol [Christ]‘s resignation and it had some interesting statistics. It mentioned the percentage increase in the population of women of color and foreign students. The gist of the article was that one of Carol’s objectives coming into the position was to increase diversity and the article gave statistics that showed that she did.

Later, the author discusses specific admissions criteria, expressing concern that Smith has stopped using the SAT — the main national standardized test for college admission. She also identifies the alleged antagonism between diversity and quality.

Smith no longer looks at SATs because if it did, it would have to report them to U.S. News & World Report [for their college ranking system]. Low-income black and Hispanic students generally have lower SATs than whites or Asians of any income bracket.

And finally the author identifies the inevitable consequences of Smith’s reduced emphasis on the SAT, namely rankings slippage.

To accomplish [President Christ's] mission of diversity, the school is underweighting SAT scores. This phenomenon has been widely discussed in the New York Times Education section. If you reduce your standards for grades and scores, you drop in the rankings …

Anne Spurzem takes a familiar position: if you focus on diversity, quality takes a hit.

A slightly milder version of her claim has emerged in the ensuing debate, and it lets us draw out two important nuances, leading to the conclusion that diversity and quality are in fact not in any necessary opposition.

Surely we can agree, the milder version goes, that a focus on diversity in the admissions process — as opposed to pure academic merit — opens the door to a reduction of excellence in the student body. We might get lucky, of course, and never step through that doorway, instead only finding diversity-enhancing students of equal quality to the others, but we take a risk nonetheless.

There are two important perspectives from which to challenge this assertion.

First of all, we must acknowledge that every admissions system has risks that open the door to a reduction in quality.

Suppose that admissions to Smith College were determined exclusively on the basis of SAT scores. What potential compromise of excellence is introduced with that system? SAT-based admissions may reward problem-solving skills, a prodigious vocabulary and even creativity. But it would not reward discipline, focus, the potential for collaboration or good writing skills. These important components of excellence are left unrevealed by SAT scores, and using SATs alone for admission therefore carries a risk of selecting a student body less excellent than what it could be.

Admissions processes use much more than SAT scores for just this reason. The extensive collection of books and blogs about college admissions makes it clear that the process can be gamed and that the door to compromised excellence is wide open, regardless of the admissions system being used.

If diversity is added to the process and applicants are rewarded for coming from a minority background — economic, racial, ethnic, whatever — does this open a new door to compromising excellence? Perhaps it does, but the first important point in this discussion is that this does not stand in contrast to “pure quality” admissions systems with hermetically sealed doors protecting the results from any assault upon quality. If diversity criteria open the door to potentially reduced quality, that doorway is nothing to fear; you don’t have to go through it.

The second point we must take from this discussion involves the difference between failure and the absence of excellence.

Students admitted because they contribute to diversity may indeed have a higher drop-out rate than others. Is this because they are somehow less excellent, less clever or less capable of top-level performance?

Perhaps these students have a higher failure rate at places like Smith because they don’t feel comfortable there, because they struggle to integrate, or because faculty members come from such different backgrounds that they are unable to connect with these students in the same ways they connect with their traditional students.

Failure in school can have various explanations, many of them irrelevant to an individual’s potential contribution to academic excellence. Instead, failure may find its source in impediments to the realization of that contribution.

The pursuit of excellence obviously is an appropriate and legitimate priority for any college or university. Focus during the admissions process on increased diversity does not entail a loss of quality or excellence any more than other approaches to admissions entail such a loss. Indeed, a position like Spurzem’s means that the historical lack of diversity at Smith is a direct result of focusing exclusively on excellence — a position difficult to maintain in the face of a moment’s reflection.

It may be true, however, that greater diversity requires a richer battery of strategies at an institution wanting to facilitate both the assimilation and success of its students. Colleges and universities may have to discover and develop new resources for their students, not because the students lack quality but simply because their backgrounds require different approaches to become successful.

Research shows that increased diversity in the student population has big payoffs for an institution and its students. Dr. Patricia Gurin at the University of Michigan shows that “students learn better in such an environment and are better prepared to become active participants in our pluralistic, democratic society once they leave school.”

The pursuit of diversity introduces new challenges. The challenges are different than those of other systems, but the other systems have challenges, too. And these challenges are not insurmountable; new approaches to instruction or the organization of education will succeed.

What new approaches will you and your organization try? If you have successful or creative measures for achieving the goals of increased diversity, please tell us about them in the comments section below.

To enjoy other analyses of the Smith College debate, see not only The Sophian, but also Jezebel, TheJaneDough, NeverYetMelted, Smith’d, ConfusedAtAHigherLevel, CoyoteMuse, and a new site by some Smith students, celebrating their diversity: Pearls-and-Cashmere.

Photo courtesy of Light Night

Curt Rice — My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. read more...

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