In many respects, the heart of the debate about affirmative action and preferences lies in the answer to a simple question: what do we actually know about the nature, scope, operation, and effects of preferences? In a related vein, what do we actually know about “diversity” and its outcomes, positive or negative? It is accordingly essential that those who wish to probe these matters with care have access to rigorous, objective research.
Our goal here is two-fold. The first objective is to provide a general summary of the nature and value of the research associated with these matters: Who does this? What are the various categories and sub-fields? How is it done? What does one need to know to read and understand the studies, in particular the common statistical techniques used in the more technical literature?
The second is to create a guide to the research that has been done, both as a general matter and in connection with the litigation.
There is a fair amount of published research in the field, much of it peer-reviewed and appearing in highly-respected journals. In this section (still under development) we will provide information, explanations, and links to several bodies of research, including:
–Bibliographies of books, monographs, and articles in the field
–Copies of and/or links to studies of the extent and operation of race-based and other admissions preferences
–Copies of and/or links to studies of the effects of race-based and other admissions preferences
–Expert reports undertaken in cases litigating these matters, such as those conducted by the contending experts in the Harvard College case, the first affirmative action lawsuit where truly extensive data was disclosed by the defendant school, and where nationally-known experts on each side presented detailed analyses of the data.
Three contextual matters are important. The first is that some of the research is shaped and influenced by the views of those undertaking it. There is, unfortunately, a tendency on the part of those both supporting and opposing preferences and diversity to allow those views to creep into the manner in which they undertake and report their research findings. One of our goals is, accordingly, to identify to the extent we can any such factors.
A second reality, which we discuss in the section on University Transparency and Data Problems, is that there is a “data” problem. The legal uncertainties surrounding university practices and the sensitivity of many racial issues impinge on university admissions and performance, inhibit the release of useful data, and deter many scholars from taking on questions in the field. At least arguably, this problem has gotten even more severe over the past ten or twenty years. Those interested in these matters should, accordingly, pay close attention to what we do and do not know about actual policies, practices, and their effects.
A third consideration both poses a potential problem and offers a valuable opportunity. The Supreme Court has emphasized the need for institutions that use preferences to study with care both the need for them and their implementation. This imposes a burden in one respect, as it seems quite clear that research must be conducted, something many institutions do not seem to routinely do. At the same time, however, it presents an opportunity for those who both support and oppose preferences, allowing them to ground their arguments in what is actually being done and occurring, rather than unproven theories and simple appeals to deeply contested values. This is, after all, a debate that should ultimately focus on diversity and preferences as matters of sound educational policy. The legal issues and concerns are important. But we should not lose sight of the ultimate goal: to fashion and sustain an educational environment that gives students the opportunity to acquire knowledge, skills, and perspectives.