Off the Cuff: Marta Tienda, sociologist and professor, and Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation

On Wednesday, the Review met with Marta Tienda and Richard Kahlenberg, who came to campus to participate in a panel titled “The Fisher Case and the Future of Affirmative Action in Higher Education.” Tienda is a sociologist and professor at Princeton University, and Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that issues analyses about public policy.

William Passannante, Staff Writer

A very important Supreme Court ruling is coming up in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. How do you think the Supreme Court will rule in this case, how do you hope it rules and why?

Tienda: I am not optimistic about the decision upholding the Grutter decision [in which the Court upheld the affirmative action policy of University of Michigan Law School]. Justice Kagan has to recuse herself, so that means 4–4, [giving] Kennedy the swing.  If he does swing in the direction of keeping the Grutter intact, then it’ll remain because it would be 4–4. There’s nobody to break the deadlock in that case. … If they keep it all, they could either overturn it, which is probably the greater likely outcome, but one never knows. … If Justice Kennedy is swayed by the amicus brief prepared by Douglas Laycock and others that shows how narrowly tailored the consideration of race is in the context of the top 10 percent law, which is allegedly race neutral but not actually, in fact, race neutral, then it’s possible that Justice Kennedy will rule with the three more liberal, progressive Justices. That’s a big if. … I served on the Board of Trustees of Brown. I can tell you that Brown wants to have need-blind admission. And I can tell you that they don’t have the endowment to achieve their goals or to keep up with the demand in the way that Princeton or Harvard that have better, bigger endowments. And many public institutions are facing the constraints of actually making financial aid available to the low-income. So, yeah, they’re going to do a little here and a little there, but it’s not going to actually solve the problem of inequality, targeting low-income [people]. Targeting class does not restore diversity, because the poor whites are not as poor as the poor minorities, and the poor whites who go to average high schools are not going to go to high schools that are as underperforming as … those which … minorities go to, so their eligibility, even using class-based admissions, is not going to restore the diversity. I think the research evidence is very clear. … Class-based admissions are not an alternative to affirmative action.

Kahlenberg: I think the U.S. Supreme Court will significantly curtail the ability of universities and colleges to consider race in admissions. The Supreme Court has struggled with this issue for a long time, going back to the 1978 Bakke case [which ruled that the affirmative action–based admissions process at UC Davis Medical School was unconstitutional]. Then there was a 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the court sustained the use of race. But now we have a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy, who dissented in the Grutter case that supported affirmative action, is now the swing vote on the Court. And the key question, it seems to me, is, “Can universities and colleges create the educational benefits of racial and ethnic diversity without using race per se?” Because if they can, then under the Court’s doctrine, they should not be able to continue to use race in admissions. And my reading of the evidence is that there are alternative ways to get racial and ethnic diversity, … and so I think in many cases, universities won’t be able to use race in admissions. And then I think you asked whether that’s something I find desirable. I’m a progressive, a liberal, I want racial diversity in our colleges and universities.

So you want racial diversity or diversity in general?

Kahlenberg: I want diversity in general. Racial, ethnic and economic diversity. And my concern is that under the current system, in which universities are allowed to use race, they try to assemble student bodies that consist of fairly well-off students of all races, which is better than just an all-white or all-white-and-Asian university for rich kids. But my hope is that a conservative Supreme Court decision in Fisher will lead to a liberal result, which is that universities will now have to work much harder to create racial and ethnic diversity and will do so by bringing in low-income and working class students of all races. … That would be a positive development.

To paraphrase, you [Tienda] said that “poor whites are not as poor as other minorities.” Do you mean from an economic perspective?

Tienda: If you look at the distribution of income of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians, the whites, [acknowledging that] income is related to admissibility because it’s related to the quality of schools that students attend. … You’re going to say “Who is admissible?” … Our schools are unequal. So the inputs into educational performance are unequal. We don’t live in a society where education is equal; it’s gotten more unequal because we have really good schools, we have arguably the best K–12 schools in the world and we have some of the worst K–12 schools in the world. … Then, when you compare the distribution of income among Hispanics … the share of Hispanics that would be admissible, given their income distribution, is a smaller share of that population than is the share of whites that are admissible given their income distribution.
In October 2012, you [Kahlenberg] wrote in the Wall Street Journal that you see that putting an end to racial preferences in higher education could be a good thing because such a ruling would potentially give birth to a better vision, that is, economic-based policy. How do you see that being implemented — how do you see that playing out?

Kahlenberg: Well, universities and colleges, to their credit, do value racial and ethnic diversity.  And so … in the states where affirmative action has been banned, [this suggests that schools] won’t simply give up on racial diversity if they’re blocked from using race. Instead they’ll find creative alternatives such as economic affirmative action, policies to get rid of legacy preferences in college admissions, policies to boost financial aid for low-income students. And so if they can’t simply select the wealthiest students of all colors, and have to get racial diversity indirectly by using class, to me that would be a positive development.
And this vision you’re presenting presumes that colleges want to create diverse environments.  

Kahlenberg: Yes. But it’s not just an assumption because in every state — virtually every state where affirmative action was banned — policymakers and universities tried to come up with some alternative. They didn’t simply say, “We can’t use race, therefore we’re giving up on diversity altogether.”

Why do you think that they want diversity? Why do you think that diversity is a goal in general?  

Kahlenberg: I think for two reasons. One is I think university officials genuinely believe that racial diversity enhances the educational experience of all students. The more cynical reason is that it’s embarrassing for an institution to be, at this date, overwhelmingly white and Asian. And so they feel accountable for the fact that there’s a lack of diversity. Right now they don’t feel accountable for the most part for the lack of economic diversity, which is much less apparent on the surface.