Affirmative Action On Campus Does More Harm Than Good

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Illustration by Thomas James

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Affirmative action, when used as a factor in college admissions, is meant to foster diversity and provide equal opportunities in education for underrepresented minorities. But is it achieving its stated goals and helping the population it was created to support? Its critics point to students struggling to keep up in schools mismatched to their abilities and to the fact that the policy can be manipulated to benefit affluent and middle class students who already possess many educational advantages. Is it time to overhaul or abolish affirmative action?  

  • Heriot90px


    Gail Heriot

    Professor of Law, USD School of Law & Member, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

  • Sander90


    Richard Sander

    Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

  • Kennedy90


    Randall Kennedy

    Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

  • Shaw90px


    Theodore Shaw

    Professor of Law, Columbia Law School

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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For The Motion

Gail Heriot

Professor of Law, USD School of Law & Member, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Gail Heriot is a professor of law at the University of San Diego and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Prior to entering academia, she practiced law with Mayer, Brown & Platt in Chicago and Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C. She also served as civil rights counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary and clerked for the Honorable Seymour F. Simon of the Illinois Supreme Court. A former editor of the University of Chicago Law Review, Herriot has been published in the Michigan Law Review, the Virginia Law Review, and the Harvard Journal on Legislation, as well as The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union Tribune. She is the editor and an author of a forthcoming anthology of essays entitled, California Dreaming: Race, Gender, Proposition 209 and the Principle of Non-Discrimination.

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For The Motion

Richard Sander

Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

Richard Sander, a professor of law at UCLA School of Law, has been working on questions of social and economic inequality for nearly all of his career. In 2005, he published the first broad analysis of the operation and effects of racial preferences in legal education. Widely considered the leading authority on affirmative action in higher education, he co-authored Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It (2012) with Stuart Taylor. During the 1990s, Sander worked primarily on issues related to fair housing, housing segregation, and economic inequality, and his research closely paralleled a variety of civic work in Los Angeles. In addition to serving as the president of the Fair Housing Congress of Southern California and founding the Fair Housing Institute, he helped the City design and implement what was, at the time, the nation's most ambitious living wage law.

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Against The Motion

Randall Kennedy

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches courses on contracts, criminal law, and the regulation of race relations. He served as a law clerk for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals and for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is a member of the bar of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court. Awarded the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Race, Crime, and the Law (1998), Kennedy writes for a wide range of scholarly and general interest publications. His most recent books are For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law (2013) and The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (2011). He is a member of the American Law Institute, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Association.

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Against The Motion

Theodore Shaw

Professor of Law, Columbia Law School

Theodore M. Shaw is a professor of professional practice in law at Columbia Law School and Of Counsel to Fulbright & Jaworski LLP. Previously, he was director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, for which he worked in various capacities over the span of twenty-six years. His legal career began as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, and he has since litigated education, employment, voting rights, housing, police misconduct, capital punishment and other civil rights cases in trial and appellate courts and in the U.S. Supreme Court. While a professor at University of Michigan School of Law, he played a key role in initiating a review of the school's admissions practices and policies, and served on the faculty committee that promulgated the admissions program upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003).

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Declared Winner: For The Motion

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Voting Breakdown:

61% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (16% voted FOR twice, 38% voted AGAINST twice, 6% voted UNDECIDED twice). 39% changed their minds (5% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 1% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 7% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 3% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 14% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 10% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST) | Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link Femi Saturday, 21 June 2014 23:06 posted by Femi

      Sigh. Could've been argued so much better on both sides

      Signed - A successful recipient of Affirmative Action

    • Comment Link Scott Tuesday, 06 May 2014 22:44 posted by Scott

      After listening to this debate, it seems that issue itself isn't Affirmative Action, but rather the overall preparation of the students attending more demanding academic programs, specifically STEM and law programs as pointed out by this debate.

      And if that's the real issue, then there should be more of a focus on actually preparing students for the rigorous demands of attaining a STEM degree and/or attaining a masters or PhD.

      To sum up, I don't think that the supporters of this notion really did a good job of explaining the flaws of Affirmative Action, but did an exceptional job of pointing out the failures of our current educational system and the ability of students, especially minorities, to handle the demands of college after going through it.

    • Comment Link Ronald Chappell Thursday, 17 April 2014 14:31 posted by Ronald Chappell

      There should be no debate except that is has been implemented unfairly. Fix it.
      Put applicants of equal qualifications in a fair random selection device and select as many as your admissions policy admits at that qualification level. Repeat at each lower qualification level until enrollment is full.
      If there are not enough disadvantaged in a qualification level to 'balance' the enrollment at that level. Fix the problem at the primary and secondary education level so that this ceases to be the case.
      Trying to correct a social/education problem after the fact at the university level will not work and damages the disadvantaged through their increased failure rate and damages the advantaged thru loss of opportunity after their diligence at the primary/secondary level.

    • Comment Link bruingirl17 Friday, 11 April 2014 02:41 posted by bruingirl17

      I personally am against AA. I am from California, where Prop 209, which bans discrimination based on race, is in the process of getting dismantled by politicians. Please help! I am of Chinese American descent and grew up with a disadvantaged background. My husband is Filipino American, is considered an "underrepresented minority," and grew up in one of the best school districts in Southern California. We met at UCLA. If Prop 209 was not there, I would definitely not be at UCLA, and he probably would have gotten a scholarship at UCLA. Furthermore, my class was one of the first to enter based on merit. There was an upperclassman speaker at my freshman convocation, who spoke about supporting AA and had gotten in on AA with a 600 on his SAT! Wow, that's even lower than the lower half of my SAT. A fairer way is class-based AA, which is fair for ALL races, and will probably increase diversity. However, as "mismatch" suggests, ultimately, creating competent candidates by improving K-12 and parent outreach are the most important, lasting changes needed.

    • Comment Link Gus Thursday, 10 April 2014 01:05 posted by Gus

      Mr. Donovan needs to easy up as a moderator. At times he is too controlling particularly of the audience members who attempt to ask questions. Its almost as if they don't ask the questions he wants and the way he wants it he blocks the questions. In introducing this debate today he made the gratuitous statement that when Affirmative Action was instituted it was primarily because of black Americans that were not allowed to "sit at the table". I supposed he is inferring the other minorities didn't need the protection because (unlike the black minorities) "they " were allowed to "sit at the table" .(?)

    • Comment Link Eric Monday, 07 April 2014 08:09 posted by Eric

      "Affirmative Action" is nothing more than institutionalized racism/sexism. Those arguing for it are quite similar to the Klansmen they profess to detest and differ. Klansmen chose to judge people based on race and so do AAs proponents. it's just that manifestly simple. They will tell you that diversity is an important value, but they do not institute it where it may work to the detriment of racial minorities--take your local professional ball team for example.

      Merit matters more! End the institutionalized racism and sexism!

    • Comment Link mark krebs Thursday, 27 March 2014 09:42 posted by mark krebs

      Wow, rhetoric instead of argument: I was badly disappointed in this debate. The debaters failed to close even on definitions. Is it bad for the students, or bad for the nation? Doctors withhold the most potent antibiotics for minor ailments because the population benefits from restraint. Sacrificing the one for the many (the student for the society) is a valid goal in some contexts, and here the sacrifice I guess is to be admitted to Harvard, which the affirmative must say is a bad thing. That students fail out of med school is insufficient proof: how did their lives turn out with a "mere" business degree from Harvard?
      On the other side, how about the harm done to the students affirmatively rejected to make room for an underpriveleged underperformer? It's a complicated question, and the debaters seemed, to me, to fail to address it. Boo.

    • Comment Link James T Sunday, 23 March 2014 17:52 posted by James T

      I'm in favor of affirmative action.. just not the kind of affirmative action we have in implementation today.

      Affirmative action should guarantee equal opportunity and equal treatment, NOT equal outcome. Focus on providing equivalent K-12 education for all children and prevent discrimination in secondary education by ELIMINATING race on college applications. Racial identifiers on college applications should be eliminated!

      The kind of affirmative action we have today is simply a lazy answer to a difficult question that requires a lot more will power and long term planning. Doesn't it make more sense to actually INVEST in underrepresented minorities when they are young as opposed to simply just lowering the bar for them in college and graduate school? Lowering the bar for is ultimately a disservice to underrepresented minorities (by telling them they're not good enough to succeed on their own merit) and also a disservice to asian americans who also experience significant racism and hardship in society and still manage to prevail academically.

      Lastly, while athletic and legacy affirmative action is definitely a problem.. it has nowhere near the scope and reach that affirmative action has. Athletes and legacies have always remained a very small fraction of the student body.

    • Comment Link Jill Saturday, 22 March 2014 14:10 posted by Jill

      Tuesday, 04 March 2014 23:15 posted by Observer

      You obviously missed a few facts.

      "gaining entrance into upper-tier colleges" is NOT a beginning; gaining entrance into middle-tier colleges is. It is middle-tier colleges that are graduating MORE minority students and creating MORE minority professionals.

      I have an idea of what your "better job to provide a support system for under-represented groups so that they can thrive at these selective institutions" might be (as if there aren't already $trenuous measures in place). Tutoring for Black People, Support Groups for Black People, Easy A's for Black People, Hand-holding for Black People. What could be more demeaning, insulting, and defeating than outright anti-Black quotas themselves?

    • Comment Link Sheen Saturday, 22 March 2014 00:46 posted by Sheen

      Asians perform better in schools, because they study hard and their culture appreciates studying hard, it is not because they look yellow.

      Similarly, if you want those under-represented minorities to perform well in schools, you need to tell them to study hard and value education more than anything else, not to tell them to lay back and wait for AA to lift them up.

    • Comment Link emmanuel Friday, 07 March 2014 07:26 posted by emmanuel

      When presented with two statistics that oppose one another personal experience is more then anecdotal. Say for instance two studies show opposing views as to the consumption of milk. You first look to the studies and see if there is merit. If both have merit ,with acceptably flaws, cause as scientist we know that most studies are flawed in one war or another, we must then use our own personal, this includes the people around us, experiences. Most people looked at me while i was in college and assumed I was AA assisted when in reality AA has never given me any sort of leg up. Most would look at my friends and assume they were top of the class barley admitted to college types, when in fact they had more out reach support then me. My statement is not ridiculous it is supported by statistics and cannot simply be dismissed as "anecdotal". It is painful when anyone is not permitted entrance into their top college, i was one of them, even though they have dedicated a large portion of their life to academics, however the definition of academic struggle has been broaden to accept people from a wide range of back grounds, beyond the proverbial book worm, which i am not saying Asians are. Though I do not like the way reality is, it is the cultural nature of Asians that allows them to excel in school, just as it is the cultural nature for African Americans to not, of course this presumption is not across the board. Even if AA fails the importance of college is embedded in that person and will usually extend to the people around the causing a cultural shift which is desperately needed for African Americans. who will have a better chance to excel academical, The majority of Asian Americans still get into their college of choice, despite AA, which experiences aside, statistically speaking, deprives very few dedicated students, who, have to settle for second or third choice colleges.

    • Comment Link Ted Williams Thursday, 06 March 2014 09:22 posted by Ted Williams

      I love the Intelligence Squared debate series. I watched over 20 of their previous debates and I currently use them in my classes through my work as a Community College professor. However, I am extremely disappointed in this debate. They use two African Americans to argue for Affirmative Action and they rarely use them otherwise. Their actions suggest that African Americans are irrelevant with respect to other issues, and that Affirmative Action is strictly an African American issue. Why not have a non-African American professor support it as well? The irony couldn't be more obvious. This debate was a bit offensive.

    • Comment Link aspasia Wednesday, 05 March 2014 00:55 posted by aspasia

      Well, you'd better listen to the debate first before making a comment on other people's comment on the debate. Personal experience is anecdotal and cannot be used to characterize what's going on in most elite schools that use AA aggressively. What sounds ridiculous to you may have some profound meaning to somebody else.

    • Comment Link Observer Tuesday, 04 March 2014 23:15 posted by Observer

      The "mismatch" literature is revelatory. However, it seems to me, the answer is not to end affirmative action in admissions, but that universities need to do a better job to provide a support system for under-represented groups so that they can thrive at these selective institutions. If the goal of affirmative action is to rectify the inequalities in educational opportunity that are a result and legacy of our nation's history of slavery and racial discrimination, then gaining entrance into upper-tier colleges is just a beginning. Providing ongoing assistance and support to help under-represented students succeed is what is needed.

    • Comment Link Lucas Phlipsak Tuesday, 04 March 2014 22:21 posted by Lucas Phlipsak

      Better doctors, lawyers, and scientists don't benefit a specific race exclusively in a way that counteracts the benefits to society of having better lawyers, doctors, and scientists. Merit breeds achievement, achievement breeds progress and growth. If merit gave California more minority graduates than quotas than the most heartfelt and historical positions taken are the most invalid.

    • Comment Link Richard  Lu Tuesday, 04 March 2014 22:16 posted by Richard Lu

      Affirmative Action is not a solution to address the problems in Black and Latino communities and in the long run will do harm to them since it nurtures a victim culture and drains their drive to work hard and fair play. The mismatch problem of students who admitted on AA and failed in their profession also shows that AA does not work as expected. How about the Democrats put up a really good agenda to fix the problems rather than the notorious Skin Color Act 5?

      Are there scholarships for African Americans in elementary, middle, and high schools that can boost their desire to work well academically and reward their efforts? Are their assistance programs for the 70% single-mother households that struggle between work and raising children, programs that can provide hands on help on a regular basis? What about the inner city kids whose lives are surrounded by the threats from drug and violence? Are there educational programs for low income families that having many children living on welfare will not do good to the children, their family and the society? If you do not solve the problems from the bottom, how can lift them up to a good college where they do not fit help?

      AA in the long run will hurt the country. It is not only because it discriminates against Asians but also that it trashes the founding principles of the nation that all men are created equal and that hard work will pay it off.

    • Comment Link Emmanuel Tuesday, 04 March 2014 13:20 posted by Emmanuel

      This statement seems ridiculous "
      The racial injustice/discrimination against Asian Americans is often invisible and silenced to such a degree that other racial minority groups not only have developed a sense of entitlement to racial preferential treatment but also they demand that Asian Americans sacrifice themselves happily--i.e., they "ought not" feel the pain because their individual sacrifice is necessary to help advance the larger social mission of ending racial discrimination."
      How may college has this guy been to, during my undergrad and grad years I attended classes that were over 80% Asian......... so yeah it is hard to believe that that particular group is suffering too much from AA.

    • Comment Link Carol Scott Tuesday, 04 March 2014 08:16 posted by Carol Scott

      Interesting to see that all the comments seem to assume that AA only benefits Black people. What about affirmative action to White males or to the wealthy or to athletes?

      Clearly the obsession with Black people getting any perceived advantage in this society is blinding you all from the fact that white people are just not that special and should affirmative action go away, the largest beneficiaries will in fact be Asian women, then Asian men, then white women.

    • Comment Link aspasia Monday, 03 March 2014 23:37 posted by aspasia

      The racial injustice/discrimination against Asian Americans is often invisible and silenced to such a degree that other racial minority groups not only have developed a sense of entitlement to racial preferential treatment but also they demand that Asian Americans sacrifice themselves happily--i.e., they "ought not" feel the pain because their individual sacrifice is necessary to help advance the larger social mission of ending racial discrimination. It's incredibly saddening to hear Prof. Kennedy's unapologetic response to Kim's question. Is this the way we as decent human beings should treat each other (a la Prof. Shaw)? Asian Americans' resistance to be victims of racial discrimination and their hard work throughout the past two centuries have enabled them to lift up themselves from where they were in the 19th century. The discrimination against Asians is not any less than that experienced by other racial groups. But why should they be singled out to continue to sacrifice themselves? On what ground can such a demand be justified? The hardworking children of Asian Americans deserve a fair treatment by our universities and by today's society. Should we all play fairly?

    • Comment Link John Hurd Monday, 03 March 2014 00:40 posted by John Hurd

      Mr. Shaw says affirmative action is a conscious attempt to address the under-representation of certain groups. Are white men "under-represented" in the NBA? Is that what he means by "under-representation"? Proponents of affirmative action can't have it both ways: if black people have historically been denied good education, then they can't be equally prepared for college. And if they're not equally well prepared, then they're not "under-represented." They're represented in numbers that reflect their preparation. You can't have it both ways, admitting inferior schooling but claiming they're equally prepared.

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