Diversity Within Student Groups vs. Diversity Across Student Groups

I agree with most of what co-blogger Eugene Volokh writes about the benefits of have a wide range of student groups at law schools, including ones that focus on specific ethnic or religious groups. I addressed a similar issue in this 2007 post:

Those who argue for diversity in higher education implicitly envision a school that has a “critical mass” of whites, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and other groups. Such a university may well be internally diverse (at least in an ethnic sense), but if every school pursues this ideal, than they will all look more or less alike on the ethnic dimension, or whatever other criterion is chosen as the focus of diversity promotion. There will be diversity within institutions, but very little diversity across institutions.

By contrast, if Brandeis continues to be a distinctively Jewish school, Brigham Young continues to be a distinctively Mormon school, and so on, these schools can make unique contributions to American higher education that might otherwise be lost. Although Brandeis and BYU may not be internally diverse, they definitely add to the overall diversity of the American higher education system in two important ways. First, they give students who want to attend a distinctively Jewish or Mormon school an option they would not have if all schools stick to the internal diversity model. Second, faculty at a distinctively Jewish or Mormon school might well pursue research on subjects that are ignored or at least deemphasized at other types of institutions. Brandeis’ traditional focus on hiring faculty who study the history of Judaism and the Jewish people is an example of the latter.

To be sure, a school built around a particular group identity will have weaknesses as well as strengths. But the weaknesses are offset by the fact that there will always be hundreds of other schools that do not try to foster a distinctive group identity. Students and faculty who don’t want to be associated with a distinctively Jewish school have plenty of options, even if they can’t attend Brandeis. The question is not whether there should be a large number of internally diverse schools, but whether all schools should be that way.

What I said about diversity across schools also applies to diversity between student groups within a given school. By having a distinctive Jewish student group, black student group, Christian group, and so on, diversity across groups is enhanced even if these groups are not internally diverse (indeed, sometimes precisely because they aren’t). Obviously, internally homogenous student groups have limitations. But those are to some extent offset by the fact that there are usually many other student groups available, including many that are not focused on a specific ethnic or religious identity.

For reasons I have indicated in the past (e.g. here, here and here), I have various reservations about the diversity-promoting affirmative action policies currently practiced by most universities. But that does not undermine the point that there are real benefits to having a wide range of student groups, including some which are internally homogeneous.

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