Are Campus Protests Undermining Affirmative Action?

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 13, 2016

This last semester was one of turmoil on many college campuses.  At the University of Missouri, Yale, Amherst, Ithaca College, and Claremont College just to name a few, protests erupted over a perceived lack of institutional supports for historically marginalized populations of students, especially racial minorities.  The protests began when several students at the University of Missouri objected to the campus administration’s weak response to overt acts of peer-to-peer racism, inciting rallies, marches, sit-ins, and even a hunger strike that led to the resignation of the University President and Chancellor.  In the days and weeks that followed, the protest movement spread across the country, abandoning its relatively narrow beginnings and evolving into a sweeping ideological crusade to enshrine a group rights theory of justice[1] and morality in the day-to-day operation of universities and American democracy. Animated by the zeal of identity politics,[2] the students at Missouri, for instance, demanded not only the resignation of the University President, but also that he publicly “acknowledge his white male privilege.”  Protesters also tried to bar members of the media from covering the protests in public spaces on the grounds that a free press might be disrespectful to the protesters.  On many campuses, the list of protesters’ demands came to include such things as the removal of culturally insensitive school mascots, the renaming of buildings honoring long-deceased individuals who do not conform to 21st-century moral sensibilities, the establishment of new ethnic studies departments, and the suspension of due process so that university professors, administrators, and trustees deemed too conservative could be summarily dismissed.  At Amherst the protesters even demanded that administrators hunt down and punish students who had challenged the protest movement by putting up posters in support of free speech – yes, the same principle of free speech that gives those aggrieved protesters the right to vocalize their objections in the first place.

Protesters challenge a member of the media at the University of Missouri. Courtesy of Youtube.

Protesters challenge a member of the media at the University of Missouri. Photo courtesy of Youtube.

Coincidentally, it was against this backdrop of minoritarian radicalism that the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in what is likely to be a landmark affirmative action case: Fisher v. University of Texas.  In this case, Abigail Fisher is suing the University of Texas-Austin after she was denied admission as an undergraduate in 2008.  She claims that racial minorities with weaker credentials were admitted ahead of her, although UT denies that she would have been admitted anyway.

While these two issues – campus protests and affirmative action – both purport to help marginalized populations of students, a closer look might suggest that they may not mutually reinforce each other.  To see how, let’s begin with affirmative action.

Diversity: The Judicial Rationale for Affirmative Action

Proponents of affirmative action can point to a number of justifications for racial preferences in college admissions, but for the purpose of this blog post it will suffice to say that the Supreme Court has only ever upheld affirmative action policies under one of them: the diversity rationale.  Because affirmative action establishes the differential treatment of individuals on the basis of race (and therefore fits the judicial definition of racial discrimination), it can only be allowed under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause if the state can prove it has a “compelling interest” for the existence of the discrimination.  The diversity rationale, which was first accepted in the 1978 Bakke Decision and reiterated in the 2003 Bollinger Case, stipulates that the assembly of a diverse student body can indeed be a “compelling interest” insofar as racial diversity produces “substantial benefits” vis-à-vis the university’s intellectual atmosphere.  The Court, however, never defined what those “substantial benefits” actually are, and without that definition, today’s Court appears more skeptical of their existence.  While proponents of affirmative action have generally tried to link college diversity to societal outcomes like economic entrepreneurship, cultural vibrancy, and social harmony, it has never been clearly established how campus diversity directly leads to any of these things, and universities now find themselves under mounting judicial pressure to demonstrate what exactly racial diversity does to improve their intellectual climates.  Chief Justice John Roberts’ widely denounced question during oral arguments—“What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?”—is demonstrative of this judicial skepticism.

Institutional Requirements for Affirmative Action

Whether one agrees with Roberts’ question or not, it does reflect a reasonable concern about what happens to minority students after they are enrolled.  UCLA Professor of Higher Education Mitchell Chang has written that the educational benefits of diversity do not “automatically” accrue to students and that students’ willingness to interact with people unlike them once they are on campus is “not assured.” Similarly, Ronald Shaiko, an Associate Director of the Nelson Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth College observed in a 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education article that “the benefits of diversity do not spontaneously arise merely from the presence of a varied student body.”  Instead, Chang and Shiako have contended, they arise only when campus climates are conducive to cross-cultural interaction and collaboration.

Research too has backed up the conditional nature of diversity’s benefits.  In some places, campus diversity does appear to correlate positively with the amount of cross-cultural interaction and understanding (see here, here, and here), but in others, it seems to have null or even harmful effects on group relations (see here, here, and here).  Often this is due to variability in institutional and environmental factors across campuses.  Moreover, it has been found that the mere existence of interaction between groups doesn’t guarantee that students are actually talking about substantive issues (here).  Consequently, institutional supports – such as outreach programs and stimulating core curricula – are believed to play a pivotal role in translating admissions diversity into a richer and more complex learning environment.  Yet too often, diversity is viewed as an end in itself rather than a means to a higher, more substantial social good.

Bonding, Bridging, and Safe Spaces

While both affirmative action policies and this Fall’s campus protests have aspired to help historically marginalized populations of students, they do not necessarily share a mutualistic relationship. In fact some elements of the protests may be incompatible with or even antithetical to the aims of affirmative action, and university administrators should consider how their long-term responses to the protesters’ demands might either support or undermine the goals of their increasingly besieged affirmative action programs.

Both research and observational evidence suggest that universities must do more than simply admit a racially diverse class in order to achieve the “substantial benefits” of diversity.  They must also provide intellectual environments that promote cross-cultural dialogue.  Yet too often universities have done the opposite, indulging students’ (or to put it more accurately: consumers’) desires for self-affirmation and protection from the sometimes discomforting opinions of people they disagree with.  They have enacted what social capital researchers refer to as “bonding policies” – those that allow students with similar backgrounds and interests to flock together – by establishing fraternities, sororities, affinity houses, honors dorms, ethnic-specific cultural centers, and academically siloed programs of study which make the university feel more like a federation of independent communities rather than a single, unified one.  The broader implications of these policies can be extremely detrimental.  According to Harvard University Psychologist James Sidanius and his colleagues, the establishment of ethnic social organizations on campus actually tends to increase feelings of ethnic victimization and simultaneously diminish feelings of social inclusion.

To truly support the goals of affirmative action, universities should instead try to enact “bridging policies” – those that bring together students of different backgrounds and interests.  But the possibility of bridging is precisely what some campus protesters have undermined through their rhetoric emphasizing the unassimilable uniqueness of different cultures.  In this situation, it seems unlikely that universities will have much incentive to direct their attention to social bridging.  Moreover, some universities may point to their embrace of identity politics and “safe spaces” as proof that they care about promoting social cohesion, but these actions may in fact only engender the kind of tribalism and self-segregation that affirmative action was designed to eradicate.  Safe spaces originated as places where students could be protected from the most virulent strands of hate speech, but they have recently evolved into places where students can demand protection from any speech that might be construed as “microaggressive.” (For readers who are unfamiliar with the somewhat nebulous and perhaps overused term “microaggression,” a definition can be found here).  Adopting the language of safe spaces, some of the campus protesters, in their quest for a more tolerant campus environment, have insisted not only that their voices be heard and acknowledged, but that contrary ones be renounced.  While universities have tried to assemble diversity in their entering classes, a vocal portion of the student body appears determined to ensure that peers who do not think like them will be ostracized from the political community and deprived of the benefits of living among diversity.


It is clear that universities must begin doing more than assemble a racially diverse freshman class.  They must also take steps (or, affirmative actions) to foster dialogue across different groups and social cliques after students arrive on campus.  These dialogues should revolve around substantive issues and, as best as possible, avoid the sectarian vitriol that characterized much of the discussion that unfolded on college campuses over the past semester.  If they fail to make these steps, affirmative action policies may not definitively produce many “substantial benefits” and they will therefore remain on shaky constitutional ground.

University administrators should do more than make institutional tweaks, however.  They must also thoughtfully consider when to appease their students and when to stand up to them. The isolating rhetoric of many campus protestors, while successfully drawing attention to the concerns of cultural minorities, has simultaneously fostered a climate of tribalism and groupthink that undermines the free exchange of dialogue necessary for affirmative action to work.  Some of the protestors’ demands represent not just a threat to social harmony on college campuses, but to democratic deliberation in general.  This language should be publicly contested.  As John Dewey once wrote, a democracy is successful only when the various segments of society come to share common interests and cooperative discourse.  But when language becomes as heated, scornful, and ontologically personalized as it did during the campus protests, it can only undermine the willingness of students to engage in the sort of cross-cultural dialogue and deliberation that our society badly needs.  After all, when someone is plagued by the fear that his words will be construed as a microaggression by a self-selected Committee of Public Safety, why would he speak to someone different from himself?  Moreover, when students bully administrators into publicly acknowledging their white privilege and demand a suspension of free speech in the name of personal comfort, what sort of dialogue can we really expect affirmative action to produce? Without a commitment to democratic principles, can affirmative action really do anything other than simply swell the ranks of competing camps of partisans?

If universities are serious about seeing the “substantial benefits” of campus diversity come into fruition – and they must be before too long as the Bollinger Decision included a 25-year sunset provision for affirmative action policies, – they will have to do more to create environments that bridge different social groups and foster reasonable dialogue among students.  At times, this might also require a thoughtful disavowal of identity politics and a refusal to yield to the whims of the modern educational consumer.  Whether university leaders can or will do this remains to be seen.


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[1] Group rights theories of justice maintain that different groups of people should have their own, separate sets of rights based on their cultural heritage.  This stands in contrast to western notions of liberal justice, which provide equal rights for equal individuals.  The western notion of liberal justice is what is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

[2] Identity politics is here defined as political activities that focus on the concerns of social groups distinguished primarily by gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Identity politics are often heavily influenced by the beliefs and behaviors of minority factions within the larger movement.

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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.