Between teaching at NYU since 2009, five Ivy League degrees, and a father who is a professor with tenure from when I was born, I've spent a lot of time in American universities.

Something doesn't make sense about American university admissions and diversity. I'm not saying it's good or bad, but that it's paradoxical and, in my opinion, worth working out.

Diversity in University Admissions

Nearly all universities want diversity in their student communities.

I doubt many would argue with the goal. I support it. But diversity is hard to define.

As academic institutions, they tend to value academic achievement, meaning high grades and test scores. Some applicants come from different geographical areas or cultures. Some applicants played sports. Some created art. Others started businesses.

Part of diversity means recognizing that performance in one area may create value for the university community comparable to another.

Doesn't diversity mean having different values? If everyone valued everything equally, everyone would agree on everything. We don't, so people have different values.

Differing values means people value things differently. An applicant who values playing piano, may not get as high grades as someone who values academic achievement. If you value the pianist by academic achievement alone, that applicant won't measure up.

Universities evaluate by more than one measure. Some measures don't matter, but among those that do, how can you choose one over another?

Someone getting low grades or not achieving on some other measure are doing something else. Everyone's mix of activities makes them unique.

To be sure, some people don't measure up by their own values. Still, most applicants to elite schools did the best they could. Isn't it fair to say that they did the best as possible by their unique set of values?

Valuing diversity means valuing applicants by values relevant to them, not all by the same measure. Measuring everyone by different measures leads to the paradox.

The paradox

If everyone is as good as he or she can be, doesn't everyone deserve admission?

That is, if someone lives by his or her values, doesn't that mean he or she is as good as he or she can be by his or her values?

Why do some schools perennially excel?

Despite this paradox, some schools excel for generations, even centuries.

If diversity improves a university community and many top schools lack diversity, shouldn't more diverse schools have overtaken them?

I suppose other barriers to entry could keep their position. Or maybe all schools lacked diversity, giving none an advantage.

Is it also possible their systems not grounded in diversity worked in some other way? I'm not saying they did, but wonder what created stability in a competitive market.

Is it possible that a much wider set of applicants could be accepted and come to excel at elite institutions--wider than nearly anyone imagines? That condition would suggest, ironically, that diversity mattered less than, say, the university's culture and past.

I'm inclined to believe that diversity improves university communities, but wonder what it replaces that kept schools so stable and successful for so long.

Published on: May 31, 2018