ROBINSON: Racial quotas by another name

On Dec. 4, the UNC System Racial Equity Task Force adopted a series of recommendations to address issues of race across the system’s 16 campuses. The task force was created “to address inequities in the UNC System for the benefit of students, faculty, staff, and all North Carolinians,” according to UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey.

At first glance, the task force’s recommendations seem innocuous. They include more reporting, better data, additional training, and accountability measures. But the stated goal of these recommendations — “a racially diverse and equitable University student body, faculty, staff, and leadership” — goes far beyond traditional commitments to equal opportunity.

The “potential strategies” included in the report show that unofficial quotas and racial set-asides will be the inevitable outcomes of adopting such a plan.

For example, one potential strategy for “better data and accountability” is:

“Formalize incentives and accountability measures for stakeholders to engage in work to promote racial equity, diversity and inclusion, and include institutional measures related to racial equity as part of performance evaluations.”

This strategy will give stakeholders, administrators and university leaders powerful incentives to use unofficial racial quotas in order to receive positive evaluations. A strong commitment to nondiscrimination and equality of opportunity will not be enough if equality of outcome is the new standard by which university leaders are judged. If they are held accountable for numerical equity, then that is what they will count.

A strong commitment to nondiscrimination and equality of opportunity will not be enough if equality of outcome is the new standard by which university leaders are judged.

Quotas and racial set-asides are unconstitutional. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that public universities could not set specific racial targets for admissions or employment. In City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., the Supreme Court ruled that minority set-aside programs were unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. Any university program that explicitly sets its goal as numerical equity in enrollment, employment or leadership positions will almost certainly run afoul of these precedents as the plan is put into practice.

The recommendations also present dangers to free speech and academic freedom on campus. Of special concern is the recommendation that universities create “safe spaces” as well as “a clear path to reporting race and equity issues.” Like the bias response teams that have popped up on many campuses, these recommendations will be an invitation for policing the speech of students and faculty, quelling discussion and increasing the self-censorship that is already endemic on university campuses.

The recommendations will also entrench politicized scholarship that has already been discredited and discontinued in other sectors. (The United Kingdom recently announced that it will end unconscious bias training for civil servants, citing evidence that the training didn’t work to change racial attitudes and could potentially backfire.)

These unintended consequences should be enough to give the UNC System pause as it considers important questions of race. But of greater importance is the substitution of equity for equality of opportunity as a guiding principle. Equality of opportunity gives students a chance to succeed, thrive and flourish — based on their own abilities, effort and goals. Using equity as the standard “is fundamentally a denial of the principle of formal and legal equality,” says Nigel Ashford, “as people are treated not on the basis of their own virtues and faults, what Martin Luther King called ‘the content of our character,’ but on irrelevant characteristics such as gender or race.”

Although the United States, as well as many academic institutions, failed for years to live up to the promise of equal opportunity for all, it is the only principle by which universities can fulfill their commitments to all their students and to their missions of academic excellence and freedom of thought.

Instead of focusing on racial equity, universities should recommit themselves to nondiscrimination, equality of opportunity and academic freedom.