An Actual Response to Chief Justice Roberts

On December 9, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments (uhhh, again) in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case about affirmative action.  At issue: what measures (if any) can the university use to increase diversity if those measures disadvantage White students?

The case provoked all the expected outrage, especially when Justice Scalia made a half-informed comment about the effects of affirmative action on minority students’ ultimate achievement.  However, while listening to back episodes of the Amicus Podcast, I heard a different comment from Chief Justice John Roberts.

“What unique perspective,” he asked, “does a minority student bring to a physics class?”

The lawyer for the University of Texas, not surprisingly, was tongue-tied.  (Not exactly part of prep for the case, eh?)  A casual internet search revealed many non-response responses explaining why diversity is important and why physics needs underrepresented students to succeed.  (That second link, if you’re curious, is a letter from almost 2500 physicists to the Supreme Court.)  The Atlantic has a lovely piece about Einstein’s journey to discovering relativity and how it relied on philosophy, but the piece still could only hint at an answer to Roberts.  Somehow, none of these responses actually answered the question!

That’s where I’m stepping in.

Unique Perspective #1: Communication

The job of a physicist is centered around two things: making new scientific discoveries and communicating those discoveries.  A discovery that is not communicated is useless.  Physicists write up their work in academic journals and give talks at conferences.  For many of them, the bulk of their academic employment will be based around teaching physics classes.  Those who go into industry must communicate with coworkers, management, and the public on a regular basis.

Successful communication requires being able to phrase your work in a way that can be understood by those of many different backgrounds.  In lab settings, in group projects, in presentations, it provides a key benefit to learn how to communicate with those who don’t share your background.

Unique Perspective #2: Applications

Many people taking physics classes are going on to think about applications of their work to the real world.  Perhaps they are engineers and will be building bridges.  Perhaps they are going to work at NASA or SpaceX or Blue Origin and will lead space exploration.  Perhaps they are going to work in nanotech, or semiconductors, or… you get the idea.

In all of these cases, applications to the real world are essential.  They must design technologies to be used by other people.  They must think about how the bridges they build interact with the communities around those bridges.  Diverse perspectives allow students to better understand the applications of their work, how it will be used, and how to design it for maximal benefit to society.

Unique Perspective #3: Cultural Support

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that there’s a physics student who gets into UT and she’s be the only Black student in her class.  She’s doubly underrepresented: one of few women, and the only Black student.  Her learning will be negatively impacted because she has no one to talk to about those struggles.  There’s no one who can understand the lack of role models or the biases she faces.  If she comes from an environment that is not middle- or upper-class, there is no one with whom she can discuss the culture shock not just of attending the university, but of physics, which has its own cultural norms.

This student, although admitted on her own merits, is getting an inferior education to others because she does not have a supportive peer group.  This is preventing her successful education, because her class lacks the perspectives of other students that will help her succeed.  Without diversity, the University of Texas cannot do its job for her, cannot give her the service for which she is paying tuition.

Concluding Notes

These are not the only reasons I support affirmative action in educational settings.  However, as someone who has designed numerous educational programs in math and science settings, I have sought diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds not for a social justice purpose, but because that is how I can provide the best educations for my students and create the products that students will want.  As the country becomes more diverse and as students enter a globally competitive marketplace, access to diverse viewpoints is an essential part of a good education.

To put it in the starkest terms, denying the University of Texas the tools to create a diverse class will decrease their educational effectiveness and put them at a competitive disadvantage against other educational options that offer greater diversity.

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

9 thoughts on “An Actual Response to Chief Justice Roberts”

  1. I did not have a place to put this in the post, but I want to note: I have sought to create diverse academic environments independent of social justice issues, but social justice issues have certainly determined what academic programs I choose to create!

  2. I find all three of your arguments compelling. A fourth to add to the list is contained in the article Evelyn Fox Keller, Feminism and Science, Signs, Vol. 7, No. 3, Feminist Theory (Spring, 1982), pp. 589–602, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173856 (or I can send you a copy of the PDF). In it Fox argues, convincingly I think, that (gender, in her case) diversity in (biological, in her case) sciences leads to better science.

    1. That was something I thought about bringing up, although I don’t know that article specifically. (The field-wide benefits of diversity was one of the points in the physicists’ response letter.) However, I was trying to stick to a very narrow interpretation of the question (a la a courtroom) – Roberts’ question was not “what is best for physics” but “what is best for the classroom”, so I focused strictly on what happens within the classroom. My idea was that the responsibility of UT is not to produce physicists or serve the physics community, but to serve its students.

      That said, when setting societal policy, that line of study is important to look at as well.

  3. I wish more advocates of affirmative action would have the respect for their listeners to offer actual arguments like this. Often I feel like opposition to affirmative action is taken personally or assumed to indicate a racist or sexist bias. In fact, in my experience a lot of opposition to affirmative action comes simply from a desire to be completely fair and eliminate all discrimination, including the “reverse discrimination” that goes by the name of “affirmative action”. To respond to this I think your point #3 is the most compelling, because it argues that what is fair on paper may still be unfair in messy reality.

    1. Thank you! I also think I find point #3 the most compelling, although one major issue is that points #1 and #2 can be stealth issues – for example, it is possible to have a failure of communication and not even to realize it. We’ve had speakers at BEAM who simply did not realize that their vocabulary or metaphors were not common to the students at the program.

      In almost every policy debate, the lack of clear response and engagement drives me crazy. My canonical example is the education reform movement. On one side, reformers launch critiques that demean teachers and education professionals, and discount the tremendous value of their experience and lessons learned. On the other side, those against reform downplay pressing issues and criticize the motivation of reformers, accusing funders like Bill Gates of contributing just for his own personal profit, which is patently ridiculous. (I hope that I have kept whatever “side” I support here suitably ambiguous.) I try, whenever possible, to hold myself up to a higher standard, although I may not always be successful.

      1. I think that a lot of policy debates (regardless of the policy or the topic) suffer from that kind of problem. When like-minded people get together to solve a problem, they look to find the best solution, but when two opposing sides come together to make policy, the goal seems to be “winning.” Both sides make weak, potentially disingenuous arguments because they know they are on the right side anyway, and whatever shifts the final outcome closer to their desired outcome is justified at the end of the day.

        It truly pains me that the world “works” by such adversarial systems.

        1. When you point it out, I realize that our legal system is built on that concept. Because it pits two sides against each other and encourages them to make the best arguments possible for their sides, it is supposed to allow the best arguments to rise to the top.

          I am not sure that’s a good thing, but there have certainly been times in my life where I’ve admired the idea.

        2. I’m a bit more cynical: in my experience when “like-minded people” get together they are just as likely to choose a course of action determined by their pre-existing ideology than to “look to find the best solution”. I think this is also what’s behind the goal of “winning”: to people in thrall to an ideology, the triumph of that ideology is all that matters.

          Frequently it also involves a confusion between ends and means. Those who believe in a particular end will promote any means that is intended to achieve that end, often disregarding its actual results, while demonizing those who oppose any such means on the basis that they must therefore also oppose the desired end.

          Letting the best options rise to the top is certainly a nice idea. It gets into trouble (among other places) when the voters making the decisions have their own ideologies (and when don’t they?), or when all the options presented are terrible (like in a certain upcoming election I can think of). It really is like Churchill said: democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Its primary advantage is probably that (when it works) at least “winning” doesn’t have to involve killing everyone on the other side.

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