Universities need affirmative action, study says

May 2, 2012, 2:00 a.m.

Universities need affirmative action in order to make meritocratic decisions, according to a new study by Stanford Psychology Professor Gregory Walton.

The study, which is currently scheduled for publication in the journal Social Issues and Policy Review, argues that affirmative action not only creates a diverse student body, but also ensures the selection of the most qualified candidates during the college admission process.

Walton — along with his co-authors Steven Spencer, a professor at the University of Waterloo, and Sam Erman, a professor at Harvard University — will provide expert testimony at the upcoming Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas, which is slated to be heard at the earliest this fall.

The case is being brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who claims she was denied acceptance to the University of Texas because of her race.

This will be the first time that the Supreme Court has taken up the issue of affirmative action since almost a decade ago. In 2003, the Court ruled 5-4 to uphold the practice at the University of Michigan Law School in the case Grutter v. Bollinger.

Writing the majority opinion in 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ’50 J.D. ’52 said the Court endorsed the view that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify using race in university admissions.”

The new study, however, attempts to put forth a separate argument in support of affirmative action, in addition to the value of diversity.

According to the study, while people tend to view grades and standardized test scores as “meritocratic and thus as fair and just,” they are actually “systematically biased along important social dimensions such as by race and gender.”

“These circumstances arise because common measures of academic performance systematically underestimate the intellectual ability and potential of members of negatively stereotyped groups,” the study reads. “This bias results not from the content of performance measures, but from common contexts in which performance measures are assessed — from psychological threats like stereotype threat that are pervasive in academic settings.”

Walton discussed the study in a recent interview with the Stanford Report.

“When people perform in standard school settings, they are often aware of negative stereotypes about their group,” Walton said. “Those stereotypes act like a psychological headwind — they cause people to perform worse.”

“If you base your evaluation of candidates just on performance in settings that are biased,” he added, “you end up discriminating.”

— Kurt Chirbas

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