Point (Neil McPhee): A university is fulfilling its responsibilities if and only if it works to further its research and to provide students with the greatest possible education. When a university knowingly hires a less qualified individual to further its academic research, this university engages in an action that directly undermines its own responsibilities. The same holds true when a university hires a less qualified person to fill a teaching position. University affirmative action policies for hiring new faculty take into consideration not only a publication record, teaching awards, and letters of recommendation – they knowingly give preference to people in possession of superficial qualities gained by accident of birth. Being Black, Hispanic, Asian or Caucasian has no bearing on an individual’s ability to teach or conduct research. Furthermore, to reward a person for what they cannot help runs counter to the academic spirit of rewarding people for what they’ve done.
Counterpoint (Gavin Charles): Affirmative action does not necessarily mean prioritizing one person over another regardless of relative merit. “Accident of birth” is not prioritized over the other criteria discussed, but alongside – and normally as a last resort. Generally, affirmative action means that if two candidates are of roughly equal experience and each demonstrates roughly equal potential, the employer will favour the candidate who comes from a background underrepresented in the particular field of work for which the employer is hiring. As for the idea that affirmative action policies are bad because they are not linked to the quality of one’s achievements, that actually does ignore the notion of relative merit. If two persons have made equal achievements, why shouldn’t we prioritize the person who, statistically speaking, has probably had to overcome greater barriers to make those achievements? And why shouldn’t we make a point of sending the message that those barriers can be overcome?
Point: Affirmative action proponents often argue that the university has a social responsibility to promote racial diversity. If this is true, then a university must have a visibly diverse staff or they risk not being taken seriously if they condemn other agencies for a homogeneous working environment. However, I deny that a university has any societal responsibility of the kind suggested in adopting affirmative action policies. The responsibility of the university lies only in promoting and developing academics. The responsibility to promote the acceptance of visible minorities lies with our government and other social organizations. If a university has no responsibility in this matter, and if the university harms its own legitimate responsibilities by overstepping its boundaries, then the university should not institute or maintain affirmative action hiring policies.
Counterpoint: Universities are on the very forefront of society. What happens in universities affects the way that the leaders of tomorrow will act and coexist. Since they have such an opportunity to foster the development of values, universities should promote socially positive ideals including tolerance and equality. On a related note, everyone knows that the professor matters as much as, if not more than, the class material. Some people undoubtedly will or do feel as though they cannot become the person in front of the class because all the people in front of the class are unlike them. Moreover, that person at the front of the class may also end up on TV or in the newspaper, discussing their work as a scientist or researcher. Some studies indicate that when schoolchildren are asked to draw a scientist, they usually draw a white male. Universities can, and should, work to change these popular conceptions. Otherwise, the world, and the universities, may miss out on the next great researcher, simply because she or he was convinced from an early age, perhaps subconsciously, to abandon that career path.
Point: Does visible diversity within the academic atmosphere intrinsically benefit academia? It is unclear how this could be true. Perhaps coming from a visible minority provides unique perspectives on particular issues? First, it is unclear why this should be true. The perspective an individual develops is something manufactured by their interaction with their environment. It is silly to suggest your environmental interactions are any more unique as a black person in our society as it is for a Scientologist or Catholic. That is, race is no better an indicator of diversity of opinions than are beliefs an individual can choose to develop. Second, even if this was true, it is unclear why affirmative action is necessary for these opinions to be heard. I’m not so naïve as to think a visible minority can’t produce a CV rivaling that of a middle-aged white man.
Counterpoint: Again, affirmative action usually does not mean that a visible minority ‘takes away’ a white man’s job, and the common misperception that it does mean that is unfortunate. The association of minorities – and women, because this affects them as well – with “unique perspectives” is not because they all think the same way, which is obviously untrue. Rather, this association, in a university setting at least, exists because a university is, very specifically, a place where a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives are welcome. If minorities and women have interesting perspectives to provide, simply based on their experiences as minorities and women, they should be encouraged to share those perspectives in academia. This is true, in fact, even if those perspectives are largely the same as those of the majority or men, because that would clarify those similarities instead of hiding or obscuring them.
Neil McPhee and Gavin Charles are members of Sodales, the Dalhousie Debating Society. Debaters are notorious for arguing things they don’t actually believe. Positions taken by the authors aren’t necessarily their personal beliefs. Vote for the side of the debate you agree with at www.sodales.ca.