Equity: Equal Outcomes or Equal Opportunity?

Photo credit: Richmond.com

by James A. Bacon

University of Virginia President Jim Ryan begs to differ with critics of “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.” The term “equity” has become a lightning rod in the debate over DEI, he writes in an essay recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Somehow, he muses, people got the idea that equity means “equal outcomes” as opposed to “equal opportunity.”

“I have no idea where this idea came from, but it ought to be rejected out of hand,” he says. “I know of no college that assures equal outcomes.”

Where, oh where, could critics of UVa’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion policies have gotten the idea that equity stands for equal outcomes?

Perhaps they got it from “Audacious Future: Commitment Required,” which summarized the 2020 findings of UVa’s Racial Equity Task Force, established by Ryan. The document was endorsed by the Board of Visitors, and never has Ryan, the Board, or anyone else in authority at UVa distanced themselves from its goals and objectives.

The task force report makes abundantly clear what “equity” means to its authors (my bold face):

We define racial equity as a system in which racial identity neither predicts nor determines one’s access, success, or influence within the University of Virginia — where people of any racial background have an equal probability of thriving….

Equity demands that we not only include a diverse population, but we reimagine how the institution operates so that all people are equally likely, statistically, to join, to contribute, to thrive, and to exercise authority, influence, and governance in determining the shape and future of the institution.

In the context of a report about racial equity, how does one determine if “all people are equally likely, statistically” to thrive at UVa? In theory, there is a wide variety of metrics that could be tracked. “Audacious Future” lists these:

In practice, UVa has settled for what can be readily measured — the racial composition of students, faculty and staff. To remedy the systemic racism that the Racial Equity Task Force sees still haunting Virginia, “Audacious Future” sets a goal for UVa to “recruit, admit, and support an undergraduate population that reflects the racial and economic demographics of the state of Virginia.” UVa now tracks the number of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff on its Diversity Dashboard.

There is a broad gap between Task Force’s goal and reality. The Black population of Virginia is 19.1%. The percentage of Blacks at UVa is 6.8%. In other words, the long-term goal, never disavowed by Ryan, is to triple the percentage of Blacks at UVa. Unfortunately, the percentage of Blacks scoring “advanced” in Virginia’s Standards of Learning English exams — the K-12 elite that would quality for UVa-level work — is 6.7%. Making matters more difficult, UVa finds itself competing against virtually every other university in the country for the finite pool of high-achieving Black students.

Ryan finds himself in a ticklish situation as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hand down a ruling that is widely expected to prohibit the consideration of race as a factor in university admissions and the Youngkin administration seeks to redefine DEI as Diversity, Opportunity & Inclusion. Ryan is trying to thread the needle between his commitment to “social justice” and the impending majority of Youngkin-appointed Board of Visitors members by redefining the polarizing concept of “equity” in benign terms — in other words, by keeping the same goals but changing the language.

As I wrote yesterday, Ryan’s justification of “diversity” and “inclusion” sound reasonable enough in the abstract, although there are ample grounds to question how those concepts are implemented at UVa. He creates additional problems for himself when trying to persuade readers that “equity” does not mean what critics think it does. He writes:

A more accurate and appropriate definition of equity is an effort to ensure equal opportunity, not equal results. The term recognizes that not everyone starts in the same place or is in the same circumstances, so treating people exactly alike is not always fair — and not always consistent with providing equal opportunities. How far a college goes to remove barriers to success will always be subject to debate, but the basic idea should not be controversial.

For example, offering a sign-language interpreter for someone who is deaf or a ramp for someone in a wheelchair are hardly radical gestures. The same is true of the most conspicuous example of equity in higher education, which is hiding in plain sight: financial aid for students from lower-income families. Not everyone pays the same price to attend college, which means not everyone is being treated equally. Financial aid is nonetheless equitable because it ensures that qualified students are not barred from attending because they happened to be born into a family that lacks the resources to pay full tuition. Students who receive financial aid are not promised to graduate with honors or even to graduate; like every other student, they are offered a chance to succeed. Those opposed to equity should explain why need-based financial aid, which is well accepted and widely celebrated, should be jettisoned.

No one — certainly not The Jefferson Council — objects to sign language interpreters, or wheelchair ramps, or need-based financial aid. We favor creating opportunities for meritorious students who would otherwise be denied the opportunity to attend UVa. Insofar as needy students come disproportionately from minority communities, minorities will benefit disproportionately from such financial aid. We’re fine with that. What we object to are programs that explicitly benefit individuals on the basis of their racial status rather than their individual life circumstances.

Black and brown people have no monopoly on hardship or disadvantage — more than a tenth of Virginia’s population lives in Appalachia, a region known for widespread poverty and limited opportunity. Not far from Charlottesville, thousands of mostly White subsistence farmers were evicted from their land in the 1930s to make way for the Blue Ridge Parkway. When I attended in the early 1970s, the university still retained a memory of that injustice. The name Shiflett, a common name among the evictees, was synonymous with the region’s poor White working class. The Shifletts (who were displaced from their land far more recently than the oft-invoked Monacan Indians) have fallen down the memory hole. No one weeps for them. No one seeks to right their historical wrong.

I cannot speak for others, but I can say that The Jefferson Council is not “opposed to equity” per se — we’re opposed to a definition of equity that seeks to engineer an “equal probability” of racial group outcomes in an elite institution, which by its nature, is highly selective in whom it admits. We support scholarships that help academically meritorious students attend the University, regardless of race. We oppose admitting some students on the basis of race who displace others, more academically qualified, who would gain more from a UVa education.

UVa cannot ameliorate through its admissions policies the cumulative impact of slavery, segregation, racism, welfare-state dependency, failed schools, single-family households, social dysfunction and other factors that have held back Black academic achievement in Virginia. In trying to do so, UVa creates new problems for itself — and the students it purports to help.

We’ll dig deeper into this issue in a future post.