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Diversity as a Tool Box Not a Sound Bite

June 1, 2012 8:30 AM

Professor Gerald Torres

There are many claims in Walter Olson's brief post, some empirical, some not, most simply unexceptional. Let's agree that the dust up around Professor Warren has to be understood in the context of a partisan political contest for the US Senate and a bureaucratic choice by one law school or another. So, for purposes of the discussion about diversity in the workplace it is a non-issue.

Let's also agree that the faculty members of color in American law schools are scarcely of one mind on any subject except perhaps the idea that having a more diverse academy is good for the academy and the profession. Even on this one there is probably little agreement about what the exact contours of diversity entail. Nonetheless, the question of whether having a diverse faculty and a diverse student body is a net good might revolve around any number of poles really, but certainly at least two. Those two poles are central to the mission of law schools and they are whether such diversity is better for training lawyers and whether it improves the quality of legal scholarship. Again, the answers to these questions are empirical and I think it is clear that where the empirical investigation is undertaken (and unfortunately here the bulk of the evidence comes from the business school and business literature), it tends to point in the direction of supporting diverse learning environments. Why would this be true?

Scott E. Page, a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan, suggests a number of compelling reasons for maintaining a diverse learning environment. When looking at the ways groups solve problems Professor Page noticed something we all intuitively understand: if you approach a problem with a wide variety of tools the chances of achieving an optimal solution are increased. When people with diverse perspectives work together and capitalize on their individual expertise, they are more likely to produce innovative solutions to complex problem than do lone thinkers.

The key to Professor Page's analysis is what he calls toolbox diversity. Without suggesting that race or ethnicity is a way to predict in advance how any particular person might think, it is not a stretch at all to think that how someone grows up might affect how he or she approaches problems. Thus taking those facts into account as you construct a group will help produce a richer problem solving, learning and teaching environment. For example, growing up Indian on a reservation might give you a different perspective on the meaning of sovereignty than growing up in Washington, D.C. or growing up in one of the fifty states or Puerto Rico.

Consider another example paraphrased from Scott Page: if you can only hire two people and three people apply and you give them all a test in which John gets seven of ten questions right, and Ryan gets six of the ten questions right and Jamal gets five of the ten questions right, you might not want merely to rely on the number of questions the applicants got right. If, for example, Jamal got the three questions right that John got wrong, it might make more sense to hire John and Jamal, even though Jamal got the fewest answers correct than it would be to hire John and Ryan if those two missed the same questions. By hiring John and Jamal you have increased the tool box diversity of your group. This improves the likelihood that your group will be able to solve the problem confronting them as well as to solve a greater range of problems.

1 Comment

Professor Torres correctly points out that analyzing a problem from different perspectives can lead to a better or more imaginative solution. Scientists and engineers are well aware of that, either instinctively or by training. But he offers no proof - and I'm not aware that any exists - that a person from one background is less capable of seeing a problem from the perspective of a different background. If I choose three competent people at random to jointly solve a problem, there is no reason to conclude that a better or faster solution would come from three competent people chosen to reflect "diversity," certainly not when "diversity" is narrowly defined to include only a limited group of categories. If the three people chosen at random lack a particular perspective, they can and should find it.

In the academic sphere, it offends and demeans me to say I am not as capable of teaching, say, black history as a black person would. That would be true only if I secretly harbor "racist" feelings that consciously or subconsciously make me view blacks as less worthy, a condition that the diversity advocates believe is always true.

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FEATURED DISCUSSION ARCHIVE:


Obamacare Decision: Reactions, July 2012
Law School Faculty Diversity, May-June 2012
Class Actions, May 2012
Constitutionality of Individual Mandate, March 2012
Human Rights and International Law, February-March 2012
The constitutionality of President Obama's recess appointments, January 2012
Do caps on medical malpractice damages hurt consumers?, December 2011
Trial Lawyers Inc.: State Attorneys General, October 2011
Wal-Mart v. Dukes, April 2011
Kagan Supreme Court nomination, May-June 2010
Election roundtable, November-December 2006
Who's the boss, September 2006
Medical judgement, July 2006
Lawyer Licensing, May 2006
Contingent claims, April 2006
Smoking guns, July 2004

Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.