Samantha Lucy
Illustration by Samantha Lucy

University affirmative action policies help systematically disadvantaged groups

By Tina Shaygan, September 5 2017 —

Last month, the United States government opened up the hell gates to the debate on affirmative action. Leaked government documents showed the U.S. Justice Department is allocating resources towards investigating and taking legal action against universities with affirmative action policies intended to include more students from disadvantaged groups to universities.

Affirmative action policies are intended to improve education and employment opportunities for groups that are traditionally disadvantaged due to discrimination, and have long been controversial in both the U.S. and Canada. However, Canadian campuses must continue pushing for even stronger affirmative action policies despite backlash that is stronger than ever.

Opponents of affirmative policies often argue that admission or employment decisions should be based on merit rather than quotas. And on university campuses, they claim, it should be students’ qualifications that land them a seat in the incoming class rather than their membership of a minority group. And while affirmative action policies may not necessarily take the form of quotas, the intentions are the same — inclusion of minorities in areas historically lacking of diversity.

Opposition to these policies has been strong in Canada. For example, shortly after Justin Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet was announced in 2015, National Post columnist Andrew Coyne wrote an article arguing that Canada’s federal cabinet ministers should be picked based on merit rather than diversity quotas. And earlier this summer, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente argued that Canada has declared a “war on merit” by demanding academic research boards meet quotas of inclusion of minority groups.

However, the argument that merit should always take precedence over diversity stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the goals and impacts of affirmative action policies. Research shows that qualified, competent candidates are not harmed by affirmative action policies such as quotas. Rather, quotas for women in business and politics help replace incompetent men, according to a London School of Economics article that call this “the crisis of mediocre men.”

The numbers don’t lie, and it’s ultimately not the qualified candidates who are pushed out because of affirmative action policies. Instead, minority candidates who are intentionally — or unintentionally and subconsciously — discriminated against receive attention they may not otherwise get.

At the University of Calgary, the Aboriginal Admission Policy states that students applying must meet the minimum requirements for the faculty or program to which they are applying. This is consistent with other universities across Canada. It is evident there is no special treatment provided to aboriginal or other visible minority groups. Furthermore, most Canadian universities fail to acknowledge other minority groups, such as sexual orientation or religion, in their admission policies.

Without affirmative action, mediocracy benefits at the expense of minority groups. And of course those benefiting from the status quo will be opposed to changing it. But next time someone claims affirmative action policies sacrifice merit in favour of arbitrary quotas, know that these policies only even out the playing field for those systematically discriminated against.

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