Marlen Garcia: Yes, Chief Justice, diversity matters in physics

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Here’s what two U.S. Supreme Court justices failed to grasp this week: Colleges serve as springboards to careers. A diverse professional work force depends heavily on colleges preparing students of all races and ethnicities.

“What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked during oral arguments of Fisher v. University of Texas, a case on affirmative action brought by a white student who says the university denied her admission because of her race.

Justice Antonin Scalia also made an alarming statement. “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans, to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” he said.


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Scalia apparently was citing work by UCLA law professor and economist Richard Sander, who has found that affirmative action policies do more harm than good to African Americans who do not enter college with the credentials of their peers.

There’s a glitch in relying on Sander’s research.

“It’s safe to say very few social scientists are convinced by evidence Sander has put forth,” Anthony S. Chen, an associate professor of sociology and political science at Northwestern, told me.

Chen signed a brief in which 823 social scientists from 44 states supported the University of Texas, which they said has “a compelling interest in creating a meaningful level of inclusion of students from different racial groups and generating rich diversity to dispel racial stereotypes and foster educational excellence.”

Academic heavyweights from Stanford and Ivy League schools also filed a brief, noting “significant” methodological flaws in Sander’s research. They found it lacked credible evidence to show affirmative action policies harm minorities.

In a separate brief, Richard Lempert of the University of Michigan Law School wrote that “attending a school where one’s academic credentials are below those of most students … has few, if any, adverse effects on minority students and quite likely enhances their prospects for graduation and job success.”

In other words, most will rise to the challenges of attending top universities.

Roberts’ question about the significance of a minority student’s view in subjects that seem unambiguous, such as the sciences, was as troubling as Scalia’s statement.

I posed Roberts’ question to University of Illinois physics professor Philip Phillips, an African American well regarded internationally for his work in a field that would leave most of us dizzy because of its complexities.

“The most important thing in physics is ideas,” he said. “Ideas come from people having different perspectives.”

Success in his field comes down to taking risks and being able to rebound from failed experiments when doing research, he added.

“Lots of people who come into physics can solve problems in a textbook,” he said. “They want research to be cut-and-dried. Those who want ordinary don’t last long. Those who do original thinking have done so in other aspects of their lives. They already were confronted with differences early in life rather than floating through it.”

So, yes, Chief Justice, minority students can bring all kinds of vital, unique ideas to physics. The field depends on it.


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