JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Can we disagree more constructively?

Published 8:44 am Wednesday, August 23, 2023

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RALEIGH — If you maintain a diversified portfolio of politically active friends — and you really ought to, if you want to perceive the world as it is rather than as you imagine it to be — it’s essential to learn how to best to handle passionate disagreements about controversial issues.

When the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down UNC-Chapel Hill’s race-conscious admissions policies, for instance, some of my personal relationships came under severe stress. I’d long argued that my alma mater’s policies were illegal and unwise. I predicted the university would lose the case and that its leaders needed to prepare for that eventuality.

Over the course of many conversations, before and after the decision, I discovered that good friends of mine felt very differently about the issue. They saw the plaintiffs in the case, Students for Fair Admissions, as either misguided or disingenuous. They expressed concern that a courtroom loss by UNC would inflict severe harm on minority students, restricting their access to high-quality education and the opportunities it brings. Some even argued that North Carolina’s economy would suffer, too, with our talent pipeline shrinking and fewer students being exposed to diverse environments while in college.

I responded to their predictions, and they to mine. We tried to remain civil and open-minded, and for the most part I think we were successful. In particular, our conversations were most constructive when we moved away from theoretical claims and speculative forecasts to focus on more concrete topics.

For example, I pointed out that selective universities in states such as California, Texas, Michigan and Florida stopped using race or ethnicity in the admissions process many years ago.

In some cases, elected officials had mandated an end to the practice. In others, voters had done so through ballot initiatives. These states are home to some of the highest-ranked universities in the nation. Had minorities largely disappeared from their campuses as a result? No. Had their economies been harmed by the policy change? Also no.

Consider what happened at the University of Florida’s flagship campus in Gainesville. Before then-Gov. Jeb Bush abolished racial and ethnic preferences in 1999, about a quarter of students on the campus were non-white minorities. By 2020, they made up nearly half of total enrollment. Black students formerly a slightly smaller share at that university — 5.7%, vs. 6.6% in 1997 — but the numbers of Hispanics and Asians grew significantly while the African-American share rose at other large campuses such as the University of Central Florida.

Data from other states showed similar patterns. As the college-aged population had diversified, so had enrollments across most university campus, selective or not. Some students whose grades, test scores, and other credentials weren’t sufficient to enter their first-choice schools had enrolled at high-quality alternatives. At the most-selective schools, shares of Asian students surged.

When I made these observations to my worried friends, it seemed to make them less confident in their dire predictions. Then they gave as good as they got by helping me understand how the Supreme Court’s decision made many black and Hispanic students feel.

Would those already enrolled under the previous system truly feel welcome on campus after the decision? Would their younger siblings or peers perceive the new system as fairer? Would they see their future prospects as brighter or dimmer?

The resulting conversations didn’t persuade me to change my opinion about the admissions case. Nor did my friends changed their minds, as far as I know. But each of us left with a lot to think about.

Thanks to many factors — among them the decline of traditional sources of authority, the polarizing effects of social media, and the destructive choices of irresponsible leaders — our public discourse is increasingly crude, coarse, and corrosive. The problem isn’t that we disagree. That’s inevitable! The problem is, in part, that we all too often air our disagreements as a kind of political theatre rather than attempting, with real curiosity and mutual respect, to learn from them.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.