The B.C. Civil Liberties Association applauds Professor Philip Resnick for calling attention to the issues of affirmative action raised by the University of British Columbia’s advertisement for a new president, which “especially” invites members of traditionally disadvantaged groups to apply. While we agree substantially with his views of what are appropriate criteria for selecting a university president, we are not in full agreement with the implications of his arguments for all programs involving affirmative action.
If the wording of the advertisement for president implies that an applicant’s gender or ethnic identity will be given weight as a factor in selecting among applicants, then we think it an inappropriate use of affirmative action. On the other hand, the BCCLA would consider it an appropriate example of affirmative action if by wording the ad in the way it has, the university wants to encourage qualified members of all groups to apply, especially those who might not otherwise think of themselves as plausible candidates.
While we agree with Professor Resnick that the university should not allow gender or ethnic origins to influence its choice among the applicants for the UBC presidency, we think some forms of affirmative action are appropriate in other situations. Affirmative action is an extremely difficult issue because efforts to achieve social and economic equality for disadvantaged groups often set group rights at odds with traditional civil libertarian concerns for individual equality. In a perfect world one would be able to eliminate existing forms of discrimination without putting new ones in their place. However, in a perfect world there would be no discrimination to eliminate, and in the existing world we are faced with hard choices between imperfect alternatives.
In principle, we approve of affirmative action in so far as it means that measures should be taken to ensure that all individuals are judged equally according to criteria appropriate for the particular jobs or educational opportunities they seek. However, measures taken to prevent or to counteract traditional and ingrained prejudicial practices have sometimes crossed the line between preventing old discrimination and instituting new discrimination.
The line between eliminating traditional discrimination and introducing reverse discrimination is murky. In some circumstances it has been necessary to adopt policies that cause inequities to members of the traditionally privileged group of white males in the process of eliminating entrenched patterns of discrimination. For example, it may be necessary to use hiring or admission quotas in order to eliminate deeply ingrained discriminatory attitudes or practices that have proved intransigent, or to set aside places in an educational institutions for members of deeply disadvantaged groups. Examples might include a factory that has never hired members of a racial minority that constitutes a significant portion of the local population, or a company that despite the presence of many able women has never promoted a woman to a top management position. As well, it might be appropriate to apply nontraditional criteria when choosing among a pool of candidates all who of whom have met high standards.
Such policies should be instituted only for the period of time necessary to change old and deeply entrenched patterns of discrimination. They should be put into place only when there is evidence of such entrenched discrimination, and they should include provisions for mandatory review after a certain period. In such reviews the burden of proof for their continuing necessity should rest with the institution. Those crafting them should keep in mind that our long term goal is to shape a society in which no individual suffers discrimination because of group membership, or for personal attributes that are irrelevant to the task at hand. The goal of these policies should be to achieve equity, a level playing field, for all individuals, and a society that is genuinely colour, culture and gender blind. It should not be to achieve equal representation of all groups, per se, in all walks of life. Extreme care should be taken that hiring policies in general and admission policies for educational institutions do not result in institutionalizing practices that place greater value on group membership as such than on individual qualification.
In general, however, such considerations should not be pertinent to selecting a university president. The position of university president has so high a profile that to make the appointment on any criteria other than individual qualification sends a message to the society at large that a person’s group membership takes priority over his or her individual ability. Among the many and complex responsibilities that face a university president is that of ensuring equitable practices within the institution. We are more likely to achieve a just society if the most able people are in positions that allow them to shape policies towards that end than if such positions are given to less qualified people on grounds extraneous to their abilities.