Ok, ok, I know I said I was going to move on, but I've been doing some reading on affirmative action in higher education in the last few days (discussion on my last few posts made me realise how little of the literature I actually know) and I couldn't resist sharing this with you .
In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling in the case of Regents of the University of California (Davis) vs. Bakke (henceforth called Bakke) - Bakke had essentially sued UCD (which at the time had quotas set aside for minority students) for denying him admission despite the fact that his grades were better, etc.
The Supreme Court ruled that such a quota system, where 16% of the seats were set aside for minority students, was unlawful. In delivering that judgement Justice Powell argued that "racial and ethnic distinctions of any sort are inherently suspect and thus call for the most exacting judicial examination".
But that's not what makes the case interesting to me (before you jump up and start arguing that this is India, not the US and we can have our own judgements) - though I think it's interesting to think about whether the policy proposal we've been debating has been subjected to the most exacting examination. What I found more interesting was the argument for why the policy was unlawful and what role the court saw for affirmative action in higher education admissions.
The Supreme Court essentially based its conclusion on the following judgement in an earlier case (Sweezy vs. New Hampshire): "It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which their prevail the "four essential freedoms" of a university - to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study"
The key words are - on academic grounds. Preferential admissions to minority students can be justified on the basis of superior educational outcomes - if the university believes, for instance, that diversity of perspective may actually enhance the educational outcomes for students per se. Arguments for social justice or inequality reduction are irrelevant here - in order to be using race and minority status as a basis of discrimination in admissions, universities had to show that it was academically optimal. In particular, the Bakke ruling made a distinction between the UCD policy of setting aside quotas for minority students and the Harvard policy (at the time) of giving minority status weightage in the admissions process. Minority status, the court argued, could be used to tip the balance in a candidate's favour, just as a candidate's participation in sports, musical talents, etc. could be used. But it should not block off access to seats for non-minority students. Justice Powell writes: "race or ethnic background may demand a 'plus' in a particular applicant's file, yet it does not insulate the candidate from comparison with all other candidates for the available seat".
What does all this mean for reservations in the IITs / IIMs. Obviously, the US and India have different laws, so legal precedents do not strictly apply, but I think the following points are worth highlighting:
First, that the decision to adopt an affirmative actions admission policy should be the university's, not the state's. The state may intervene if it sees discrimination against minorities (as it famously did in the desegregation of public schools in the South in the 60s), but universities should have the right to decide on their own admission policies.
Second, giving special weightage to a candidates socio-economic status is not the same as protecting him from competition by reserving seats, and the former is preferable to the latter because it is fairer to all concerned, and effectively limits the extent to which quality standards have to be compromised.
Third, the only valid rationale for allowing minority candidates to enter into universities is educational. To the extent that diversity of perspectives aids creativity, enables the exchange of ideas and helps prepare students for success in a diverse society, minority candidates may be preferred over others. Because of what they can contribute to the university, not because of what the university can contribute to them.
Fourth, that these affirmative action policies must be designed with careful thought and close scrutiny, and drawing heavily on existing research on affirmative action's effects on outcomes.
Personally, I'm still unconvinced that taking candidates who have lower scores on entrance tests, etc. but come from a different socio-economic strata is going to improve the performance of students in the IITs / IIMs. But I may be wrong. There's a lot of research out there (now that I'm really paying attention) on the positive effects of affirmative action on overall educational outcomes (though, of course, in very different contexts) so maybe it's worth looking into / trying.
That doesn't mean that there's any case for reservations in IIT / IIMs. What it does suggest is that faculty in the Institutes may want to sit down and spend more time thinking about what metrics they use for admission and whether there are criteria they want to add / emphasise. It's not just a question of the University's independence. It's also that, if it's a question of studying the relevant literature and coming to rational, responsible conclusions, I'd trust the faculty of an IIT / IIM over some random politician any day.
 Two things: First, I'm not a lawyer (thank God!) so I'm basing this more on academic articles I've read on the ruling as well as my own reading of it, but I may be missing much of the nuance in the discussion. Second, while the Bakke case is fairly old, the US Supreme Court has apparently continued to stand by its point of view in recent cases involving the University of Michigan the University of Texas.