August 1996 € Volume 23 € Number 4

Debatable Decisions

Operations researchers cast their analytical eyes on an emotional issue

By Peter Horner
Editor, OR/MS Today

Is affirmative action a reasonable and much needed policy designed to make more jobs and higher education opportunities available to certain disadvantaged people, or is it a system of blatant preferential treatment by gender and race that, however well intentioned, does more harm than good?

The long-simmering affirmative action debate has heated up of late as election-year politics combined with a re-examination by the court system has thrust the issue back on the front burner. While emotions have tended to dominate the public debate so far, a panel of operations researchers and management scientists cast their analytical eyes on affirmative action during a standing-room-only session at the recent INFORMS national meeting in Washington, D.C. ("Affirmative Analysis," OR/MS Today, April 1996).

The session, organized by Arnold Barnett of MIT, offered evidence that operations research can, indeed, shed some much needed light on the affirmative action debate. Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University presented a case in favor of affirmative action. Barnett presented a case in opposition to affirmative action. Public policy expert Harold Pollack of Yale University analyzed arguments from both sides of the issue. Ed Kaplan of Yale and Linda Green of Columbia University completed the panel and commented briefly on the value of injecting OR into the affirmative action debate.

At the request of OR/MS Today, the three primary panelists -- Caulkins, Barnett and Pollack -- agreed to author essays based on their Washington presentations in order to open this critical debate to further analysis. The three contributors wrote their essays independently, that is, they did not attempt to anticipate or respond to particular points made by the other two.

It is also important to note that the participants were defending particular positions in a debate, positions which do not necessarily correspond to their full views on affirmative action. For example, Barnett stated in advance of the session that he would be "comfortable" taking either side (OR/MS Today, April 1996).

Barnett encouraged audience participation (and there was plenty) in Washington and that same invitation is extended here. Reader response, including letters to the editor and less formal comments, are welcome. Send correspondence to the Editor, OR/MS Today, 2555 Cumberland Parkway, Suite 299, Atlanta, Ga., 30339; e-mail:

Now that the subject of affirmative action is out on the OR/MS table, where do we go from here? Does the debate suggest that OR has a comparative advantage in this area? What would have been different if three professionals in other fields had debated the topic? Are there weapons in the OR arsenal that could have been potent here but weren't used in the debate?

Clearly, the debate demonstrates that the OR/MS community has an opportunity, if not an obligation, to address the biggest problems that confront the country, even if those problems don't appear to fit the classic OR/MS modeling mold. The debate also shows that it is possible, indeed preferable, to base important public policy decisions not on emotional rhetoric and unsupported opinions but on empirical evidence and careful analysis -- the essence of operations research.

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