August 1996 Volume 23 Number 4
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
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: email@example.com.
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
E-mail to the Editorial Department of OR/MS Today: firstname.lastname@example.org
OR/MS Today copyright © 1997, 1998 by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. All rights reserved.
Lionheart Publishing, Inc.
2555 Cumberland Parkway, Suite 299, Atlanta, GA 30339 USA
Phone: 770-431-0867 | Fax: 770-432-6969
Web Site © Copyright 1997, 1998 by Lionheart Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.
Web Design by Premier Web Designs, e-mail email@example.com