The National Academies post a position statement on affirmative action, followed by an email exchange between Steven Pinker and NA President Marcia McNutt

July 17, 2023 • 11:00 am

Note: This post originally was to include both Steve Pinker’s emails to National Academies President Marcia McNutt as well as her responses to Pinker (two from each), but in the end she decided that she did not want her emails reproduced here. (Both she and Pinker were sent my introduction given below.) Pinker, however, gave me permission to reproduce his.  You can try to infer McNutt’s response from Steve’s second email.

Steve sent the first email in response to the “National Academies Presidents Statement on Affirmative Action” below.


Intro (by JAC):

On June 30, the Presidents of our three National Academies issued a joint statement on the Supreme Court decision handed down the day before, the decision that found race-based admissions in universities unconstitutional. Affirmative action, at least as we’d known it for six decades, was dead.

In response to this decision, Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), John L. Anderson, President of the National Academy of Engineering, and Victor J. Dzau, President, National Academy of Medicine, issued the statement below. Because it’s on the home page of the National Academies website, was co-signed by all three presidents, is labeled “National Academies’ Presidents’ Statement” rather than “Opinion,” and lacks the standard disclaimer that the views expressed are those of the writers and not the organization, it’s natural to read it as an official position. I thus take it as an official position of the Academies and not just a personal expression of the Presidents’ sentiments.

National Academies Presidents’ Statement on Affirmative Action

Statement | June 30, 2023

Yesterday the Supreme Court issued a ruling to restrict affirmative action that will present challenges to efforts to diversify the nation’s colleges and universities. We strongly believe that the nation should remain committed to these efforts and find solutions that address racial inequities, including past and current racial discrimination and structural, systemic, and institutional racism in education.

A 2011 National Academies report stated that policies that have included affirmative action are fundamentally important to increasing the participation of members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups at the postsecondary level across all fields (NASEM, 2011, p. 100). The report further states that increasing their participation and success contributes to the health of the nation by expanding the science and engineering talent pool, enhancing innovation, and improving the nation’s global economic leadership (NASEM, 2011, p. 3). A National Academies report issued in February 2023 recommends that leaders of organizations, including colleges and universities, take action to redress both individual bias and discrimination as well as review their own processes to determine whether they perpetuate negative outcomes for people from underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups at critical points of access and advancement (NASEM, 2023, pp. 14-15).

It is essential that our nation extend the opportunity for a college education to all, enhance diverse learning experiences for all students, and create equitable pathways to grow a highly skilled workforce and to solve our most complex problems. Diversity is crucial to the success of our society and our economy.

We must also remain committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within our own institution. We will continue to examine the implications of the decision for our staff and our work as an institution, our relationships with partners and volunteers, and our essential work of providing evidence-based advice to the nation on issues related to science, engineering, and medicine.

Marcia McNutt
President, National Academy of Sciences 

John L. Anderson
President, National Academy of Engineering 

Victor J. Dzau
President, National Academy of Medicine 

This statement could not be issued by my own school, the University of Chicago, as it violates the position of institutional neutrality laid out by our 1967 Kalven Report, which forbids our school from making official statements about politics, ideology, and morality unless they are essential to bolstering the university’s function: teaching, learning, and researching. (Our own five-line statement supporting equal opportunity and access for minority groups, while saying that we’re committed to affirmative action, says nothing about the Supreme Court decision, nor have we issued a statement about it.) The Kalven Report was issued because official statements by University officials or departments could be seen as chilling the speech of those who disagree with these positions. (Unofficial and personal statements, of course, are encouraged as free speech, but official statements impede free speech.)

The National Academies’ (NAs’) statement violates institutional neutrality in several ways. First, it is clearly a response to the Supreme Court decision, and to any reasonable individual says “that decision was wrong”. The first two paragraphs lay out why it was wrong, including the NAS’s belief that the Court’s decision presents “challenges” to the NAs’ policy to address and rectify “racial inequities”, and notes the NAs’ previous claim that affirmative action was “fundamentally important” in rectifying these inequities.

Another reason why this political statement couldn’t pass muster at Chicago is because it asserts as fact tendentious propositions like the value of affirmative action and the causation of minority underrepresentation as “past and current racial discrimination and structural, systemic, and institutional racism in education.” Again, this statement can be debated, particularly the part about existing structural, systemic, and institutional racism.

Further, the last paragraph urges people—I presume members of the NA—to engage in advancing “diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within our own institution.” That now-familiar phrase does not, of course, refer to the abstract goals of diversity, inclusion, and equity per se, which are unexceptionable, but to a specific set of policies employed in many universities and other institutions that include affirmative action, reporting of data on racial composition, and race-conscious orientation and training sessions.

As such, this call for action again establishes an official policy, which is especially problematic because NA members are being adjured to advance “equity” in the recent sense of representation of groups in proportion to their presence in the American population. Given other causes of deviations from the population average besides bigotry (e.g., differences in preference or education), it’s debatable whether “equity” in the statistical sense is what we should be striving for instead of equal opportunity. Either way, what we have here is apparently an official endorsement of a particular political position: affirmative action was right; the Supreme Court was wrong; all discrepancies from population statistics are caused by bias; and we must keep striving to match institutional racial proportions to national ones. In taking a particular moral position—and note that both Steve Pinker and I agree with more limited ways to boost ethnic diversity, but disagree with institutional statements about such issues—the NAS is violating institutional neutrality. The Academies were created and tasked (and are still tasked) not with taking sides on ideological issues, but, as Steve notes below, to provide “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology”.

Finally, note the assertion that “diversity” is crucial to the success of colleges, our economy and society. What kind of diversity? The only kind mentioned is diversity of “racial and ethnic minority groups.” But other kinds of diversity may be even more important to the advancement of science, particularly diversity of viewpoints (the members of a given ethnic group, of course, don’t all share a single viewpoint!), political orientation, religion, and socioeconomic status.  Again, the Supreme Court made this point in its decision:

A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.

This joint statement, then, makes a number of tendentious points that, in toto, would chill the speech of NA members who disagree.  This violates any institutional neutrality that the National Academies have—or should have based on its mission statement, which says that the job of the NAS is not to promote ideological positions but to provide scientific advice to the government.

And, as Steve points out below, taking political positions like this (again, a position that both Steve and I agree with to some extent) runs the danger of alienating the public, whether those statements be Left- or Right-wing. I recently posted about a survey in Nature showing that the magazine’s political endorsement of Biden for U.S. President (a one-off endorsement) led Republicans to be more distrustful not just of the journal, but of science in general.

It is for these reasons that scientific journals and organizations should remain as far away as possible from ideological, moral, and political statements. While editors and scientists may feel compelled to inject their opinions into official venues, they are best made in statements clearly labeled as “opinion” (and distinguished from official positions of the organization), as their overall effect on science is negative—both in chilling the speech of scientists and eroding public trust in science.  While I encourage scientists to express their own views on these issues, it should always be done in personal-opinion statements that don’t carry the imprimatur of institutions like the NAS.

In response to the statement above, Steven Pinker, a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, had an email exchange with Marcia McNutt, the NAS President  (His emails were copied to the Presidents of the other two Academies as well.)

There were two back-and-forths between Pinker and McNutt. Steve gave permission to put up his emails here, but Dr. McNutt decided not to have her emails published.

Although it will become clear that I agree with Steve’s point of view in this exchange (after all, I’ve been defending the Kalven Report for years), I am posting this material to begin a discussion about diversity, about affirmative action, and about institutional neutrality. I invite readers to go through this post and give their opinions in the comments.  All I can say now is that McNutt and Pinker were in unanimity about some matters, but differed strongly about others.

Pinker’s emails:

From: Pinker, Steven <>
Sent: Monday, July 10, 2023 11:20 AM
To: McNutt, Marcia K. [JAC: I’ve omitted the NAS Presidents’ email addresses]
Cc:  Anderson and Dzau
Subject: NAS Statement on Affirmative Action

Dear Marcia,

I would like to express my disquiet at the recent NAS Statement on Affirmative Action. The desirability of racial preferences in university admissions is not a scientific issue but a political and moral one. It involves tradeoffs such as maintaining the proportion of African Americans in elite universities at the expense of fairness to qualified applicants who are rejected because of their race, including other racial minorities such as Asian Americans. Moreover it is a highly politicized policy, almost exclusively associated with the left, and one that majorities of Americans of all races oppose.

It’s not clear to me how endorsing one side of a politically polarizing, nonscientific issue is compatible with the Academy’s stated mission “providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology”.

The problem is worse than being incompatible with the Academy’s mission; it could substantially harm the Academy’s goal of promoting politicians’ and the public’s acceptance of science. Extensive research has shown that rejection of the scientific consensus on evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and other scientific topics is uncorrelated with scientific literacy but predictable from political orientation: the farther to the right, the greater the rejection of evolution and climate change.

In this regard, for the nation’s foremost scientific organization to identify itself with the political left is to all but guarantee that a substantial proportion, perhaps a majority, of politicians and the public will reject science as just another partisan faction with which they have no sympathy. This strikes me as unwise.

I wonder whether these considerations entered into the decision to issue the statement, and the Presidents decided to proceed nonetheless. Perhaps you considered the downsides and decided that the benefits outweighed the costs. Or, am I bringing up something that the Presidents did not even consider? If the latter, I urge you to at least take it into consideration in the Academies’ public communications, and other activities, in the future.

Steven Pinker
Member, National Academy of Sciences
Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology
Harvard University

Dr. McNutt teplied that day, and the next day Pinker wrote the following in response:

On Jul 11, 2023, at 11:15 AM, Pinker, Steven <> wrote:

Thank you, Marcia, for your swift reply. My concerns, though, have not been allayed.

First, if your goal in issuing the statement was not to criticize the Supreme Court decision, I believe you did not succeed. Nowhere did the statement distinguish legal from scientific issues, the first two sentences are:

“Yesterday the Supreme Court issued a ruling to restrict affirmative action that will present challenges to efforts to diversify the nation’s colleges and universities. We strongly believe that the nation should remain committed to these efforts …”

I don’t think any reader of the letter could read that as anything but a criticism. If the Presidents’ goal was to issue a statement that was not perceived as criticizing the Supreme court or defending affirmative action, was a draft shown to politically diverse commentators (that is, including ones who are not on the political left) to ascertain whether it would be understood that way?

It’s also hard to understand how the statement did not “defend the approach to diversifying the student bodies that was struck down by the courts.” The third sentence approvingly says, “A 2011 National Academies report stated that policies that have included affirmative action are fundamentally important….” But it is exactly the policy of affirmative action that the court struck down. Even more puzzlingly, the 2011 report in fact says little about affirmative action, does not review research on its effects on innovation or global economic leadership, and does not list it among its six “Recommendations” or two “Priorities.”  The citation on p. 100 merely lists it among a range of policies it deems “fundamentally important.”

Even more concerning, the statement could have been lifted out of the pages of any recent left-wing opinion magazine, since it reiterates the current conviction that racial inequities are primarily due to “past and current racial discrimination and structural, systemic, and institutional racism in education” and to “individual bias and discrimination.” Entirely unmentioned are other potential causes of racial discrepancies, including poverty, school quality, family structure, and cultural norms. It is surprising to see a scientific organization attribute a complex sociological outcome to a single cause.

Finally, the statement, and your letter, equate diversity of ideas with diversity of race. The advantages of intellectual diversity are obvious (though I have not seen any statements from the Academy addressing the shrinking political diversity among science faculty, nor the increasing campaigns that punish or cancel scientists who express politically unpopular views). The assumption that racial diversity is the same as intellectual diversity was exactly what the Supreme Court decision singled out and struck down, since it carries with it the racist assumptions that black students think alike, and that their role in universities is to present their race-specific views to their classmates.

Of course, citing rigorous empirical research that is relevant to the issues facing the court or guiding admissions policies going forward would be a highly appropriate role for the Academies. These might include comparisons of the outcomes of racial versus socioeconomic preferences, the effects of standardized test­-based admissions policies on student success, and the implications for scientific quality at institutions like UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan of mandates to eliminate racial preferences. But simply extolling the ambiguous word “diversity” would seem to be beneath the intellectual standards we expect of a scientific academy.

Our goals are the same: to enhance the progress and political and public acceptance of science. In that regard I urge the three of you to give more consideration to the way that communications from the Academies signal solidarity with a political faction rather than “providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”


Dr. McNutt replied soon thereafter, but the response is redacted at her request.

32 thoughts on “The National Academies post a position statement on affirmative action, followed by an email exchange between Steven Pinker and NA President Marcia McNutt

  1. I think Pinker is spot on. The one thing I would add is that, no only does, “The assumption that racial diversity is the same as intellectual diversity. . . carries with it the racist assumptions that black students think alike. . . ,” but that they think differently from white students, which is also racist.

  2. The Presidents of the National Academies just can’t refrain from putting out a virtue-signalling statement. Why not? Because in today’s climate, failure to denounce a witch gets one denounced as a witch. So everyone needs a photo of Mao above the mantlepiece. Only if everyone remains faithful to the thoughts of Chairman Mao can we have true intellectual diversity!

  3. I support the concept of institutional neutrality regarding the issues of the day is a worthy one and hope to see it adopted by many more colleges and universities. But, I would argue, as I did previously, that institutional neutrality goes beyond university officials remaining mum on the issues. An institution must place every one of its investments in a blind trust administered by a trustee without any other affiliation with the institution. Nor should it provide any direction to the trustee as to how to invest. For example, the university should never direct the trustee to not invest in businesses in the fossil fuel industry. Why? If the university were to provide direction to the trustee on how to invest, this would be a form of non-neutral speech. In this case, the university would be saying that the fossil fuel industry is bad by encouraging environmental damage. Even if the university doesn’t have its assets in a blind trust but just knows where they are being invested, the act of knowing is a tacit approval of the practices of the business in the hope that the business will make it money. This is a form of speech, at least I think the Supreme Court would say so.

    I have no idea how many universities that state they adhere to the principles of the Kalven Report place their investments in a blind trust. Those that do should make this clear in public statements. Those universities that don’t place their assets in a blind trust are engaging in non-neutral speech, violating institutional neutrality and are hypocrites.

    1. Good point. Fossil fuel investments is a good example and one can imagine even more overtly political investments or divestments that would become problematic such as the BDS movement were trustees to cave to student demans. Historian, what would you say about other ethical imperatives in investing , e.g. investment into African cobalt mining or blood diamonds? If it’s blind, there’s no way to know but still objectionable, no? Surely there are mechanisms in place to prevent conflicts of interest such as trustees investing organizational funds into assets they hold?

  4. The NAS should be silent regarding the Court’s decision regarding Affirmative Action. Their statement is blatantly political, as it calls out the Court and the policy (Affirmative Action) specifically. Wading into the polluted waters of American politics can only harm the institution of science and its reputation (now weakened) for the unbiased pursuit of knowledge.

    That said, I don’t object to the NAS making a case for the value of diversity in science, so long as the case is made scientifically—with evidence. Promoting diversity does not in itself promote an explicitly political agenda. Unfortunately the NAS statement lumped the Supreme Court, Affirmative Action, and “diversity” all together in the same statement, sullying their argument for diversity by bringing it, too, under a political umbrella.

    To promote diversity (however defined) with credibility, the NAS needs to demonstrate the benefits of diversity on their own—apart from politics. My personal bias is to think that cultural, racial, gender, and all the other diversities are net positives for science—because they contribute to *viewpoint* diversity—but I want this to be scientifically verified before accepting it as fact.

  5. the statement… reiterates the current conviction that racial inequities are primarily due to “past and current racial discrimination and structural, systemic, and institutional racism in education” and to “individual bias and discrimination.” Entirely unmentioned are other potential causes of racial discrepancies, including poverty, school quality, family structure, and cultural norms.

    Couldn’t racial discrepancies in levels of poverty, school quality, family structure, and cultural norms be reasonably traced back to past discrimination and structural, systemic, and institutional racism? The dispute seems to be over how to address and fix current discrepancies which were originally caused by historic racism or reactions to racism. The root causes may no longer be relevant.

    1. “The root causes may no longer be relevant.” After 60 years of affirmative action, this seems likely.

    2. Does past discrimination explain patterns we currently observe? I have my doubts. Take a look a Haiti. Slavery ended in 1804. No history of Jim Crow, Redlining, etc. Singapore is only 34X richer than Haiti. Singapore does have a history of discrimination (by the British until they left) and even large-scale murder (by the Japanese in WWII).

      Family structure provides another clue. The out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate in Haiti is roughly equal to the US (inner-city rate) and roughly matches other Caribbean countries.

      The Japanese in California provide another data point. They were brought over to provide agricultural labor. Discrimination (at one time) was intense. They were even locked-up (internment) in WWII. However, by the mid-1960s (just a generation after the camps) they had already reached parity with whites in California. See “Success Story, Japanese-American Style; Success Story, Japanese-American Style” (

  6. Heck, even if I wrote a piece in 100% agreement with Pinker I wouldn’t want my writing side-by-side with his writing -and this here is just email!

  7. I have supported progressive causes, including affirmative actions, for most of my life. I served 34 years in the USAF and became qualified as a “Race Relations Instructor” and “Equal Opportunity and Treatment Officer” long before anyone saw these as career enhancing options. (I was also a rescue helicopter pilot and behavioral scientist.) I’ve been a tenured faculty member, organizational consultant, department chair, workshop presenter, and provost at a small liberal arts college. I tried very hard over many years and with many diverse approaches to find evidence that affirmative action as generally understood and applied to higher learning actually accomplishes any of the goals it was created to achieve. A succinct summary of my efforts would be: “At least it doesn’t do too much harm…” Once an institution stakes out a political position, all efforts to learn the truth through assessment and experimentation wither…

  8. McNutt wrote in reply to Pinker; she was not writing for the general public. There is certainly no obligation for private correspondence to be made public, and I would not want to read too much into her declining a request to publish her side of the correspondence.


    1. Fair enough points, GCM, but given the importance of this issue to university policies and the public, the prominence of the NAS and the two correspondents, higher education’s history of hiding and minimising the racial bias introduced by their affirmative action policies – all those Asian students apparently with deficient personal qualities, it’s quite difficult not to read a lot (almost entirely negative) into her decision.

  9. Aside from the issues mentioned in the post, it seems like process is a problem. As stated, it looks like an official position of the organization, and thus speaking for all members. Shouldn’t more be required than just three officers getting together and deciding “this is what everyone in our organization thinks” and stating that publicly?

  10. Your introduction and Pinker’s emails are good in my view. But I was left unclear about the U of Chicago’s position. Following the link, the first sentence in their statement is “The University of Chicago is committed to affirmative action …”

    1. Sorry, that was a mistake; I’ve fixed it to what it should be; we say we’re committed to affirmative action but have issued no statement about the Supreme Court’s decision.

      1. Did the University of Chicago actually engage in affirmative action in selecting students for admission? I can see that a position on AA itself would not violate institutional neutrality because such a policy as long as it was legal would be regarded as central to the university’s academic mission: selecting students. I believe you gave examples from the past where the university did make statements concerning government decisions about student draft deferments and the ability of DACA students to remain enrolled at the university.

        Presumably the U of C’s quoted commitment to affirmative action was written (long) before the Supreme Court decision came down making it illegal.

  11. The problem here is that she doesn’t have the courage of her convictions. The NAS said in 2011 that (a) it is in favor of increasing the participation of underrepresented racial groups at the postsecondary level, and (b) affirmative action policies are fundamentally important in achieving this goal. Now they issue a statement reaffirming that but when she is accused of taking a side on a divisive political question she backs off and tries to deny it. Why doesn’t she just admit it? If the 2011 position was the right position then why not just hold to it?

    The reason she wanted to keep her side of this private was that she is being disingenuous, and she knows that it is obvious.

  12. Although not related to affirmative action, this from Pinker caught my eye:

    “Extensive research has shown that rejection of the scientific consensus on evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and other scientific topics is uncorrelated with scientific literacy but predictable from political orientation: the farther to the right, the greater the rejection of evolution and climate change.”

    What explains the right’s greater rejection of evolution and climate change? Is this part of a broader rejection of science by the right? A topic I’d like to hear Jerry and others weigh in on sometime.

    1. There are two modes of rejection of a proposition: “I don’t believe it’s true,” and “It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. I’m not going to change my behaviour because there are other things that govern my actions, not just the truth of any one proposition.”

      For all its status as one of history’s really good ideas, perhaps the best idea ever, it doesn’t matter whether people accept the theory of evolution or not. The most annoying thing about rejectors of evolution is that they tend to believe in God. And indeed the logical consequence of accepting evolution is the rejection of a deity that created us as we are now. But so what, in the everyday scheme of things? Nothing material rests on the private belief.

      Climate change is different. There are scientific facts, e.g., CO2 and other molecules with inducible dipoles absorb strongly in the infrared region of the spectrum. To glue himself to a road (or pretend to) a climate-justice studies dropout doesn’t need to know that fact. On the other hand, “climate deniers” who have science education will accept this as truth even if they falsely think it doesn’t matter because it’s “saturated.” Several consequences downstream, though, the theory gets us to the conclusion that we must precipitously end the burning of fossil fuels and do without cement, fertilizer, motorized transportation, and much of our reliable electricity —Gross Zero*—by 2050, else we will become extinct by 2100 (which is not what the IPCC predicts, I hasten to say.).

      Here we reach a political divide. The Left wants to impose this behavioural change—at great expense and wholly unsuccessfully I should say—on the world as an end in itself and so embraces the theory wholesale as a means to that end. They don’t care that Gross Zero is impossible by 2050. Their goal is the economic disruption and redistribution in western countries from trying to get even a third of the way there.

      The Right has no intention of submitting to these draconian, prosperity- and people- killing policies. In order to achieve electoral success, it adopts the intellectual shorthand of rejecting the entire scientific edifice as politically faked by the cultists. The Right looks for evidence that the leftist scientists are lying. They are finding lots in transgender “science.”

      The National Academies’ nakedly leftist brief for affirmative action plays into the hand of stupid people on the Right as proof that the evil people on the Left will stoop to anything.
      I don’t think the Right rejects science per se. It likes science and technology that makes our lives better. (Remember that anti-vax started as a leftist view.). It rejects science that it sees being misrepresented or extrapolated to advance Leftist policy goals with which it fundamentally opposes. Most Leftists see themselves on the right side of history as the moral arc they espouse bends toward justice. Naturally you see rejection of your science as perverse, hurtful, and anti-social. The Right just wants to keep the lights on and enjoy the other benefits of extravagant abundance.
      * Net Zero is a fantasy. Maybe someday, but not by 2050. It doesn’t help that the Left opposes carbon-capture R&D.

      1. There is actually a funny quote about this

        “SETH MNOOKIN: And he said, sure, we just take out a map and put a pushpin everywhere there’s a Whole Foods and draw a circle around that area. He was speaking slightly in jest, but what he was referring to is the fact that you do see a number of well-educated, politically liberal people who self-identify as being environmentally conscious.”

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