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Rules of Action
October 23, 2012 - 9:11pm

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule (again) on so-called affirmative action in higher education. The details vary case to case, but the underlying fear that a person of color stripped a paler would-be pupil of an opportunity remains constant. Programs to guarantee underrepresented minorities presence in the academy make tempers - including mine - flare whether in support or rejection of their aims. I feel particularly prone to pique at this time of year. Accomplished students from privileged families apply for awards to study overseas funded by governments or foundations. They can, and they should. However, they should also remember that the rules apply to them.

Those who complain about affirmative action argue that while they or their offspring played by ‘the rules,’ darker competitors for places circumvented the rules and won the prize. A complex irony emerges from the perception that diversity diminishes academic standards.

My first year as a graduate student adviser, I enjoined a group of African-American women to speak to their faculty mentors early and often.  One of the women told me later, that she and her friends were loathe to go to office hours as undergraduates for fear of appearing less able than their peers.  By contrast, weak students from comparatively wealthy white families consider extra help from faculty their birthright.  A bad grade means a bad teacher on the right side of the tracks.  

Students should come to office hours for conversation and consultation.  However, smart students genuinely at sea in new institutions stay away while those whose parents and grandparents gave them roadmaps to collegiate success in the cradle can never get enough.  I have been told that those sufficiently wealthy to have private tax accountants rarely suffer through an audit, but those of lesser means who file themselves frequently find the IRS at their door.  The haves trump the have-nots by not only mastering whatever game they play but also the best way to ‘win’ at whatever cost.

When I see applications carelessly completed by kids who think the rules do not apply to their terribly special selves, I hit the roof.  READ the directions.  No, you can NOT submit five minutes let alone five days late when others gave themselves less time to revise in order to submit on time.   If the application says three letters of recommendation, you may NOT submit four.  If the application stipulates a 1000 word essay, do NOT squeeze in 1100.  If everyone else can suffer through the final stages of editing their well loved words into oblivion, so can you.

I know this belief in rules as guarantors of fair play makes me pathetically bourgeois.  Oligarchs and aristocrats assume their connections and/or breeding will buy them leeway with such mundane trifles as deadlines.  Mitt Romney could extend and extend his tax return until it suited him to share.  Those he despises as dependents probably filed their paperworks punctually for fear of a fine.  When I evaluate applications, I become physically ill when the candidate who worked hard to assemble materials early and correctly loses out to the kid who submits an application five seconds before deadline and suffused in sloppy errors.  The latter’s accomplishment came at the cost of other’s time and effort.  The former cared enough to respect his or her readers.

You might rightly point out that I am the princess of the unfortunate typo.  I have fallen victim here and elsewhere to my fingers fight with my mind.  Homonyms do-si-do, and semi-colons prance where a comma should appear: too true.  This month I committed a far more egregious crime in my own moral framework: I missed my deadline.  My editors here are gracious souls.  I will likely read this piece in print.  However, I trust that it will follow anything submitted on time.  I have enjoyed every advantage the world has to offer.  Please let someone who has not go first.

Evanston, Illinois in the US.

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to



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