Affirmative action/racial preferences

Why campuses should support affirmative action more strongly than ever (essay)

Even after weeks of macho vulgarity, preening and unruly incompetence, this week the Trump administration still managed to send shock waves through the higher education and civil rights communities. The New York Times reported that the White House wants the U.S. Department of Justice to “redirect resources” of its civil rights division “toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” Subsequently, the DOJ announced that it was really just seeking “volunteers” interested in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against Asian-Americans.

Perhaps this is a move by the White House in concert with Jeff Sessions, playing to the shared political base. Under the guise of protecting the rights of Asian-Americans, this could save the beleaguered attorney general by making him the defender of white people who feel threatened by opportunities given to minorities. But apart from the cynical political opportunism of this move, we can also see the threats against affirmative action as another effort to use higher education to protect those who already have key social advantages.

Ever since the founding of this country, we have recognized that education is indispensable to our vision of a democratic society. All men may be created equal in the abstract, but education provides people concrete opportunities to overcome real circumstances of poverty or oppression. Thomas Jefferson argued that the talented poor should be educated at public expense so that inherited wealth would not doom us to rule by an “unnatural aristocracy” of wealth. A few years after Jefferson’s death, African-American shopkeeper David Walker penned a blistering manifesto pointing out that “the bare name of educating the coloured people, scares our cruel oppressors almost to death.” Some years later, the young slave Frederick Douglass received a “new and special revelation,” namely, that learning “unfits” a person for being a slave.

Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African-Americans.

Residential colleges and universities have for many years emphasized creating a diverse student body because we believe this results in a deeper educational experience. In the late 1960s, many institutions steered away from cultivated homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people can learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what would later be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who could navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation.

Creating a diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That’s why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from underrepresented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect. Education, as Douglass said, makes you unfit for slavery.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written that the equal protection clause of the Constitution “guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals -- here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”

Many citizens, but particularly citizens from racial and ethnic minorities, have often had to depend on the federal government to ensure that states provide access to political and economic opportunity. That’s why it’s particularly appalling to see the Trump administration commandeering the civil rights division of the DOJ to shore up privilege. This latest threat to higher education -- like recent decisions undermining voting rights and plans for a “merit-based” immigration system -- is at its core another attempt by elites, scared “almost to death,” to hold on to their privileges by limiting access to political participation, social mobility and economic opportunity.

President Trump has become the leader of what Jefferson called an “unnatural aristocracy,” and perhaps we should not be surprised that it should attempt to increase its privileges. We who work in educational institutions must push back against this attempt, recognizing our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized.

College and university admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments. Higher education institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived -- including intellectual diversity -- and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will just return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past. We must resist it

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and author, most recently, of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.

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Affirmative Action: Now More Than Ever

College Board pilots new way to measure adversity when considering applications, but some fear impact of leaving out race

Smart Title: 

College Board pilots system to help colleges make admissions decisions about who is disadvantaged -- and evidence from one college suggests 20 percent of decisions might be different. But lack of emphasis on race concerns some advocates.

OMB considers revising standards for collecting data on race ethnicity

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Potential revisions to the OMB's standards for collecting data on race and ethnicity draw interest from medical educators and anthropologists.

The Fisher case on affirmative action reflects the strength of our democracy (essay)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 4 to 3 in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin was a close call. For months, supporters of affirmative action in higher education were worried that a majority of the justices would find the University of Texas’ race-conscious affirmative action plan unconstitutional. Opponents were worried about just the opposite. The court upheld affirmative action, as it has done in all the major college affirmative action cases since 1978. So why was it such a closely watched case?

Fisher comes at a moment in history defined by our first black president, as well as by discussions of whether race still matters in public life. It also arrives during a long shift in the debates over how best to address issues of equality of educational opportunity -- whether through the equity-focused policies of the civil rights era or the test- and achievement-focused policies of today.

In her majority opinion in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor suggested that increasing access to higher education through affirmative action is justified by a commitment to a diverse democracy. But opposing camps in the affirmative action debate may have divergent interpretations about what a “diverse” democracy means. To improve the democratic dialogue about affirmative action, stakeholders in the policy process must understand the moral and political beliefs underpinning the terms of the debate.

Although I am a strong supporter of affirmative action, I believe the measured compromises coming out of major college affirmative action rulings over the past 40 years exemplify the strength of our democracy. The debate over affirmative action is an example of an enduring moral disagreement, one that is characterized by different interpretations and emphases of key democratic ideals and values such as equality, liberty and diversity.

After all, the court had previously decided that narrowly tailored affirmative action plans are acceptable ways for universities to create diversity, and in this case, the court agreed with the university that race is “a factor of a factor of a factor.” And the preponderance of research evidence points toward affirmative action as fostering educational opportunities worth wanting as well as more racially and ethnically diverse educational institutions. But the disagreement about affirmative action has never been related to straightforward questions of evidence or what the law allows. If that were the case, then the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision affirming the constitutionality of using race-conscious affirmative action admissions decisions ought to have put out the fires of controversy.

We in America often overlook an important part of these debates: moral and political disagreements are essential parts of democracy. Ideally they stimulate meaningful dialogue across difference so that those with opposing views can -- at the very least -- understand and respect other reasonable perspectives, or even more productively, move toward what Martin Benjamin calls integrity-preserving compromises over contentious policy issues. That is something that the candidates for president would do well to remember.

In fact, all of us, whatever side we come down on in the affirmative action debate, should remember that disagreements are inevitable in a democracy. The key to a thriving democracy is citizens’ ability to discuss those disagreements, to work to understand the values and beliefs that shape our differences. Democratic dialogue allows us to stand in others’ shoes and see one another’s humanity despite disagreement. Such dialogue is the heart of both education and democracy. Without it, the promise of democratic education and politics will remain unfulfilled.

Michele S. Moses is associate dean for graduate studies and professor of education philosophy and policy at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. She has studied affirmative action for 15 years and is the author of the recently published book Living With Moral Disagreement: The Enduring Controversy About Affirmative Action (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

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The Supreme Court ruling on Fisher, while disappointing, is a narrow one (essay)

The U.S. Supreme Court today upheld the University of Texas’s use of racial preferences in student admissions. The vote was 4 to 3, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion, joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor (Justice Elena Kagan was recused). Justice Samuel A. Alito wrote a powerful 51-page dissent, which he read from the bench.

The decision came on the unlucky 13th anniversary, to the day, of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger. And Fisher I, by the way, came down on a June 24, with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke coming down on a June 28. Something about these higher ed racial preference cases always causes the court to struggle with them to the bitter end of the term.

Needless to say, for those of us opposed to racial discrimination in university admissions, the decision is disappointing, for all the reasons that Justice Alito explains. The discrimination that is upheld is untenable in our increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society -- indeed, a society where individual Americans are more and more likely to be multiracial and multiethnic (starting with our president), and where the victims of this politically correct discrimination are more and more likely to be members of racial and ethnic minority groups.

But the silver lining is that today’s decision is a narrow one, both in its scope and in the extent to which it allows the use of racial preferences.

As the court says, UT’s program “is sui generis” and the way the case was litigated “may limit its value for prospective guidance.” A big reason for this, of course, is the university’s use of a “top 10 percent plan,” which was not challenged. Rather surprisingly, by the way, Justice Kennedy seems to suggest that perhaps it should have been. He’s right: if a facially neutral plan is adopted for racial reasons, as quite arguably the percent plan was -- by automatically granting admission to any student graduating in the top 10 percent of their high-school class, the plan was sold to the state Legislature as guaranteeing a fair proportion of black and Latino admittees -- then it is unconstitutional. Put the shoe on the other foot: What if Ole Miss had, back in the day, put its demographers to work and then refused to admit anyone living in a (heavily black) zip code?

Justice Kennedy also warns the university repeatedly in his opinion that it has an ongoing duty to minimize its use of race. And race is, the court says, only a “factor of a factor of a factor” at UT, was considered contextually, does not automatically help members of any group and could in theory help the members of any group, including whites and Asian-Americans. “The fact that race consciousness played a role in only a small portion of admissions decisions should be a hallmark of narrow tailoring ….”

Now, much of this may be quite false as a matter of what really happens at the University of Texas, but other colleges and universities are now obliged to jump through the hoops that the court says UT jumped through. They must, for example and in addition to what’s already been described, do a careful study at the outset to document why using racial preferences is essential to providing the purported educational benefits of diversity and “articulate concrete and precise goals.” Note that, at UT, the ultimate decision makers supposedly did not even know the race of the individual applicants.

More broadly, any college or university’s use of racial preferences must pass “strict scrutiny,” and any institution using preferences must bear the burden of proving that a nonracial approach would not promote its interest in the “educational benefits of diversity” about as well.

Look at it this way: barring a decision by the court that overruled Grutter v. Bollinger and said that colleges and universities may never use racial preferences because the “educational benefits of diversity” are not compelling, lots of institutions would continue to use such preferences, even if the court had left the door open only a tiny crack. If the court had said, “You can use racial preferences only if you can prove that the moon is made of green cheese,” then a number of true-believer presidents would swear on a stack of Bibles that, what do you know, our institutions have found by careful study that the moon is made of green cheese.

That’s why I had hoped that the court would, indeed, overturn Grutter. But since that has not happened, and now likely will not happen for the foreseeable future, then there is no choice but to proceed institution by institution. That’s what the law was before today’s decision, and it remains what the law is after today’s decision. And, realistically, we could not have expected it to be otherwise as we awaited Fisher II.

Sure, it would have been better if the court had given the opponents of racial preferences more ammunition than it did today, but we still have plenty of ammunition on “narrow tailoring” requirements -- for which, by the way, colleges and universities receive “no deference” -- from Bakke and Grutter and Gratz and Fisher I and now from Fisher II.

The bottom line is that the court’s decision leaves plenty of room for future challenges to racial preference policies at other institutions -- and at UT itself for that matter. It’s interesting that, in the run-up to the decision, there was much discussion among liberals that maybe indeed there are better approaches to student admissions than UT’s. Here’s hoping that those discussions continue, prodded along by lawsuits and FOIA requests to ensure that all of Justice Kennedy’s (and Justice O’Connor’s and Justice Powell’s) hoops have been jumped through.

And here’s hoping, as well, that the research continues to document the high costs of the use of racial preferences versus the paltry benefits. The latter are the “educational benefits” for white and Asian students of random observations by black and Latino students. (Yes, that’s what the justification for this discrimination boils down to, as I discuss here.)

And the costs? Just these: it is personally unfair, passes over better qualified students and sets a disturbing legal, political and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination. It creates resentment. It stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers and themselves, as well as future employers, clients and patients. It mismatches African-American and Latino students with institutions, setting them up for failure. It fosters a victim mind-set, removes the incentive for academic excellence and encourages separatism.

And more: it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body. It creates pressure to discriminate in grading and graduation. It breeds hypocrisy within the college or university and encourages a scofflaw attitude among its officials. It papers over the real social problem of why so many African-American and Latino students are academically uncompetitive. And it gets states and higher education institutions involved in unsavory activities like deciding which racial and ethnic minorities will be favored and which ones not, and how much blood is needed to establish group membership --an untenable legal regime, as I said before, as America becomes an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic society.

So the challenges to racial preferences will continue. Cases already filed against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that had been on hold will now proceed. The struggle goes on.

Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has joined numerous amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiff over the course of the Fisher litigation.

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Next steps colleges should consider after the Supreme Court's Fisher decision (essay)

The higher education community breathed a sigh of relief today as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas at Austin's race-conscious holistic-review admissions policy is lawful under federal constitutional principles. The decision ended nearly a decade of litigation for UT and clearly preserved existing precedent that allows institutions with an interest in the educational benefits of diversity to include the limited consideration of race in enrollment decisions.

So we're done with this stuff, right?

Not exactly. We should celebrate the decision today but be prepared to roll up our sleeves and get back to work tomorrow. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. The decision does preserve existing precedent, but it gives much more specific insight into what it looks like to align with the court's framework and expectations. It's a bit like the court has for decades instructed institutions to wear clothes -- but now they've made clear that those clothes should be a three-piece suit. Specifically, the court noted that UT was able to show a clear set of diversity-related goals and objectives, a deliberate decision-making process that involved university’s highest leadership and stakeholders across the campus, and an impressive arsenal of qualitative and quantitative evidence about the negative impact of its years of solely race-neutral admissions. Though lockstep adaptation of UT's effort is not likely to be an expectation by future courts, all institutions that consider race in enrollment decisions should prepare themselves to make their own case for carrying the "heavy burden" of passing court scrutiny of these practices, informed by the kind of case UT presented.
  2. The court was very clear that institutions have an "ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies" (emphasis added). For UT specifically, the court instructed, "The university must continue to use [its] data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary." Notably, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not repeat Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 prediction in Grutter v. Bollinger that race-conscious programs will not be needed in the next 25 years. But he did make clear that any institution that intends to use race-conscious admissions policies should plan to commit to a continuing process of reflection and evolution over time.
  3. Not everyone agrees with the court's conclusion. Justice Samuel A. Alito, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a lengthy dissent -- and took the somewhat rare step of reading it from the bench today. In it, he expressed concerns about: 1) the "black box" of admissions and other institutional decision-making processes, 2) whether UT provided a sufficient evidence base to support its policies (especially the link between what happens in the admissions process and what happens after students arrive on campus), 3) how race really fits into admissions decisions, and 4) what kind of diversity is really valued in holistic review. In the weeks ahead, we in higher education should spend more time understanding the views of the dissenting justices and think through ways in which they may inform institutional judgments moving forward. That may be especially important given the other cases pending in federal courts and new complaints filed with federal agencies that ask many of the same questions of a new batch of institutions.
  4. As student demonstrations and demands clearly illustrated over the course of the past months, many campus stakeholders do not believe that colleges and universities have yet fully authentically achieved the diversity goals they assert they have. That is, in part, because of the need to consider not only the diversity of the student body but also whether different members feel included and able to participate fully in campus life. After all, the compelling interest at stake isn't about student body diversity as an end in itself. It is a means toward improved teaching and learning, personal and intellectual development, better civic outcomes, and a lively campus environment where all individuals, ideas and perspectives are welcomed.
  5. And, indeed, the court today noted with approval that, along with statistical information that minority enrollment was decreasing under the solely race-neutral regime, UT included minority students’ experiences of feeling lonely and isolated on the campus. Moving forward, colleges and universities should aim to look for evidence not only of the negative effects of the absence of diversity but also, perhaps even more importantly, of the positive effects of a broadly diverse student body on all members of the institutional community -- with attention to ways in which they can advance fully inclusive learning environments for the benefit of all students.

The decision in Fisher II gives colleges and universities greater confidence that they can continue to use race-conscious enrollment policies to pursue important educational benefits associated with diversity. But it also makes clear that doing so requires "constant" effort and the contributions of almost every member of an institutional community. As the decision concludes, "Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity."

I am confident that institutions across the country -- working with their partners in research, law, business and their communities -- will be able to meet the challenge. But the ball is in institutions' court. We must get to work.

Terri Taylor is a senior policy and legal adviser with EducationCounsel LLC. She co-authored the amicus brief submitted by the College Board, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the Law School Admissions Council and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling to the Supreme Court in Fisher II and helps lead the College Board's Access and Diversity Collaborative.

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Elite colleges should not penalize Asian applicants (essay)

Any day now the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on Fisher v. University of Texas. The case concerns a lawsuit filed by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who was denied admission to UT. Fisher argues that her race played a role in the admissions decision, and this, she claims, constituted a violation of her rights.

The higher education community is waiting apprehensively for the Supreme Court’s verdict. Many worry that the decision could drastically limit the ability of colleges and universities to be racially diverse.

Yet one feature of modern college admissions practices in the United States that can often be overlooked in this discussion is that white applicants receive a significant boost relative to Asian-Americans. This is among the findings of a major study by Princeton sociologists Thomas J. Epenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, who also observe that Hispanic and African-American applicants receive a boost relative to whites.

According to the authors’ models, an Asian-American applicant must score 140 points more on the SAT out of 1600 than her white counterpart, all other things equal, to stand a comparable chance of admission at an elite institution.

The finding here is not just that the average admitted Asian student has a higher SAT score than her white counterpart. If that were all the data showed, then it wouldn’t support the inference that whites receive a boost relative to Asians, for the data would then be consistent with the hypothesis that despite having lower SAT scores, the average white applicant has better credentials in other areas.

On the contrary, what the data shows is this. Consider two applicants, Claudia and Alice, who have very similar applications for the most part. They both come from equally good high schools, have the same GPA, neither of them is a legacy or an athlete, and so on. However, Claudia is white and Alice is Asian-American. In light of this, Alice will have to score 140 points more than Claudia if she is to stand an equal chance of getting into an institution like Harvard or Yale Universities. And if their SAT scores are equal, then Alice’s application better be much more impressive than Claudia’s in some other respect(s).

Many see these statistics as a consequence of elite institutions using implicit quotas to limit the number of Asian students on campus. This charge forms the basis of an ongoing lawsuit filed against Harvard by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group. The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights recently cleared Princeton University of a similar charge. Notably, some Asian-American civil rights groups -- including Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Chinese for Affirmative Action and others -- have opposed these challenges, writing in an open letter, “Our universities should reflect our diverse democracy and expand opportunities for those students who have overcome significant barriers.”

Regardless of whether elite universities make use of an implicit quota system, it is still important to consider whether the boost given to white applicants relative to Asians is justified. Is the admissions process fair to applicants like Alice in the example above?

One prominent defense of preferential admissions appeals to historic injustice. If a group has historically faced unjust barriers to higher education, or other forms of systematic discrimination, then perhaps society has a reparations-based duty to correct for this. One way of doing so might involve taking reasonable steps to reduce underrepresentation of the said group in higher education.

It’s difficult to see, however, why this would apply to white Americans when contrasted with Asians. If anything, considerations of historical injustice militate in the opposite direction. America has a long history of explicitly discriminating against Asians. For example, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which arose as a result of anti-Chinese agitation, incorporated strict regulations to reduce immigration from China, and made it near impossible for resident Chinese laborers to obtain American citizenship. This policy continued in one form or the other until around World War II. Japanese-Americans have also had to suffer from policies directed against them, the most blatant of which was the directive to place large portions of the population into internment camps during WWII. Reparations-based justifications for white applicants are thus extremely hard to sustain in light of these and other historical facts.

A second justification for preferential admissions policies appeals to ongoing discrimination or implicit biases. If a particular group suffers from demonstrated implicit biases, then society presumably has a duty to correct for these biases -- a key part of which might involve preferential admissions to elite institutions. However, while studies report, for example, that African-Americans continue to face significant implicit biases in various contexts, it’s again hard to believe that American whites suffer from harmful biases relative to Asian-Americans.

Indeed, a major recent study suggests the exact opposite. Researchers sent emails to more than 65,000 professors at 250 highly ranked colleges and universities pretending to be students interested in their work. The results show that emails with Indian or Chinese names were much less likely to get responses. Moreover, the biases were found to be stronger in more lucrative fields, particularly in business academe.

The third, and possibly the most elusive, justification for preferential admission in this context appeals to the ideal of promoting diversity. If white applications were not given a boost in admissions decisions, one might argue, the campus would look too Asian. This outcome would be bad, and thus elite institutions should take steps to avoid it.

This argument raises an important question: How should we define “diversity” for the purposes of college admissions? There are many, many ways of dividing up a student body. Hence, we can think of a population as being diverse along many dimensions, including socioeconomic diversity, ideological diversity, religious diversity and so on. Why prioritize racial diversity?

Indeed, we don’t seem to care about a number of dimensions of diversity, and rightly so. Thus, suppose it turns out that men with beards, or Republicans, or heavy metal enthusiasts, are underrepresented in the Ivy League. That shouldn’t bother us. Why? Because plausibly, there is no duty based on considerations of social justice to “correct” for this underrepresentation.

In contrast, social institutions might have good reasons to prioritize racial diversity as such, if this is a necessary means of correcting past injustices or ongoing biases. If a racial group has suffered from discrimination in the past or continues to suffer from harmful biases, it is reasonable to argue that seeking to rectify underrepresentation of that group is a matter of social justice.

Often, the rationale behind seeking to correct for under- or overrepresentation of particular groups has to do with promoting equality of opportunity. However, as brought up earlier, the claim that whites in America are systematically disadvantaged relative to Asians is not very plausible.

Moreover, Epenshade and Radford find that if admissions policies were designed to give a boost to applicants coming from backgrounds of low socioeconomic status, without consideration of race, the number of admitted Asian students would rise substantially. This further undermines the notion that employing more demanding admissions criteria when it comes to Asian applicants promotes the goal of ensuring equal opportunity.

Regardless of the outcome in the case between Fisher and UT, the issue of whether preferential admissions policies based on race are justified in their current form merits further examination. While adequate justification may well be available in other cases, it is hard to see how giving a boost to white applicants relative to Asians is defensible in light of America’s historical and cultural context. And if no justification is forthcoming, social justice demands that these policies be significantly reformed.

Hrishikesh Joshi is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, focusing on ethics and political philosophy. Follow on Twitter @RoundSqrCupola.

Scalia's record, higher education and pending affirmative action case

Smart Title: 

Justice's death may not change outcome on affirmative action, which he opposed. His record includes key votes and dissents on issues of black colleges, hate speech, single-sex public higher education and church-state line.

How so-called colorblind admissions reviews create barriers for people of color (essay)

In a closed-door meeting on Nov. 5, Yale University President Peter Salovey admitted to students of color, “We failed you … I think we have to be a better university. I think we have to do a better job.”

Protests over racism at Yale prompted this meeting and all but eclipsed a major announcement that week: administrators there had approved unprecedented funds -- $50 million -- to diversify their faculty.

Few universities can match Yale’s investment, but almost all need the change that Yale seeks. Even at flagship universities of ethnically diverse states like Texas and Florida, people of color make up less than 25 percent of the teaching force. It’s in part a supply problem. Only 26 percent of doctorate recipients are black, Latino/a, Native American, or Asian-American, and their share is even lower in the highly ranked Ph.D. programs from which colleges and universities like to recruit faculty.

To increase racial diversity in the professoriate, we need to build the pool of Ph.D.s of color, and that means confronting barriers in the graduate admissions process. As admissions season ramps up and the U.S. Supreme Court debates Fisher v. University of Texas, the timing to do so is ideal.

First, the obvious question: Is bias a barrier? A recent field experiment found the answer may well be yes. Faculty members were less likely to hit reply when email inquiries from prospective advisees had names that suggested they were Indian, Chinese, Latino, African-American and/or female. And when professors did reply, it took them longer. If racism can creep into these early interactions, then those responsible for admissions and recruitment should take steps to avert the risk.

The public policy that governs admissions presents barriers, too. State affirmative-action bans have reduced graduate and professional-level enrollments in several fields of study, including medicine. These findings are especially important as the Supreme Court again weighs evidence in Fisher. The equivalent of a nationwide ban on race-conscious admission hangs in the balance, and if implemented, it would likely decimate the already small professoriate of color.

Finally, the admissions process creates its own barriers. I witnessed that firsthand through a major study of doctoral admissions that I recently completed. It involved two years of fieldwork with 10 highly ranked doctoral programs in three well-known research universities. I had the privilege of observing admissions committees deliberate in a variety of disciplines, and I interviewed 68 thoughtful professors who were charged with reviewing applications.

Overrelying on Scores and Pedigrees

Despite their good intentions to increase diversity, broadly defined, admissions work was laced with conventions -- often rooted in inherited or outdated assumptions -- that made it especially hard for students from underrepresented backgrounds to gain access.

From philosophy to physics, nine out of 10 committees made the first cut of their large, highly qualified applicant pools through race-neutral or “colorblind” methods. Some did so by requirement; for others, it was voluntary. The common standard at this point consisted of very high GRE scores and very high grades, ideally from tough classes and a name-brand college or university.

A sociologist summed up the process: “First you have to be above a bar. Then we can ask the diversity question.” In using this sequence, many believed they were achieving a standard of “pure merit,” as one economist called it.

In principle, race neutrality means excluding race from the criteria on which students are judged. But in practice, it can be much more powerful than that. I saw how colorblind admissions could effectively shut down any discussion of race or ethnicity -- even that which is well within the law, such as GRE scores’ uneven distributions by race.

Ironically, colorblind review made professors myopic. When they failed to see race, they also failed to see that the bar they set to reduce the pool had much to do with diversity, even if they did not actively ask “the diversity question.”

The priorities I observed are consistent with national trends. In the most comprehensive study available, two of the three strongest predictors of graduate school admission were high composite GRE scores and degrees from selective institutions. However, black and Latino students’ odds of enrolling in the most selective undergraduate institutions are declining over time, relative to white and Asian students. And a recent analysis in Nature concluded that the median quantitative GRE score in American physics programs (700, or 166 on the new scale) eliminated almost all black, Latino, and Native American test takers and about 75 percent of female test takers. However, it retained 82 percent of white and Asian-American test takers.

Heavy reliance on high GRE scores and college pedigree thus systematically excludes some of the very groups that an institution’s diversity commitment implies they wish to attract -- people who might rise to the top in later rounds of review. This apparently neutral, even desirable, criterion carries disparate impact.

U.S. courts have not yet considered whether using admissions criteria with disparate impact constitutes unlawful discrimination (as it does in South Africa), but they have taken up similar questions in employment law. The Fifth Circuit Court ruled the consideration of age in determining pay to be constitutional only when implemented for the purpose of "business necessity."

Is selecting students with very high GRE scores a matter of business necessity for graduate programs? It’s hard to make the case with current research. In a recent ETS study, only 43 percent of graduate students in biology departments with combined GRE scores in the top quartile also earned first-year grades in the top quartile. Correlations between GRE scores and first-year grades meet levels that testing proponents hold up as statistically significant and skeptics dismiss as practically insignificant. And the test poorly predicts longer-term outcomes, such as graduation and time to degree.

A Standard of Pure Merit?

It’s time for professors to acknowledge the GRE’s limits and put scores in their proper place. Setting high cut scores and reading scores devoid of context not only undermines diversity. It runs contrary to ETS directives and promotes a false sense of security in admissions investments.

Make no mistake: when the admissions committees that I studied reviewed their short lists, merit meant something very different than it did when they made the initial cut. Only in one case -- a student dubbed “freaking genius” for his perfect Harvard grades and perfect GRE scores -- was conventional achievement sufficient to secure an admissions offer. More often, admitted students had “interesting,” “unique” or “cool” profiles rooted in personal or professional experience. One committee excitedly moved to admit a retired CIA operative, a contributor to a hip magazine and the department’s first-ever applicant from Malaysia. They mockingly compared a solid Midwestern student to a Ford: “He’s everything you look for and nothing you weren’t expecting.” They rejected many accomplished students from China.

Indeed, judgment of students from Asian countries, especially China, reflected a common exception to the norm of colorblind review. A linguist stated it bluntly: “If a kid from China does not have essentially perfect GRE scores … they’re regarded as probably brain-dead.” Professors attributed high scores of students from China to a test preparation industry that is a “well-developed machine” and “second to none in the world.” They mused openly about suspicions of rampant cheating. Memories loomed large of students who arrived on campus with terrible English skills.

President Salovey wasn’t talking about graduate admissions when he acknowledged Yale had “failed” students of color. But he might as well have been -- and many other top university leaders could say the same -- so wide is the gap between diversity rhetoric and usual means of identifying academic talent.

To “do a better job” educating college students means not only taking a strong stand against overt forms of racism on campuses. We also need to see the subtle ways that racial inequalities are institutionalized in standard operating procedures and the ideals of “pure merit” through which college students become graduate students and graduate students become professors.

Julie R. Posselt is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan and a fellow with the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. Her book, Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity and Faculty Gatekeeping, is now available from Harvard University Press.

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Racial inequality on campuses must be dealt with on many different fronts (essay)

The range of ills associated with racism in our society is wide. Our nation can address some of these ills only through major changes in income and wealth distribution and by repairing the dysfunctions in our political system. Racial inequality on the campuses of our colleges and universities also plays out in a variety of ways that must be dealt with on many different fronts. This is not usually recognized in the list of demands that students involved in the recent campus protests have put forward.

A lack of diversity in the student body is best addressed by programs that help underserved students to flourish at institutions of higher education. Such programs confront the major barriers to a student’s progress from high school to college and from two-year to four-year institutions -- barriers that notably include the kind of remedial courses that turn out to be dead ends. Best of all are programs that give high school students some direct experience of what to expect at a liberal arts college through exposure to special courses taught by faculty members and involving undergraduates as mentors.

While focusing on socioeconomic inequality is certainly the right place to start, research has shown that this alone will not suffice to address race-based disparities. Various studies of what happens when affirmative action policies are discontinued provide ample reason for watching with anxiety, not to say trepidation, the current U.S. Supreme Court case on the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions.

The student protesters have called for an increase in the proportion of faculty members of color on their campuses. It is difficult to imagine how to achieve that in a substantial way, short of enhancing the attractiveness of a career in academe -- in other words, reversing recent trends that have had the opposite effect. That is clearly a long-term project. In the short run, pressure to increase the number of faculty members of color is likely to lead to predatory raiding by relatively advantaged institutions that are in a position to make the kind of offer a faculty member would be hard put to refuse. An alternate and more desirable strategy for the immediate future might be to make sufficiently generous visiting positions available.

While these and many other major problems will take time to fix, we in higher education should consider why we have not done a better job of addressing the social afflictions of race in everyday life on our college and university campuses. After all, that is something we ought to be able to tackle immediately.

We can begin by admitting that no one who grows up in these United States is in a position to take the “I am not a racist” approach. It is, in fact, not possible to grow up here and not assimilate, whether one wants to or not, some race-based attitudes. Better to say “I do not want to be a racist.” And let us bear in mind that the persisting level of segregation in our neighborhoods, schools and general social lives can leave far too many white folks relatively clueless as to what is inappropriate and insulting to black fellow citizens.

We all must engage in a continuing level of consciousness-raising. Let me share one relatively modest experience that has always remained in my memory.

A number of years ago two friends and I were at an ATM, each of us making withdrawals. As we were taking our turns, a large, elegant black car pulled up. A large, elegant black man got out of the car, clearly intending to use the ATM himself.

Now, there is an etiquette involving ATM behavior: one should stand far enough away to avoid expressing an untoward degree of impatience, much less giving the impression that one is trying to see the current user’s PIN. But this man was keeping a far greater distance than usual. He remained standing near his car. And the thought that came to me was that he wanted to spare himself (and perhaps even us) the experience of a black man frightening three white ladies. I have no idea if my interpretation was correct. But it receives ample confirmation both from things I read and conversations with friends.

A common administrative response to how we can achieve a greater level of racial sensitivity is to establish or strengthen an institutional office for diversity. But an overreliance on such offices can be a part of the problem rather than the solution. It can result in outsourcing to a special unit something that should be the responsibility of all.

Special diversity training sessions can also backfire if they come across as time-bound re-education camps. Changing how we behave with one another is steady work. And, insofar as it is ongoing work for us all, we should not leave the responsibility to the relatively small number of administrators and faculty members of color who bear an undue burden in addressing the general campus climate around diversity.

Students of color might, for their part, develop an ability to react to insults with displays of strength rather than weakness. Perhaps black students could respond to white students asking about their hair by turning the question around: Why do you want to wear your hair so straight? Aren’t you afraid that blond hair makes your pale complexion look washed out? Such an approach would be all the more effective if the questions were asked with a straight face and a tone of serious concern.

We have seen that faculty members have an important role to play in creating the social atmosphere that we want to cultivate at our institutions, one in which the ratio of light to heat remains high. It means, for example, that members of the history department can contribute significantly to discussions about the complex legacy of historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. It means faculty members showing that they themselves are always in learning mode, at the same time applying critical intelligence to what they are hearing. It means setting a tone for discussion -- one that can be strong and spirited as long as it remains fair and clear-eyed. It means that faculty members should take care with how they themselves behave online, and not justify troll-like behavior by appeals to free speech and academic freedom.

Some of the student demands have constituted a gift to those who lie in wait for an opportunity to ridicule the world of higher education. For example, we have recently seen a student demand that an institution change the name of a building commemorating a former president whose name just happened to be Lynch -- a name that has apparently not stood in the way of our current attorney general’s career. It is episodes like this that enable a pundit like George Will to conclude a Washington Post op-ed on higher education with the rhetorical question “What, exactly, is it higher than?”

We also might consider how much of the current polarization we are seeing is connected to the intensity of the cultural focus in this country on the individual. There is nothing wrong with a desire to be recognized as an individual -- indeed, none of us wants to be simply reduced to some group identity. The problem is that, as Americans, we are especially likely to suffer from a deficit of what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination. That is, we fail to understand how history shapes our identities and our experiences. It is thus easy for an emphasis on group experience to be dismissed as identity politics -- or, for that matter, to degenerate into it.

There are aspects of our political and economic life that we must do our best to change in our role as citizens, voters, petition writers, demonstrators. There are aspects of our system of higher education that we must seek to transform through programs that enable a wider range of students to succeed at our colleges and that provide appealing career opportunities for a wider range of potential faculty members. And then, there is what each of us must do in everyday social life in order to turn our institutions into true communities in which we can all become less parochial and more intelligent by seeing the world through different eyes.

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.

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