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Madness in the Groves of Academe

I recently participated, at ScotusBlog’s kind invitation, in its symposium on the Fisher II case, and you can read my contribution to it here.  There were no surprises in the arguments made in favor of the University of Texas’s racial discrimination in student admissions, but I did want to address briefly one particularly outrageous claim, since I’ve seen it made elsewhere. 

The argument was (and variations on it have been) made that, if you oppose universities’ giving a preference on the basis of race or ethnicity, it follows that “if an applicant wrote an admissions essay about volunteering for an Asian-American charity or growing up in Ferguson, then that essay would presumably have to be disregarded or discarded.” 

This is false and silly. That is, counting it in someone’s favor that she did charitable work is not the same thing as counting it in her favor that she has a particular skin color. Duh. If someone shows leadership qualities by being president of the African-American Club, it’s fine to count that in his favor if you’re looking for someone with leadership qualities, assuming that you would do the same for the president of the Irish American Club or whatever. Sheesh.

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On the front page of its Metro section recently, the Washington Post had a story headlined (in the hard copy), “Racial disparity in degree selection.”  It reports on a new study that has found that blacks and Latinos are more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees in low-paying majors rather than the better-paying STEM disciplines. 

The story cites “centuries of racial discrimination, uneven budgetary support for K-12 education and poor academic advising and student support” as possible reasons for all this; it talks about students who do well in high school but lose interest in science fields because suddenly in college they are struggling; and cheerfully notes a recent “$18 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to increase diversity in biomedical research” at a nearby university. 

My posted response:

Too bad there’s no mention here of the “mismatch” problem: If a university has “affirmative action” admissions, this means that they will be admitting black and Latino students with lower academic qualifications than the rest of the student body, and so they will do worse than the other, better qualified students. In STEM studies, in particular, they are more likely to become discouraged and switch majors than had they gone to a school where their academic qualifications were on par with everyone else’s. This is a well-documented phenomenon, but it’s politically incorrect so I guess the Post did not want to discuss it. See, e.g, this study.

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“Federal Investigation Finds No Anti-Asian Bias in Princeton Admissions” –  That’s the headline of this Chronicle of Higher Education news story a week or two ago, but it’s not true. 

Princeton does not deny that it weighs race in admissions, and the Obama administration did not find to the contrary. It just found that the discrimination was not illegal. The administration took the university at its word that there were amorphous “educational benefits” in “diversity,” and that the use of skin color was “narrowly tailored” to achieve these benefits because, for example, the school avoided the most blatant sort of quotas.  

The way that Princeton and the Obama administration have interpreted the law will not, I suspect, be the way the Supreme Court will interpret it in Fisher II.  Again, here’s my suggested approach.  So stay tuned.

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Old Thoughts on a New Argument – An observation after reading this article in The Atlantic today about Asian American students:  I am starting to see more and more the suggestion that Asian Americans ought to be more accepting of racial preferences in university admissions, because while it is true that schools may now generally consider Asian Americans as a whole to be “overrepresented” — and thus on the wrong end of “diversity” policies — this would not be so if schools started to look at Asian American subgroups that are “underrepresented.” Thus, the continued use of racial and ethnic preferences would be a good thing for those of Hmong ethnicity even it is a bad thing for those of Chinese ancestry.

Now, it is certainly true that it is wrong for schools to make generalizations about Asian Americans, and indeed conservatives have long pointed out the bureaucrat-led artificiality of the Latino/Hispanic category, which includes lots of subgroups that have little in common. But the same thing is true of whites and blacks as well. 

What’s more, the same thing will be true within all these subgroups: You can’t make valid generalizations about all German Americans or all Vietnamese Americans, just as you can’t make valid generalizations about all African Americans (by the way, to make just one point regarding the latter, most in this group who get into the more selective schools do not come from lower SES backgrounds).

So the conclusion that ought to be drawn is that schools should consider applicants as individuals, and make no generalizations about what they will add to the campus just because they belong to this or that racial or ethnic group or subgroup. And that is what conservatives have been saying for a long time.

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There’s a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how the State University of New York system is making a “big push to strengthen diversity” there.  Predictably, law and fairness are the first casualties, as I explain my response:

Re “stepping up efforts to recruit more minority faculty members,” it’s illegal to classify applicants, hire, or promote on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex, whether it is done for politically correct or incorrect reasons. It is also, of course, unfair and divisive, and a disservice to the students and the university, to hire anyone except the most qualified individuals. More here.

As for “State funding formulas that base a portion of allocations on graduation and retention rates for minority and other students,” that’s likewise an unconstitutional racial classification: Why should the state favor students of some colors over students of other colors when it comes to helping students succeed?

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I’ll close with two other items from the groves of academe.

The first one I’ll call “Ethnic Self-Image, Academic Performance, and Life.”  It’s better to think of yourself principally as an individual rather than as a member of a racial or ethnic group.  That seems to me to be the message buried in this news story.

The second one has to do with “Hispanic-Serving Institutions.”  No, that’s not another name for Mexican restaurants — it’s bureaucratese for colleges and universities with lots of Latino students. And guess what?  The president recently proclaimed “National Hispanic-Serving Institutions Week”

So, my question is, which of the following sentences in the president’s proclamation is sillier?:

(a) “Roughly one-quarter of students in our Nation’s public schools today are Hispanic, yet less than one-fifth of Hispanics in the United States have a college degree.” 
(b) “By working to provide many Hispanics with the chance they deserve to get a higher education, HSIs embody this truth and pull the country we all call home a little closer to its founding ideals: that all 2 [sic] of us are created equal and all of us should have the chance to make of our lives what we will.” 

It’s a tough choice, I know. 

Answer (a) is tempting because it embodies a complete non sequitur and, if it did not, the disparity between one-fourth and one-fifth is not exactly a chasm. But there’s a lot to like about answer (b), too:  All 2 [sic] of us are created equal (those other people, not so much).