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Thoughts on Admissions Preferences (5/5)

Fifth of a five-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

It goes without saying that many minority students are aware of their lack of preparation. And even minority students who richly deserve to be at Dartmouth sense the (mistaken) perception that they don’t belong in Hanover on the part of many other students (their current phrase is “Black Privilege”). They are not alone. In a New Yorker article describing Barack Obama’s social circle of high-achieving friends, David Remnick noted that many successful African-American adults sense their illegitimacy in the eyes of other people:

They talk about how African-Americans of their class and generation feel the weight of race most acutely in relation to affirmative action, sensing that whites often think they have not truly earned their place at Harvard or Princeton or on the medical faculty.

This anecdote also illustrates how diversity/affirmative action has failed to achieve its aims for, well, consciousness-raising among people who are not of color. Rather than being appreciated for their abilities, people of color are too often perceived by others to be both beneficiaries of a spoils system and also unable to compete at the highest levels. This stigma, as Sander and Taylor call it, is doubly unfair to people of color who would be admitted to Dartmouth purely on their merits.

Such an attitude should be a surprise to no one: the Mismatch book repeatedly cites polls indicating solid opposition among members of the public to race-conscious admissions policies. An example subsequent to the book’s publishing comes from fairly close to home. A poll conducted by the Brown University Herald this past November had the following result:

Just more than 58 percent of students oppose the University’s consideration of race in student admissions decisions, while over 34 percent of students said they supported the policy…

Needless to say, Brown students have never been described as politically conservative.

The issue of admission preferences is of particular moment today, given that the Abigail Fisher case will soon be decided by the Supreme Court. The nation has now been publicly debating the merits of affirmative action policies for close to fifty years, and Fisher, it is worth noting, will be the latest in a line of cases on the issue going back to the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision of 1978. The Court’s cases have repeatedly been based on tortured reasoning; they have brought no clarity to the issue.

For instance, in the more recent Grutter case, Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, opined,

The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.

My expectation is that the Court will say in Fisher, either directly or in effect, that the Grutter case was wrongly decided; and it will note that the Constitution is not a document whose meaning can vary according to an arbitrarily fixed schedule based on social science research (an area where the Court is ill-equipped to make judgments), especially given that we have seen affirmative action policies in place for the above-mentioned half century. The Court could well cite Mismatch in support of its reasoning.

At the very least, the Roberts Court will rule that race-based preferences in admissions are unconstitutional.

How does this all apply to Dartmouth? The D recently quoted Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson as saying that Dartmouth follows federal law in matters of diversity, with the implication that a decision in the Fisher case striking down the University of Texas’ race-conscious policy would lead to the end of the College’s preferential policies. She is correct. Under the Civil Rights Act, the College is bound to follow federal law in this area, if it wishes to continue to receive federal grants.

But what if Dartmouth got out ahead of the pack and simply announced tomorrow that it would no longer take race into account in admissions? That henceforth any member of a minority group at the College would be in Hanover based on his or her preparedness and personal merits. Would applications from minorities go up or down? Would high-achieving members of minority groups come to a school that only looked at them for who they are as individuals? Certainly the perception among students who are not “of color” of the individual attributes of members of various minority groups would change for the better. Do we have the courage to do this?

What would be the reaction of other people to such a policy, given that, in all likelihood, the number of non-Asian minority students in Hanover would drop, at least in the short term? There are many members of the Dartmouth community so besotted by the issue of race and diversity that any decline in the minority population would cause them to howl. Yet these same people seem to have no problem with the status quo and the problems that we have tried to document in this series. Their partisan position seems ill-thought out: their views are more concerned with appearances than the education of students — of color or not of color — who are the purported beneficiaries of affirmative action policies.

After fifty years of experience, the undisputed empirical data show that affirmative action, or diversity programs, if you prefer, are not working for their two sets of intended beneficiaries: students of color and students not of color. In fact, these policies have produced results quite the opposite of those intended. If the Supreme Court strikes them down, it won’t be too soon.

Addendum: The authors of Mismatch repeatedly quote the College’s Professor Rogers Elliott, who explained in the book that his path-breaking research was ignored in the academy. About the phenomenon of mismatch, he said, “Everybody knows it but it’s the elephant in the room. The just won’t talk about it. They see it but they can’t say it. It’s a taboo subject.” A recent NYT editorial on affirmative action bears out this assertion; it made no reference to the negative effects of mismatch at all.

Additionally, Professor Elliott, who still lives in the Upper Valley, wrote the below to me the other day:

One considerable service that Sander and Taylor have given is to point out how far the attitudes of the general populace are from those of the elites. The positions of the latter seem to me to represent the triumph of ideology over empiricism, of obscurantism over transparency, of Newspeak over plain language, and of our old friend, hope over experience.

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