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Diversity Hypocrisy
The myriad, and often perverse, implications of admissions policies

By David L. Kirp


 
In the continuing debates over who ought to be admitted to America's top colleges, "diversity" has been both a mantra and a moral trump card. In academe, to question it risks being labeled as hopelessly retrograde. I'll take that risk. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, many of the winners in the diversity sweepstakes aren't poor or minority students, and many of the losers have powerful justice-based claims.

From the start, the incantation of diversity has been an act of hypocrisy. In the 1978 Bakke case, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell declared that promoting diversity justified the use of race as one among multiple factors in admitting students. Powell may have envisioned an admissions committee constructing a class composed of would-be Einsteins, Warhols, kids from Appalachia, point guards and minorities, but insiders appreciated that the opinion legitimated quotas. To pass muster the "diversity" formula had to be built backwards. Rather than starting out with a straightforward quota—admit X percentage of minorities—the university simply had to calculate how heavily to weight race in order to admit the desired number.

The 2003 University of Michigan cases enshrined this hypocrisy. An explicitly race-based formula, which the university used to admit undergraduates, was found to be unconstitutional. But it was okay to consider an applicant's race in the context of a tailored, "holistic" review, as the law school did. That's a distinction without a difference since, no matter how nuanced, the process can be rigged to generate the desired racial outcome; the law school's own data indicated as much.

The Winners
Minorities win and whites lose-that's how the diversity issue is publicly framed, but the facts are otherwise. Most of the applicants who receive favored treatment are not minorities. Many are the offspring of alumni—"legacies," a quaint term suggestive of feudal entitlement. In an article called "Ivy League Confidential," Forbes Magazine advised parents that "the first thing to determine is whether your child will count as a legacy." That's smart counsel, since being a legacy, observed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden in his 2006 book, "The Price of Admission," can be as valuable as 300 or more points on the SAT.

Children of the famous are similarly pampered, most notoriously at Brown, where the arrival of John F. Kennedy Jr., "John John," helped to put the habitual doormat of the Ivy League on the map. A host of celebrities' kids followed in his wake. They have been courted with a Don Juan-esque avidity, for the university has figured out that while star power doesn't translate directly into dollars, it does generate invaluable buzz.

The scions of the super-rich also receive special treatment. They are referred to as "development cases," a term of art that calls to mind deals made with a third-world country. The transaction isn't made crassly explicit—a couple of million dollars will buy a place in the freshman class for your son or daughter—because everyone understands the rules.

It's not just the elite private universities that play this game. The same formula that the University of Michigan used in order to favor disadvantaged minorities also explicitly favored children of alumni and potential donors. In the 150-point "Selection Index" the university constructed, the admissions committee could give 20 points to such applicants—but only if they were white or Asian. Although youngsters from "underrepresented" minorities qualified for an automatic 20 points, they could not be awarded these discretionary points.

What killed the university, constitutionally speaking, wasn't its pursuit of the wealthy but the paper trail. In 2006 Michigan's voters barred the use of race as an admissions criterion, but there's little doubt that the university still trolls for the rich. At Ann Arbor, more undergraduates come from families with incomes greater than a quarter of a million dollars than from families earning less than $40,000.

Diversity makes for wonderful double-speak. When challenged to explain how her university could admit applicants whose only virtue was having been born rich, Nannerl Keohane, then president of Duke, responded with an homage to diversity. "We are committed to ethnic, racial, cultural, socioeconomic and geographic diversity, to becoming more international, giving particular support to students from North and South Carolina (by reason of our founding indenture and our commitment to our region), admitting students with a range of probable academic commitments (engineers, pre-meds, classicists, historians, etc.), succeeding in athletics, making sure that our drama and music and arts programs have students who will continue and enjoy their traditions, and more." Only at the end of that 76-word sentence did Keohane acknowledge that "alumni and development concerns" (not students, tellingly, but "concerns") were "part of the mix."

Professors are equally good at gussying up their own self-interest. Even as they may decry the dumbing down of their classes because of legacies and athletes, at many schools their own children benefit greatly from preferential treatment. It is a remarkable perk, for not only do they get the same kind of admissions breaks received by other preferred groups, they also receive generous scholarships. Faculty members insist that this favored handling is vital to the institutional culture. And as Tufts president Lawrence Bacow learned to his sorrow, tightening admissions standards for faculty brats risks revolt. Even as Tufts turned down 193 applicants solely because it didn't have enough financial aid, one professor got his daughter admitted with a full scholarship by threatening that, otherwise, he couldn't "go about [his] work with [his] wonted energy and enthusiasm."

The Losers
Who loses out? Contrary to popular belief, it isn't suburban middle class white youngsters like the plaintiffs in the University of Michigan case, beaten out by less well-qualified minorities.

Surprisingly, Asian Americans are among those who fare worst—"the new Jews," as they are called in "The Price of Admission." They don't count as an underrepresented minority, and they are seldom legacies or celebrities' kids. They're also all too easy to stereotype. When asked why a Korean applicant named Henry Park, who had a spectacular record at Groton, was turned down, MIT's admissions director Marilee Jones rationalized that "it's possible that [he] looked like a thousand other Korean kids with the exact same profile of grades and activities...yet another textureless math grind." Imagine the brouhaha if Jones had been talking about someone who was, say, Latino or Jewish.

Another surprise is that working-class male athletes also fare badly. When the topic of athletics comes up, most people think of football and basketball, two sports at which disadvantaged kids excel. But universities, obliged by the Title IX requirement to pay equal attention to women's and men's sports, have built up programs in areas like women's golf, field hockey, rowing, tennis and swimming. Those sports are the near-exclusive preserve of girls from well-to-do families, who receive the kind of gold-plated scholarships once reserved for quarterbacks. Meanwhile, wrestling and gymnastics, sports that poor boys do play in high school, are being curtailed in the name of gender equality. Giving athletes favored treatment, often justified in terms of diversity, has become a boon to the well-off.

The biggest losers, of course, are children from poor families. They have neither the cachet of the rich or famous nor the cosseting that raises grades and test scores. A widely reported study of the 146 most selective colleges by the Century Foundation showed that 74 percent of students came from families in the upper quartile of the income bracket; just three percent came from the bottom quartile.

This issue has attracted lots of attention during the past few years. Most colleges claim to favor "strivers" over more advantaged youngsters with similar academic records, but the facts are otherwise. Poor students actually fare worse than they would under a system of admissions based entirely on grades and test scores.

In the late 1990s, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently, the Educational Testing Service halted research designed to help admissions committees identify such strivers with greater statistical precision. While this tool could have increased economic as well as racial diversity, ETS apparently feared it could be used in arguing against explicitly race-based affirmative action. "It seems that higher education would prefer to see race-based preferences be shot down state by state rather than introduce selection processes that would aid poor Americans of all backgrounds," wrote Thomas Benton, commenting on the news story in a Chronicle column.

Thomas Benton turns out not to be the author's real name. It's the pseudonym for an English professor at a liberal arts college. The fact that "Benton" feels he can't show his face when writing on this topic speaks volumes about how hard it is to talk about the myriad, and often perverse, implications of diversity.


David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education."

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National CrossTalk Winter 2007

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