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Affirmative Inaction at American Public Universities
December 30, 2010 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Wm. M. Chace, former dean at Stanford then president at Wesleyan and later at Emory University, argues affirmative action at the great American public universities is dead, that opposition to affirmative action has drastically reduced minority enrollment at public universities, and only the private institutions can now carry out this public good. (And see Chace’s interesting earlier memoir: 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President and What I Learned Along the Way. [And an earlier MeFi conversation about his article The Decline of the English Department.])
posted by JL Sadstone (27 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Best thing Nixon did.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:34 AM on December 30, 2010


argues affirmative action at the great American public universities is dead, that opposition to affirmative action has drastically reduced minority enrollment at public universities

This is outrage fodder, both by the author and by the post. The way I read this article, it sounds like colleges aren't using race as often to determine whether to accept a student. Yet minority enrollment has NOT declined (the author himself admits as much).

As the enrollment process becomes more color-blind, the need for affirmative action should decrease.
posted by wabashbdw at 9:35 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


His view of the politics is incomplete.

Private universities are heavily dependent upon federal government aid, which could be conditioned upon the curtailment of affirmative action. President Bush was a strong supporter of affirmative action, so this wasn't at issue the last time Republicans ran Washington, but there's no guarantee the next Republican President will feel the same way.

On the other hand, demographic shifts in the California electorate could easily lead to the restoration of affirmative action. Hispanic voters have an obvious self-interest in restoration and (as Chace observes) white voters may well take the view that open competition with Asian students isn't what best serves their children's enrollment chances either.
posted by MattD at 9:37 AM on December 30, 2010


Alternate title: Guy who has never set foot in a public university does not like public universities. (Or minorities)

I don't see anything particularly new or noteworthy in his article. He's pretty much parroting the arguments made in 2003 during the Michigan case in the Supreme Court. He's also seemingly missing the point that Affirmative Action was never meant to be fair. It was meant to solve a deep-rooted societal problem (and yes, living in a world of limited resources, this does necessarily come at the cost of others). Unless you want to live in a libertarian dys/u-topia with an extremely rigid racially-correlated class structure, programs like Affirmative Action are going to be necessary in some form or another.

Now, granted, there are a number of genuinely bad AA programs out there, and I would count Michigan's among them. If AA programs are simply serving to guarantee admission of wealthy black students above equally-qualified wealthy [racially-ambiguous] students (which is particularly notable in law schools), the program needs to be fixed so that it accounts for other factors about the applicant.

He then falls for the correlation/causation trap with a tiny sample size and huge time window, and then cites a number of polls that state that the majority of people are not in favor of minority rights. This has always been the case, and is one of the reasons why we have a representative government, and why states that make heavy use of the ballot referenda (cough. California) are deeply dysfunctional. Instant parallels can be drawn to Prop 8, and the "majority rules" argument is always struck down by the judge.

The argument that
Diversity itself, moreover, seems weaker and weaker as an argument for affirmative action when many campuses now appear, at least to the public at large, more diverse
is just plain stupid. Isn't that evidence that the policies are working. Also, it's worth remembering that diversity in and of itself isn't exactly a laudable goal. However, it might be laudable for the racial/demographic breakdown of the student body to be representative of the population at large.

And then he gets to the argument about private colleges. He argues that, by being held almost completely unaccountable for their admissions practices, private colleges are going to be more fair. It's sort of like how some people try to claim that a Ron Paul presidency would strengthen gay rights. Instead of the government being the primary antagonist/oppressor, private individuals and corporations would take on that role. I'm failing to see how this would be a good thing.

"Don't hold us accountable, and we pinky-swear to evaluate our candidates holistically and fairly." Is he really making that argument? Does that mean that the Ivies will do away with legacy admissions also? He also threw in an argument about how the "prestigious" universities should return to their religious roots. I don't think that even they want to do that.

Oh, and he added a nice little snippet about criminality, incarceration rates, and how black people are only good to play football. The guy's a racist. I'm stupider for having taken the time to read that article, and write this comment. I want my 30 minutes back.

Also, can we please, for the love of god, outlaw this writing style? Maybe Wm. M. Chace is smarter than I am, but there are some great ideas and some godawful ideas buried in that article that are barely discernible amongst the paragraphs upon paragraphs of useless posturing and academic masturbation. Cut the crap, Bill.
posted by schmod at 9:52 AM on December 30, 2010 [10 favorites]


The reality of higher education institutions is that they are meat-grading facilities for (now waning) corporate-labor demand. 98% of the value-added in university education is the admissions process itself. The university is not in any sense remotely similar to Plato's Republic or whatever Chace's crazy vision of a university is (being an ex-uni prez he of course has to keep the rose-tints on).

Having said that, this piece is pretty long and rambling and makes weird statements like "The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that...186,000 black males between the ages of 18 and 24 were behind bars...in 2005. No amount of affirmative action, at either private or public colleges and universities, will free these men from jail." Um, good? But yes I see the public sentiment for AA has waned. If private unis want to engage in race-based admissions practices, more power to them.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 9:57 AM on December 30, 2010


there are some great ideas and some godawful ideas buried in that article that are barely discernible amongst the paragraphs upon paragraphs of useless posturing and academic masturbation

"Stilted diction obscures lack of substance."

See also: sociology.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:32 AM on December 30, 2010


As the enrollment process becomes more color-blind, the need for affirmative action should decrease.

Absolutely. As long as admissions are done purely on merit, as opposed to skin color, there's no need to institutionalize reverse racism either.

The Army, of all things, figured out how to do "affirmative action" properly. They don't reduce their standards for officer grades, period. They found that a lot of their black candidates weren't doing well on the tests for Major (the first time that the tests, apparently, get genuinely difficult), and instead of dropping their standards, they started new training programs to bring minority-race candidates up to speed. Thereafter, once they've gotten to the required standard for the rank, they do just fine in further promotion exams. Voila, an integrated service that maintains the quality of its officer corps.

The answer to to minorities not meeting true requirements for any position is not to drop the standards. Rather, it's to bring the minorities up to the same level. It's not like they're incapable, after all, they just often haven't gotten the training they need, coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. If you hire and/or promote incompetent people, you end up with an incompetent organization, full stop. Hiring the unqualified is pretending the problem doesn't exist, and perpetuating it, instead of fixing it. It's saying, quite literally, that the color of your skin is more important than the content of your character.

Now, there have certainly been cases in the past where job requirements were set at an unreasonable level, specifically to exclude minorities. If they're doing poorly on a given test, examining it for racism is warranted. But the fact that they're doing poorly is not, in and of itself, any kind of proof that the test is biased. If the tests are found to measure necessary skills, it's quite possible for the minority candidates in an area to lack them. The answer is never, never, not ever to hire unskilled people, but rather to do remedial training and/or fix the education system in an area so that the minority candidates meet the requirements.

If you really and truly believe that race doesn't matter, that skin color does not measure native ability, then standards-based testing should give you no particular qualms. In fact, I'd think you'd embrace it, because standardized tests help to short-circuit racial bias on the part of those doing the hiring.

If you really think that blacks or Hispanics or Asians 'need a leg up', that they're not capable of meeting the standards, then I think that's terribly racist. We can expect competence from someone of any race, and reducing expectations to fit a racial quota weakens us all. It's yet another example of punting a problem down the road instead of fixing it.
posted by Malor at 10:35 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


They don't reduce their standards for officer grades, period.

College student is not a position of authority; it is the (opportunity for) additional training with internally equal standards. Nobody is saying hire unqualified black lawyers or lower bar requirements for minorities.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:05 AM on December 30, 2010


98% of the value-added in university education is the admissions process itself

That's somewhat true for comparisons between close institutions, but not even vaguely so for the college/no-college or cross-tier comparison. Almost all of the value in hiring someone with a public uni engineering degree vs a high school graduate is in the things they learned. If you doubt this see the quality of Chinese engineering graduates in the years in which their academy was in disarray: it wasn't the selection bias that got a lot better. I would argue that for the upper portion of the talent pool the marginal benefit of better instruction is enormous.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:10 AM on December 30, 2010


I think minority students certainly capable of meeting the same standards, providing they have access to the same academic and social standards prior to being expected to meet those standards. The Army example is an interesting one, but it is a self contained system where the problem was able to be recognized and addressed within the same social entity. Colleges are for the most part unable to set up academic remedial classes in high schools to get under-performing students up to snuff.

As far as the "leg up" that might just be a means to getting those students within the college/university system so that their academic remediation can then be addressed. As with many things I think it is all how an issue is framed.
posted by edgeways at 11:12 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


As long as admissions are done purely on merit

This is not the case anywhere. Any selective college or university makes acceptance decisions in an attempt to create an incoming class that covers all the academic bases, has a variety of interests, hits the sports and other extracurriculars the school cares about, and has enough diversity of various sorts to be interesting. In short, selective schools assemble their incoming classes with an eye to the school's needs.

There is no selective school I am aware of that says "Oh, all of the students with the highest merit this year are premeds from New York who play the violin and love lacrosse. So that's who we're admitting! Suck it, humanities! Suck it, brass band! Suck it, football! Suck it, alums from California!"
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:23 AM on December 30, 2010


affirmative action is sometimes used to keep the percentage of 'non-minorities' up.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:28 AM on December 30, 2010


As long as admissions are done purely on merit

What is merit? Is it SAT/ACT scores? AP scores? Is a GPA of 3.5 from Andover better or worse than a GPA of 4.0 from Inner City High School? Is participation in sports merit? Varsity or club? Does being president of the chess club carry the same merit as being captain of the color guard? Which has more merit - inventing a small robot that does something interesting, or choreographing and producing an original modern dance?
posted by rtha at 11:52 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


jesus fuck, man. 'reverse racism?' Really?

One point of anecdata.... When I was at the University of Oregon, I took a class on the US Civil Rights movement. The class was given by a notoriously tough professor, who also happened to be an incredible teacher; he set a high bar and stuck to it. 72 pages of reading a night, seven nights a week, for ten weeks, with an occasional movie night thrown in for good measure. This prof's classes had a 50% drop/fail rate, but those who made it through loved it.

This class had one black student, and three students who (having grown up in Eastern Oregon) actually hadn't seen a black person face-to-face until they came to university. This student (one of those who thrived, fwiw) reported being recruited extremely heavily by private schools, including all of the ivy league schools, before deciding on the UO. The simple fact is that public institutions don't have nearly the marketing recruitment budget that the private schools do, and thus can't pursue black applicants with the same aggressiveness. And realistically, they know what they're competing with when it comes to well-qualified black students: these applicants have their choice of the UO or Harvard in many cases, and the UO or the better regional private schools in other cases.

Yes, the existence of people who believe in 'reverse racism' but not white privilege may have something to do with the numbers of black students at public universities. But I think that low application rates, dysfunctional high schools in economically disadvantaged (and predominately black) areas, and racially skewed patterns of criminal convictions (pot conviction=>no federal aid) contribute to a greater extent. There's surely more ground to be gained fighting these other areas of institutional racism than a few malinformed fuckwits on the school boards.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:33 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


In no other way is this universe a meritocracy. The only time the subject of merit ever seems to be discussed is when black people are provided opportunities to which they were previously denied, and related situations.

If we elected our presidents based on merit, Obama would not have been the first black president -- he would have been the fifth, or the tenth. And George W. Bush would be collecting unemployment somewhere.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:35 PM on December 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


Best thing Nixon did.

Don't forget the EPA.
posted by JackFlash at 2:14 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Don't hold us accountable, and we pinky-swear to evaluate our candidates holistically and fairly." Is he really making that argument? Does that mean that the Ivies will do away with legacy admissions also? He also threw in an argument about how the "prestigious" universities should return to their religious roots. I don't think that even they want to do that.

One aspect of the pre-Gratz Michigan admissions 'points' system that was actually kind of nice was its relative transparency, at least after it wound up being leaked. Provided that you were not the child of a VIP or a committer of great feats of athleticism, creativity, or mischief that would automatically qualify or disqualify you, you could easily determine using the back of an envelope the factors that led to your ultimate admission or rejection to the school that you applied to. My non-VIP legacy status, for example, led to a three point bonus out of 150. Finding the various breakdowns is illuminating even in this post-Gratz age because it encapsulates in a brutal microcosm the quantitative sort of decisions that colleges, public or private, make in admitting a given student.

The Grutter case, which challenged the law school's holistic admissions process, didn't result do so hot, and a critical part of the argument was that at the law school there was an incentive to 'build a class': that is, that each admission is considered in the context of both an applicant's individual suitability and whether having that applicant around would benefit the school as a whole.

While I understand and sympathize with the intentions behind the holistic admissions process-- it really is important for the academy and the students within it to be non-homogenous and to present diverse points of view-- beyond a certain class size I certainly agree with you that it serves as a fig leaf for applying more mechanical decisions, be they based on race, academic achievement, or legacy status, while obscuring the actual mechanisms that are in place. I would be delighted, for example, to see the true effects of legacies at the ivies; and while I am sure academics have already fit a regression based off of external data to determine the contribution it would be far better if the schools themselves would be frank about the process. They won't, though, both for practical CYA legal reasons and the old bad ones aimed at avoiding moral questions about their process; even at Michigan the admissions system was kept secret until forced out into the open.
posted by monocyte at 3:17 PM on December 30, 2010


Yes, the existence of people who believe in 'reverse racism' but not white privilege may have something to do with the numbers of black students at public universities.

"Reverse racism" is a demonstrable phenomenon that is directly provable through empirical evidence. "White privilege" is (at best) an academic theory, native to university departments that are notorious for shoddy methodology. One is a much easier sell than the other.
posted by Law Talkin' Guy at 5:55 PM on December 30, 2010


Wow, you're right! There really isn't any empirical evidence cited here; everything seems to come from academic departments with shoddy methodology like the Justice Department of the US. Nothing to see here, move along.... Just the minorities trying to pull one over on white people again with their racist agenda. I've heard that They collude with the gays to subjugate all of us breeders, and are also in key positions furthering discrimination against good God-fearing Christians.
posted by kaibutsu at 6:12 PM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Which has more merit - inventing a small robot that does something interesting, or choreographing and producing an original modern dance?

Robots, definitely. Dancing is just stupid stuff you do until you get to have sex.


Best thing Nixon did.

Don't forget the EPA.


Republican-lovers, all of you.
posted by codswallop at 6:42 PM on December 30, 2010


"White privilege" is (at best) an academic theory [...]

Are you serious? I'm being trolled, right? Gotta be.
posted by pts at 7:55 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Say, that's useful.


Poverty is, at best, an academic theory.

Prison statistics are, at best, an academic theory.

Pay discrepancies are, at best, an academic theory.

Racial profiling is, at best, an academic theory.

Negative media portrayals of blacks are, at best, academic theories.

The KKK is, at best, an academic theory.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was, at best, an academic theory.

Racism is, at best, an academic theory.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:58 PM on December 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


Pants are, at best, an academic theory.
posted by klangklangston at 10:03 PM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: at best, an academic theory.

(it had to be done)
posted by hippybear at 10:34 PM on December 30, 2010


This makes no sense. Admission to private universities is highly competitive and tuition is insanely high, so they need to institute affirmative action in order to get enough minority students. At most public universities the door is pretty much open, so there's not that much need for affirmative action.

I genuinely get all warm and fuzzy over the large state university I'm a grad student and TA at. The admission requirements are low, and financial aid is extremely generous -- 25% of students pay nothing at all. For most majors, the big hurdle is taking 3 introductory classes with at least a C average. The quality of the classes, at least after those first 3, is at least equal to those at the super-expensive elite private college I went to for undergrad. And the proportion of minority and working-class students is much greater.
posted by miyabo at 9:08 PM on December 31, 2010


What an insightful response, AstroZombie. Pity it only garnered you 3 favorites. Perhaps if you threw in a remark about "disbelievers" like me being the reason for the continuing problems with race relations in America, the outrage brigade might have been more generous.

Apparently my comment needs further explanation. Slavery is a historical fact, provable with evidence. "White privilege" is a theoretical explanation for social phenomena. If you need further help grasping the difference, this site may be useful to you.
posted by Law Talkin' Guy at 2:38 PM on January 2, 2011


"Slavery is a historical fact, provable with evidence. "White privilege" is a theoretical explanation for social phenomena."

Uhbutwait there a second, Skippy. Who said slavery wasn't real? Or are you saying that slavery was "reverse racism," as per your previous comment? Like, what, since black people invented civilization, they somehow got enslaved as part of an affirmative action plan for white people?

That's off on some deep Nation of Islam shit, man.

Or were you meaning to have us take your Intelligent Design talking point seriously? I mean, evolution is a theoretical explanation for biological phenomena; gravity is a theoretical explanation for physical phenomena. "White privilege" is more nebulous, but just inveighing against theories like that only sounds smart next to AM radio bullshit, especially when you can't keep "reverse racism" and "slavery" straight (was it because "slave" comes from "Slav"?).

But hey, people only disagree with you because they want to be outraged about your iconoclastic opinions, right? Maybe your high school class cares that you have a law degree, but here you're just another angry white male talking out his ass in order to justify I-Got-Mine politics, and it's certainly not enough to justify any condescension from you over fact-versus-theory.
posted by klangklangston at 10:50 PM on January 3, 2011


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