Have Race-Biased Admissions Improved American Higher Education?

April 2003

The University of Michigan made the mistake of implementing affirmative action in admissions in such an honest fashion that its racial bias was impossible to miss. Michigan selects students on the basis of a 150-point-maximum scale. Getting a maximum SAT score is worth 12 points, but being black gets you 20. Hence, many white or Asian students with scores and grades better than successful black applicants have been rejected. Two such white applicants sued Michigan, were supported, and were then rejected on appeal. Now they have their day before the Supremes on a final appeal.

The key legal point is whether or not the university’s policy serves a “compelling interest,” which, in this case, means: Does the policy produce educational benefits? In support of the supposed benefits, the university presented a “scientific” report from Dr. Patricia Gurin, Chair of the Department of Psychology at Michigan. She happily concludes that her work “consistently confirms that racial diversity and … activities related to diversity have a direct and strong effect on learning and the way students conduct themselves in later life.” But in fact, Gurin’s report illustrates everything that is wrong with Michigan’s case and with race-biased admissions generally.

Gurin’s study shows no effects at all, just correlations between largely self-chosen “diversity experiences” and self-reports (questionnaires). The kids choose their courses, they were not randomly assigned to them, which would be required to show a real cause-effect relation. Moreover, the correlations are weak and contradictory. Sometimes it looks as if kids who self-segregate do better than those who don’t. Her methods have been severely criticized on technical grounds, but even if they were perfect, they would still be just correlations.

Correlations are sometimes useful, but they aren’t always acceptable as a basis for policy. For example, profiling by race, age and gender can improve the detection of criminal behavior because women, older people, and whites are less likely to commit crimes than young, male and black individuals - criminality is correlated with age, sex and race. The violation of equal treatment entailed by profiling is defensible because the relatively minor cost to innocent suspects - being “stopped” - is outweighed by a substantial increase - typically by a factor of five or more per “stop”- in the number of criminals apprehended.

But applicant profiling, giving black applicants extra points in a point-based selection process, can be justified in neither of these ways. The cost to the disadvantaged group - no admission to a prestigious university - is substantial and the effects of race-based admissions far from being beneficial are damaging to the scholarly mission of the university.

If racial profiling is subject to legal restrictions then, by the same criteria, applicant profiling should be outlawed entirely.

Prof. Gurin sees only benefits from several decades of race-biased admissions, both on students themselves and on the curriculum. “Students learn more and think in deeper, more complex ways in a diverse educational environment.” Not only do her ideas of complexity and depth bear little relation to what most people mean by those terms, but history doesn’t really agree. The greatest advances in human creativity have been made by groups that were not very diverse, either racially or intellectually: the group of philosophers and scientists in early 20th century Vienna (think “Einstein, Popper, Freud”), Newton’s Royal Society of London, the Bloomsbury Group of English writers, the Harlem Renaissance. A certain amount of intellectual diversity is obviously helpful, but too much is probably bad. Astronomers and astrologers, Darwinians and fundamentalists, Taliban and feminists, would make poor combinations, one feels.

Unlimited diversity is obviously bad, but some intellectual diversity is certainly good. Unfortunately, the effect of affirmative action has been to reduce the real intellectual diversity of our universities. As several surveys have shown, opinion, particularly political opinion, among academics is much more uniform now than it was a few decades ago. The students themselves came up with a name for this: political correctness.

How about effects on the curriculum? Is the contemporary university better than the traditional one? John Henry Newman in his landmark essay The Idea of a University wrote that the university is “a place of teaching universal knowledge…its object is…intellectual, not moral…”

Newman’s view is being upended by modern “diversity” policies. Increasingly, education in the humanities and “soft” social sciences is moral, not intellectual. Other sectors of society - family, church, primary through high school, are, Newman thought, responsible for moral education. Universities are supposed to have a different task. But the new university not only aspires to take over moral education, it seeks to undermine traditional sources of morality - particularly religion and the family. Listen to Dr. Gurin: college education should “involve confrontation with diversity and complexity, lest young people passively make commitments that follow their past, rather than being obliged to think and make decisions that fit their talents and feel authentic.”

Welcome to the therapeutic university. But the therapeutic university promises to improve your mind as well as your morals. Gurin boasts of “rich curricular offerings” that foster “conscious, effortful, deep thinking.” Numerous critical books have been written over the past two decades on these “rich offerings,” beginning with Alan Bloom’s best-seller The closing of the American mindin 1988. They argue that far from promoting profundity, the new courses are as superficial as they are political. Courses in women’s studies, for example, are often more like indoctrination or group-therapy sessions than rigorous examinations of literature from a variety of per-spectives. Indeed, why else would one need a separate department to study writing by women? - no such separation has been found necessary in the sciences. Women’s science is judged in precisely the same way as men’s science. The main achievement of women’s studies programs has in fact been to insulate much of the work from legitimate criticism. Very few men participate in these programs, either as teachers or students. Indeed, in a few documented cases, men have actually been prevented from taking specific women’s studies courses. Far from promoting “deep thinking,” all too often the courses simply require the parroting of buzzwords and acquiescence in a particular feminist ideology.

The case for African-American studies is stronger. But even so, one would like to hear coherent arguments for why Afro-American history should not be part of the history curriculum or Afro-American art part of the art history curriculum (as it is at Duke), and so on. But such arguments are notable by their absence. The case that is usually made (by African Americans, but also increasingly by other “students of color”) is largely a political one: We are here (in a “critical mass”), so why can’t we have our own department?

Dr. Gurin and other fans of race-biased admissions thoroughly approve of these trends: “The increases in diverse student enrollments that have occurred as a result of affirmative action and other factors have resulted in pressures for institutional transformation of the academic and social life at colleges across the country.” What she fails to note is that these “pressures for institutional transformation” are unashamedly political, rather than scholarly. The aim is not to learn, but to change - to change the university but, above all, to change society.

There is another and in some ways more sinister problem with a race-inspired curriculum: so-called “ghetto courses.” In a recent mini-scandal at Colgate University, for example, a white professor made the mistake of telling a black student to avoid black-studies courses because they provided an easy-grading haven for ill-prepared students without giving them a real education. Few students or faculty disputed this claim, which illustrates the fact that many of Gurin’s “rich curricular offerings” are just ways to paper over the problems caused by admitting ill-qualified minorities. Race-biased admissions and hiring policies have eroded the idea of the university as a place for intellectual education. Their effects are not good, as their supporters claim, but bad.

What should be done? Ideally, universities, especially private universities, should be able to admit whomever they like. But giving one racial group an automatic advantage over others is both morally wrong and educationally damaging. Public universities, at least, should not be permitted to practice it. Will the weight of evidence persuade private universities to abandon it also? I don’t think so. Many academics believe race-biased admissions to be morally justified; many also endorse the questionable changes in academic standards that are taking place partly because of it; a large bureaucracy has evolved to implement it. Like an older kind of racial discrimination, it will not go away by itself. Under these conditions, I believe the Supreme Court would be fully justified in ruling decisively against it. Let’s hope they do.