FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Affirmative Action

I watched "Law and Order" tonight while in Nashville teaching a class. The topic was affirmative action and a play on the Jayson Blair case at the New York Times. The characters on the show referenced the Michigan law school decisions handed down this summer. This summer, after the decision came down I skimmed the PDF on the supreme court web site and a piece on it.

It sounds like they've left the door open for worse mischief. If they said that you can take race into account as a "plus factor" (the law school decision) but not use any quantitative means to determine how much of a plus factor it should be (the undergraduate decision), then you leave the door wide open for any subjective interpretation unless it starts to smell bad according to the whim of the justices (as with redistricting in the 1990s). In fact, the undergraduate decision says that diversity can "constitute a compelling state interest" while the 20 points given to minority students was "not narrowly tailored to achieve educational diversity." So what exactly does "narrowly tailored" mean?

The strange thing is that the justices say contradictory things in the same paragraph. In the graduate school decision the opinion says that "attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of the law school's proper institutional mission" and that

"enrolling a critical mass of minority students simply to assure some specified percentage of a particular group merely because of its ethnic origin would be patently unconstitutional. But the law school defines its critical mass concept by reference to the substantial, important, and laudable educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce including..."

and then they go on to commit sociology by citing studies that probably have very little backing. Somehow diversity can be at the heart of a university's mission but selecting applicants to fulfill this diversity "merely" by ethnic origin is wrong? So it appears that if you set a quantitative goal and discriminate you are "patently unconstitutional" but if you hide the goal and then cite the "laudable educational benefits" you can discriminate all day long. Sounds to me like giving 20 points would be a lot more fair and at least people would know what they have to overcome.

I think the simple reason that a plus factor type system could work in a law school is that they have fewer applicants and so can make decisions based on lots of personal information (this was specifically mandated in the Bakke case) where race would presumably play a smaller role in proportion. In an undergraduate program the sheer numbers of applicants means you need to apply some quantitative measure to see who gets in and who doesn't simply because you can't collect and process such detailed information on all applicants. I noticed that the court explicitly rejected the idea of this impracticality stating that "The fact that the implementation of a program capable of providing individualized consideration might present administrative challenges does not render constitutional an otherwise problematic system." So it sounds like if you have lots of applicants you must be officially race blind but if you don't (or have the resources to sort through it) you're free to consider race? This sounds ripe for abuse since colleges won't want to give up a race-based system and so will continue to use it as a plus but not document the fact.

I'm of the opinion that colleges should base their admissions on test scores and extra curricular activies but not race, gender, etc. The onus should be on the high schools to produce students with equivalent test scores. Of course, if you buy the argument that there are differences in general intelligence between racial groups that at least partially get represented in SAT scores, then race-based admissions that level the scores quantitatively should be acceptable. That's a whole different story that ties into the IQ discussion...

No comments: