26 February 2006

Debating Diversity in US Higher Education

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Members of the Fredonia community should be opposed to current attempts to diversify the SUNY Fredonia campus. Those who want to promote diversity usually want two things. First, they want a greater number of racial and ethnic minorities (usually blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans) and, in some cases, women. Second, this is to be done by lowering the standards for hiring and admission.

The reason these policies are a bad idea is that they sacrifice merit. Consider preferential treatment at competitive schools. When it comes to student performance at the competitive schools, the average black student ranks in the 23d percentile of the class and the average Hispanic ranked in the 35th percentile. Hence, replacing a black or Hispanic student admitted under these admission practices with one admitted without regard to race or ethnicity would likely produce a considerably better student. It gets worse. Further evidence that at elite schools black students perform less well than their likely replacement is that they drop out at twice and sometimes three times the rate of white students. This effect is also present in a broader array of colleges and universities. This is in part due to the lowering of standards for these groups.

Nor is there any clear benefit for white and Asian students from the lowered standards. From what I understand about the data, the studies do not indicate that majority students learn more academically when the beneficiaries of preferential treatment are put in their classroom.

Hence, preferential treatment likely leads to weaker students. A similar pattern can reasonably be expected with regard to faculty and staff. These effects are hardly surprising. If a liberal NBA team hired Jewish and Asian players despite their lowered abilities, it would hardly surprise anyone if these players were on average weak and if they hurt the team.

The proponents of affirmative action usually cite a list of benefits that they think warrant the presence of otherwise weaker students and faculty. Specifically, they claim that the programs produce role models, introduce new ideas, dispel stereotypes, promote integration, and equalize opportunity and wealth. The opponents claim that such programs increase resentment in more qualified individuals, reinforce stereotypes, balkanize the population, and cost money. It’s worth considering the last factor. Last year the combined salaries of the offices of affirmative action, multicultural affairs, and educational development program at SUNY Fredonia exceeded $260,000, although to be fair it’s not clear that all of this spending was related to diversity-related concerns. It’s hard to believe that this money couldn’t have been better spent on hiring more faculty or attracting talented students. The proponents need evidence that diversity will produce the promised benefits. Other than a bunch of anecdotes, they don’t have any. Let us, however, imagine that they did. What evidence do they have that the benefits outweigh the merit-related losses such as efficiency? None. When we choose a surgeon or lawyer we want the best we can get. We should choose faculty and students in the same way.


The Constructivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

My colleague the Objectivist would have us believe that diversifying SUNY Fredonia entails sacrificing merit, lowering standards, and incurring other costs that outweigh its benefits. For support, he cherry-picks data from The Shape of the River, an analysis of affirmative action policies in higher education that emphasizes their benefits for American society, to make it seem as if the evidence is on his side. It isn’t. In fact, diversity and merit are not competing values; to the extent that they conflict at elite schools, this actually benefits Fredonia. We have been hiring top-notch faculty and seeking out excellent students; over the past decade, the size, academic quality, and diversity of our entering classes have been growing.

The Objectivist’s mistake is assuming that national debates and data on elite colleges and universities provide the best evidence to make his case against affirmative action here stick. But has he done research comparing Fredonia faculty with finalists in their search pools or comparing Fredonia student and alumni achievements with those who didn’t get into Fredonia or got in but chose to go to other schools? Without this evidence, he has to rely on parallels, probabilities, and expectations. Of course, studies like The Shape of the River and Karabel’s The Chosen provide valuable insights into admissions practices in the Ivy League and its closest competitors. But what about the vast majority of the 3000-plus accredited U.S. colleges and universities, where the vast majority of American students work and learn? What does diversity mean for them?

SUNY Fredonia, like other public regional universities, draws the majority of its students from its own and neighboring counties. Fredonia is among the best of its kind in the northeast, but only the top quarter of a typical entering class here would have a chance to get into a Stanford or Williams-like school—and a slim one at that. Certainly, the very best of my students here would excel anywhere, but the quality of the ‘average Fredonia student’ is closely tied to the quality of learning that takes place in the schools of Chautauqua and nearby counties. To help improve that quality, Fredonia is demanding more of its students seeking certification to teach in NY schools, but this project will take decades to produce results. To broaden our talent pool, we have been recruiting in new places within and outside western NY. By encouraging good students in the reservations, small towns, suburbs, and cities of New York to apply to Fredonia, we are improving the odds that more such students will choose to attend here. This is a form of diversification that increases competition and raises standards, but it usually goes unrecognized in debates over diversifying higher education.

But getting the best students we can from all over New York is only a first step. Diversity at Fredonia also means ensuring that all students develop skills at scrutinizing diverse sources and arguments and interacting with diverse people. Too often students’ life experience is limited to family, friends, a street, a neighborhood, a school, a clique. College should be a time for students to go beyond these familiar boundaries and find out who they want to become and how they can best contribute to society; providing them with a diverse group of peers and mentors to help them while finding their way is central to the mission of any university. With changing state and national demographics, along with increased transnational movement, exchange, and competition, it’s particularly important for a school like Fredonia to prepare all its students for participation and leadership in today’s and tomorrow’s world. For now and the foreseeable future, affirmative action is a useful and valuable tool to help fulfill this crucial aspect of SUNY Fredonia’s mission.


The Constructivist said...

Count yourself lucky, Objectivist. I just lost a brilliant diss of your weak NBA metaphor due to my own lack of familiarity with the commenting software. Rather than try to recapture my exact words, I'll just hit the high points and let you try to figure out my reasoning.

1) The NBA is a perfect example of why affirmative action is not only a "good thing" but also makes good economic sense. (Hint: not every foreign player will be a Yao Ming, but if the NBA wants to become a truly global brand with a truly global audience, it has to take a few risks, even if it means displacing potentially more talented American basketball players.)

2) Let's say Houston figured out how to clone Yao Ming. They'd have to be as dumb as Enron's top execs to play all five of him at the same time. Diversification is a key to success in a team sport; the point is to find a mix of individuals that's greater than the sum of its parts. You make the connection to higher ed.

3) If basketball "merit" were easy to measure, even you could be the GM of an NBA team. Have you actually tried playing fantasy football? Even when they limit themselves to past and future Pro Bowlers, and have loads of stats at their fingertips, there's still no tried and true drafting strategy. Now consider the essentially contested nature of academic merit.

4) Similarly, there's more to basketball success than height, so your implicit height/intelligence parallel not only makes it seem as if it's as easy to come up with an "objective" intelligence test as it is to measure someone's height, it also leaves out all the other factors needed to actually measure basketball talent and potential and begs the question of what their academic equivalents would be.

5) Your NBA metaphor is just as misleading as your Ivy League analogy. If the Ivies are the NBA, then Fredonia's academics are what their basketball team actually is: a better-than-average-but-uneven Division III squad. Diversification has radically different meanings and implications in that league.

6) You clearly don't have the imagination to come up with a good golf analogy. Try turning this one against me: picture SUNY Fredonia being like a Florida mini-tour that has to keep a relatively open-door policy just to stay afloat financially; then picture it's your job to select from among the 100 worst candidates people to fill the last ten spots in the tour; would you really limit your selection criteria to those who had the best of the worst golf stats and would you really be unfair to anyone turned away if you didn't?

The Constructivist said...

Yo, Objectivist, I was co-valedictorian of my graduating class at Hamilton College, so by your reasoning my learning probably suffered by being exposed to the supposedly inferior intellects of all but one of my peers in the Class of 1991. Please tell me what admissions policies Hamilton should have pursued back in late 1986 and early 1987 when they were processing applications from students who would make up this entering class to ensure that they weren't cheapening the value of their eventual valedictorian's degree. They only let in 400-some students during the process. How many fewer should they have let in? What criteria should they have used to ensure that they weren't sacrificing merit? I would love to see you write something an admissions officer would take seriously.

And more to the point, are you seriously going to argue that I learned less at Hamilton because of the presence of my peers and friends? Keep in mind that my best friends were in the HEOP program, I played on the golf team and managed the basketball team for four years, and that I must have known and liked one or two legacies, so try to avoid insulting the three groups most likely to be accused of not deserving to be on the Hamilton campus. (Of course, I was the biggest affirmative action baby of all--a faculty brat.)

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

I don’t see how you could accept the argument for preferential treatment based on diversity.


One well-respected scholar found that the research does not yet support the link between diversity and academic outcomes. As far as I know there are no studies that white and Asian students do better on standardized tests or grades as a result of a racially or ethnically diverse setting. I challenge you or anyone else to come up with one. This might be a good test of whether racial and ethnic diversity produces an overall increase in learning.

Some researchers attempted to measure the correlation between how students evaluate various aspects of their educational experience and campus environment and independent empirical measures of enrollment diversity (understood in terms of the proportion of black students enrolled). The authors found that diversity had negative effects. In particular, it was negatively correlated with student satisfaction with their university experience, assessment of the quality of education received, perceived work effort of their peers, and the likelihood students report personally experiencing discrimination. Stanley Rothman, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Neil Nevitte, “Does Enrollment Diversity Improve University Education?” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 15 (2003): 15-16. In contrast, the correlation for faculty and administrators was not universally negative. In short, this reputable study of diversity showed negative effects.


That this connection should be in question in the context of preferential treatment is unsurprising. Racial and ethnic diversity achieved through preferential policies tend to admit students who are much weaker than the students who would otherwise have been admitted. It would be odd if the presence of such students increases overall learning in other students. Here are a few examples of where preferences result in lowered standards.

(1) Undergraduate Performance: At the competitive schools studied in The Shape of the River, the average black student ranks in the 23d percentile of the class and the average Hispanic ranked in the 35th percentile. Another indication at elite schools that black students learn less than their likely replacement is that they drop out at twice and sometimes three times the rate of white students. In 1992, the dropout percentages for black and white students are as follows: Harvard (5:3), Princeton (9:5), Pennsylvania (28:10), Cornell (23:8), Stanford (17:6), Duke (16:5), Virginia (16:7), and UC-Berkeley (42: 16).

The pattern is the same at less elite schools. In a study of freshmen who began college in 1989-1990 at three hundred major colleges and universities, the black six-year graduation rate was 40% as compared with 59% for whites.

(2) Law Boards: For black students who would not have been admitted if the sole admission criteria were LSATs and undergraduate GPAs, 43% did not graduate and pass the bar within three years. This is compared to 13% of whites who would have been admitted on the basis of these criteria. This result is hardly surprising since law school grade-point average and law school admission test (LSAT) were the strongest predictors of bar examination passage rates for all groups studied and the black-white differences in GPA and LSAT were around a standard deviation for GPA and more for the LSATs.

(3) Medical Boards: The pass rates for persons taking the medical boards (NBME I) for the first time were 84% for whites, 79% for Asians, and 44% for blacks. This is unsurprising given that MCAT scores tend to correlate highly (.72) with scores on the NBME I). Again these scores differ greatly in schools that use preferential treatment.


The notion that preferences increase student learning is based on anecdotes (e.g., my daughter learned a lot about black culture because she had a black roommate). There are three obvious problems with this argument.

First, there are anecdotes on the other side (e.g., someone might report having had a black student as a lab partner and he was terrible).

Second, the gains of diversity are often recognized, the losses are not. For example, if a bright student takes a course in multicultural education, she might think to herself that she gained something valuable and that the course was worthwhile. What she doesn’t recognize is that she would have gained a whole lot more if she had taken a course on Shakespeare or the Roman Empire. Similar things are true of having minority classmates or roommates. For example, I strongly suspect that having intellectually weaker students in the dorm or classroom likely makes student discussions of politics, religion, dating, etc., cruder and less informative. That’s one of the reasons we generally avoid slower persons as friends. How can you be confident that the diversity-related gains outweigh the losses? You can’t and you know it.

Third, it’s a bad idea to make policy based on anecdotes. This isn’t how we decide other political and educational issues. But it is the fallback position of affirmative action proponents once they discover that the data isn’t on their side. I expect this of the man on the street, but not academics.

The argument from diversity is a sham and one forced upon the proponents of affirmative action glommed onto because of Lewis Powell’s opinion in Bakke. The sooner we put this argument to bed the better.

The Constructivist said...

Hey, Objectivist, no time for a well-thought-out reply to the issues you raise about assessing diversity, but as you well know, it's very hard to assess student learning in general with great reliability and validity, and there's much out there that's frankly a joke. I don't know if any studies exist that demonstrate that "white and Asian students do better on standardized tests or grades as a result of a racially or ethnically diverse setting." While I agree that getting some good empirical data that assesses diversity's effects on student learning (in a robust and not purely quantitative way) is important, I can't say for sure if the studies you cite are any good, not having read them. I would tend to trust studies that come out of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Do you know of any that use this assessment tool?

Since it's impossible to expose the same students to the same materials in two differently-diversified settings simultaneously, I don't see how we'll ever be able to do the cost-benefit analysis you call for in a truly scientific study. But I think it's possible to imagine research set-ups that might get us almost as good data.

Say, for example, the same professor teaches the exact same material in two different universities--one with great diversity and one with very little--over several semesters at each university, and compares the results in a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis that seeks to determine how diversity matters in the classroom more generally. Would you agree this gives better data than existing studies?

Another measure I would propose that may get us somewhere empirically would be to do a longitudinal study comparing one college's entering class to those applicants who also were accepted at that college but chose to attend another one, with a focus not only on learning outcomes and performance but also on careers an civic engagement over a good portion of a working life. How do the students do relative to each other? This would allow you to compare apples and apples and perhaps see some patterns in the difference an institutional culture makes (including its diversity). What I'm envisioning is a Shape of the River-style analysis for the non-elite schools. Even the study you cite based on graduation rates at "300 major colleges and universities" is biased towards the elite schools. Keep in mind that there close to 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S.!

Similarly, with faculty, comparing the career profiles of finalists in a given set of search pools over time would allow us to document differences in research, teaching, and service among roughly equally-ranked people at a common starting point that could allow all kinds of comparisons between the performance of various groups.

All these measures don't put 'minority' students and faculty on the hot seat, requiring them to in effect justify their presence on a college or university to a skeptical or hostile audience, but instead allow for comparisons of a wide range of students and faculty and for discovering new infrmation rather than simply confirming our prejudices. Do you agree?

I've focused so much on your Part 1 because I still don't think you have much reliable or valid data to support your view that the costs of diversity outweigh its benefits.

As for Part 2, you try to have it both ways:

a) you argue that admitting weaker students to highly competitive institutions leads to lowered standards, but if you are correct that black students at professional schools perform worse than their peers because they are on average weaker students, wouldn't their lower graduation and pass rates actually be a sign that exit standards are being maintained? If you're talking about lowered entrance standards and trying to use the exit data to support your claim, I would like to see how you respond to Jerome Karabel's The Chosen and Malcolm Gladwell's "Getting In," both of which demonstrate that Ivy League schools have never followed the 'best students' admission model but instead seek out those they believe will be the 'best graduates' (so that they define 'best' at the entrance and exit stages quite differently than you do).

b) you continue to imply that studies of the most competitive institutions in the country (which is where the vast majority of studies of affirmative action focus) have great relevance to debates over diversity at SUNY Fredonia and other public regional universities and colleges. As you know, almost a third of a typical Fredonia entering class is made up of students enrollment managers place in "Group III" for their combination of grades and standardized test scores. I don't see how a student in that category who wasn't accepted for admittance to the university is harmed by the admittance of 'diversity' students, some of whom rank higher on this grid, some equally, and some below, nor how the university is harmed by taking a risk on someone (first generation in college, 'minority' student, student from out of the region) whose potential might not be captured by that grid and whose presence might help enhance the campus culture of learning. Just what is your opinion on access to public higher edcuation? Should Fredonia simply stop admitting any students who fall below "Group II" (i.e., give up their tuition money) and hence stop trying to maintain the current size of its faculty?

c) Finally, you want us to accept that graduation and pass rates (not to mention grades and standardized test scores) are completely objective measures where everyone is held to the same standard, but keep in mind the history of standardized testing in America, which is tied to both exclusionist and egalitarian projects in the first half of the twentieth century. More generally, what if the institutions acting as gatekeepers to the professions are even slower to change than individual consciences or actions or political consensuses? If such institutions were literally designed to keep 'minorities' out for centuries, is it realistic to expect a few decades of inclusionist efforts (mostly aimed at those formerly racialized groups formerly known as white ethnics who are now counted as simply 'white') to bear fruit, particularly when the nation never invested in equalizing educational opportunity at lower educational levels? If the data you identify as objective is systematically and subtly biased against 'minority' students, what conclusions can we legitimately draw from it?

On Part III, you suggest that proponents of affirmative action have nothing but anecdotes on their side. Please read the studies I cite on my affirmative action page, which, although dated (I wrote this back when I was a grad student in the mid-'90s), point to concrete benefits, and yes, sometimes use narratives to dramatize their larger points, but no, don't rely exclusively on them. For a more recent empirical study, see Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. Your attempt to imply that proponents of affirmative action have nothing better than anecdotes to support their case reveals nothing except your unfamiliarity with such studies.

Finally, I agree that there are other than 'diversity' rationales for supporting affirmative action as it's currently allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court, such as those given by Ronald Fiscus in The Constitutional Logic of Affirmative Action or suggested by Ira Katznelson's When Affirmative Action Was White, just as I think that improving teaching and learning at all pre-baccalaureate levels in the U.S. for all students is crucial (it's shameful that we still expect fewer than 40% of today's 18-year-old Americans to earn a baccalaureate degree before they hit age 25!), but these are topics for another round of debates in our regular column, don't you agree?

Now that I've responded to another of your comments, Objectivist (see my recent intelligent design comment), I hope you'll respond to at least one more of mine, here or elsewhere. You're not ducking me on the "intellectual diversity" one, are you?

The Constructivist said...

Yo, Objectivist, check out this short post on affirmative action for men and let me know what you think of it when you get a chance.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

The affirmative action for men is a bad idea unless it can be shown that it is a necessary tool by which to attact the best overall pool of student talent. I doubt it, but it might be that the best young women will show up only if there are sufficient men. As a side note, this type of reasoning might also lead to lowered preferences for good-looking men.

While I'm at it, I wonder why you think affirmative action is supported by NBA style diversity considerations. That is, I agree that it is more important once you have a great center to have a good point guard than another great center (unless you go with the twin tower type game).

However, I claim that you don't have any evidence that less talented minorities add anything valuable to a campus that comes close to what they detract through

(1) learning less (as evidence by their much lower grades, at Fredonia Black GPAs are about .7 lower than whites)

(2) dropping out much more frequently (thereby being less able to put what they learn to use)

(3) the extra costs (e.g., the costs of affirmative action, multicultural affairs, EDP, and FOP programs must easily be over $300,000 a year).

Here is a good rule of thumb. When we know a policy has significant costs and the only evidence we have for its having offsetting benefits are anecdotes (and controversial ones at that), we should not implement it.

That said, you do have a good point. If having minorities is a crucial tool in attacting the best students, then preferential treatment is a good idea.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

One last point. Fredonia is getting most of its increase in minorties from '99 to '03 by increasing Asians. During this time, it had a lower percentage of black students and no increase in Native Americans.

I have a question for you.

Do you want to claim that the diversity gains that are valuable really come about via the admission of Asian-Americans (especially those who were adopted by white families)?

With the exception of students who grew up in Chinatown, do you think Asian-Americans add something distinct to the classroom or dormroom?

In addition, are you aware that the six-year graduation rate for students of color who began at Fredonia in '97 is 29.4%. If this pattern holds up, does this give you a reason to say the following:

I'm for affirmative action but this is such a horrendous waste of resources that there must be another way?

The Constructivist said...

Hey, Objectivist, I'm curious as to how you define "most talented pool" and "best students." You keep tossing those terms around as if everyone shares the same definition. The theme running throughout your comments indicates to me you'd prefer to base college admissions on IQ. Is that any way to choose leaders of a society? Haven't you seen The Simpsons episode when Lisa and the Mensa Society get to run Springfield? Or do you want to take us all the way to Gattaca-land in your search for America's smartest students?

Do you agree or disagree with the claim that defining applicant ‘merit,’ differentiating ‘stronger’ from ‘weaker’ applicants, and assessing student learning are highly complex and ambiguous processes, perhaps even essentially contested concepts? On what grounds?

Would you please defend the following assumptions that underlie your arguments:

a) US higher education, particularly at the most elite levels, has traditionally valued ‘pure’ meritocracy based on intellect alone and should strive to return to that ideal (please respond to Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen or just check out Malcolm Gladwell’s review in "Getting In" for a history of Ivy League admissions policies);

b) the core function of US higher education has been, is, and should be to reward ‘intelligence’ by regulating access to economic, political, cultural, and professional elites on the basis of who has the ‘most’ of it (what other goals/functions/values are legitimate, in your view?);

c) after 1954 (or 1965 or some other landmark date), the era of white privilege came to a sudden and screeching halt in the US (please respond in particular to Michael K. Brown, et al.’s Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society, Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, and George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics [rev./expanded ed.]).

I brought up the NBA example to illustrate how non-controversial most forms of affirmative action are in the US today, which involve a school or business expanding its search for candidates, being willing to reexamine traditional definitions and measures of talent, potential, and fit, and attempting to select the best mix of people to accomplish the goals of the organization most effectively and efficiently.

Look at the World Baseball Classic--was it just a fluke that Cuba and Japan were in the final or does it indicate that MLB has a long way to go in attracting the top talent in the world? Wouldn't major league teams be warranted in revisiting their recruitment strategies and assumptions? What do you think of the Moneyball-style argument that traditional scouts have paid too much attention to raw athletic ability and not enough to specific skills that actually help a team win? Or the implication that teams should focus on honing those skills in their farm systems and players? For me, the implications for colleges and universities are obvious--we should be paying much more attention to developing good measures of student talent and potential and helping students enhance the former and reach the latter.

To turn to local issues: as you know, SUNY Fredonia is ranked very high nationally among public regional universities for our 6-year graduation rate; even so, only about 2/3 of a typical entering class graduates within 6 years. I haven't seen stats on how many Fredonia students transfer out and graduate elsewhere (I would submit those students are to our credit, since we played some small role in advancing their educations), so I don't know what the actual Fredonia "dropout rate" is. Even if we were to find that out, I would caution against assuming that inability to hack the curriculum is a chief reason for leaving Fredonia: what role might family emergencies, dissatisfaction with campus or local community, hatred of WNY winters, bad experiences with other students or faculty, homesickness, job opportunities or other financial considerations, and so on play in students' decisions to leave Fredonia without transferring to another college or university?

I don't know where you got the data on student admissions, GPAs, and graduation rates, so I can't comment on your claims before you verify their accuracy. But all the data I have seen, especially results from the NSSE, points to the conclusion that faculty and administration should be paying more attention to helping students succeed at Fredonia, through both individual and coordinated efforts. Before we start assuming from patterns in grades and graduation rates that specific groups don't belong here, we should first examine what is causing such results and whether the university can and should do anything about them. We need to look at the total picture of what students contribute to a campus and its culture of learning. For instance, we might look at participation rates in various kinds of extracurricular activities, from student government and media to student organizations to athletics to community service and so on. When I was advising the Black Student Union, I saw its leaders investing a lot of time, effort, and thought to planning major campus events, most of a primarily educational or cultural nature. I witnessed the Executive Board members learning and practicing a variety of skills that will serve them well in their future careers. Because academic departments at Fredonia have such pitiful budgets, they rely on organizations like the BSU and offices like Multicultural Affairs to bring in speakers we can't afford to bring in; this helps explain why so many faculty devote their time, effort, and thought to advising BSU, JSU, WSU, NASA, Latinos Unidos, Pride Alliance, and so on. Once the faculty and administration recognize that students' learning is not limited to the classroom, it is incumbent upon us to help advance it in every facet of campus life.

As state support for schools like SUNY Fredonia recedes across the country, such schools are going to have to invest a lot more in the students they accept so that they succeed on campus and after and are disposed to contribute to the success of future students. Unless state schools take seriously the charge to offset reductions in state support with augmented alumni giving, their future is in doubt. We don't have the luxury of having students who stand to inherit a lot of family wealth scrambling to get into Fredonia, nor are we allowed to set our own tuition, so we ought to be choosing what students we admit quite carefully. Combining aspects of Gladwell's "best graduates" and "Marine Corps" models for admissions and learning at Fredonia makes sense to me. I'm still waiting to hear what The Objectivist's position on minimal entry requirements at SUNY Fredonia ought to be. Perhaps if he comes up with something plausible he'll be appointed to our campus's Enrollment Management Committee.

The Constructivist said...

Oh, and your comments on adopted Asian American students are ridiculous. Given the stares my wife and daughter get here regularly when out in public, and the comments people make to and around them when I'm not with them, most people in this county don't have that much experience with Asian or Asian American people. I am sure my daughters are going to have a very different experience growing up in this county than both mine in the central NY county I grew up in as one of a handful of Jewish people in my hometown and my wife's in the Japanese city she grew up in whose parents came from different prefectures. So even if a Chinese-American girl was from this county and adopted by white parents (even those of the same and unmixed ethnic and religious backgrounds going back several generations--that is, a very atypical white family!), she would likely have an interesting range of both similar and different experiences to her parents and most peers--she wouldn't have to fit someone else's idea of a "typical" Chinese-American to contribute to the diversity of a campus or community.

If your point is that any individual can contribute to a campus's cultural and intellectual diversity, so that singling out and privileging certain markers of difference is unfair (i.e., the "protected categories" in affirmative action), my response is that you're ignoring how differences are marked and structured in the U.S. and forgetting that diversity should be defined relationally and contextually. Many groups have been "racialized" in U.S. history and some of them still are today. Those so marked are unlikely to have been evaluated fairly or offered equal educational opportunities throughout their lifetimes, so figuring out how to fairly evaluate them in the college admissions process is a pressing issue. As the University of Michigan Supreme Court decisions indicate, the legal issues are complex and I don't have time to get into them here. I'd be happy to expand on this line of reasoning later if you want to get into specifics.

The Constructivist said...

Feel like taking on Lani Guinier on problems with meritocracy, Objectivist?

The Constructivist said...

Or commenting on Timothy Burke's take on affirmative action for men?

The Constructivist said...

Objectivist, not sure if you have time to read Gladwell's "Getting In," so I'll quote an extended critique of the "best students" model for admission, which relates to many of my points in previous comments.


[W]hat did Hunter achieve with that best-students model? In the nineteen-eighties, a handful of educational researchers surveyed the students who attended the elementary school between 1948 and 1960. This was a group with an average I.Q. of 157—three and a half standard deviations above the mean—who had been given what, by any measure, was one of the finest classroom experiences in the world. As graduates, though, they weren't nearly as distinguished as they were expected to be. "Although most of our study participants are successful and fairly content with their lives and accomplishments," the authors conclude, "there are no superstars . . . and only one or two familiar names." The researchers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why Hunter graduates are so disappointing, and end up sounding very much like Wilbur Bender. Being a smart child isn't a terribly good predictor of success in later life, they conclude. "Non-intellective" factors—like motivation and social skills—probably matter more. Perhaps, the study suggests, "after noting the sacrifices involved in trying for national or world-class leadership in a field, H.C.E.S. graduates decided that the intelligent thing to do was to choose relatively happy and successful lives." It is a wonderful thing, of course, for a school to turn out lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. But Harvard didn't want lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. It wanted superstars, and Bender and his colleagues recognized that if this is your goal a best-students model isn't enough.

Most √©lite law schools, to cite another example, follow a best-students model. That's why they rely so heavily on the L.S.A.T. Yet there's no reason to believe that a person's L.S.A.T. scores have much relation to how good a lawyer he will be. In a recent research project funded by the Law School Admission Council, the Berkeley researchers Sheldon Zedeck and Marjorie Shultz identified twenty-six "competencies" that they think effective lawyering demands—among them practical judgment, passion and engagement, legal-research skills, questioning and interviewing skills, negotiation skills, stress management, and so on—and the L.S.A.T. picks up only a handful of them. A law school that wants to select the best possible lawyers has to use a very different admissions process from a law school that wants to select the best possible law students. And wouldn't we prefer that at least some law schools try to select good lawyers instead of good law students?

This search for good lawyers, furthermore, is necessarily going to be subjective, because things like passion and engagement can't be measured as precisely as academic proficiency. Subjectivity in the admissions process is not just an occasion for discrimination; it is also, in better times, the only means available for giving us the social outcome we want. The first black captain of the Yale football team was a man named Levi Jackson, who graduated in 1950. Jackson was a hugely popular figure on campus. He went on to be a top executive at Ford, and is credited with persuading the company to hire thousands of African-Americans after the 1967 riots. When Jackson was tapped for the exclusive secret society Skull and Bones, he joked, "If my name had been reversed, I never would have made it." He had a point. The strategy of discretion that Yale had once used to exclude Jews was soon being used to include people like Levi Jackson.


Does any of this make you question the "best students" model for college admissions?

The Objectivist said...

Dear Constructivist:

I guess I have to disagree about whether Asian-Americans adopted by white parents have much unique to offer either in the classroom or dormroom. They might claim to have gotten some rude comments or strange looks. That would be a little odd around here, given the number of Eastern and Southern Asians in local restaurants (Best Buffet, China Kind, and Holy Wong), medical practices, and on campus.

In any case, lots of people get rude comments and extra looks (e.g., obese women, the handicapped, dwarfs, and gays in high school). In fact these other groups probably get a lot more. I doubt this gives any of them much insight into much that is of interest other than the narrow question of how does it feel to be different from the crowd. And even then their insight will be limited and not even generalizable.

For example, I've been in gyms where the lifters who've commented that it's unsurprising that Jewish brothers would both attend the Ivy League. I like to hear these comments. In contrast, my brother doesn't. One could imagine similar comments about Asian-American sisters. I don't see how persons who've heard these comments gain much generalizable insight and in any case how they gain enough to make it worthwhile to accept persons who will do much worse in school and standardized tests.

The Constructivist said...

O, your problem is that you assume some connection between what you eat and what you think. Cornel West rightly criticizes the gastronomic version of multiculturalism and your comments show why he's right. The presence of a very few Asian and Asian-American restaurants and professionals in Chautauqua County does nothing to challenge the ideas many people who have never left this county hold about Asians and Asian Americans. It's precisely the assumption that she works in a restaurant or is Chinese that amazes my wife so much.

This points to the cultural construction of visuality--in Japan, people are very good at identifying physical and fashion features that mark someone as belonging to a particular Asian nationality; here, most people don't know the codes and couldn't care less. But the operating assumption is still "foreigner"/"doesn't speak English," no matter if the actual person has been here a few years or if her family has been here a few generations.

So I think the experience of being marked as visibly different is meaningful and is generalizable, because once outside the circle of friends and family who know her, the Chinese-American adoptee, say, doesn't stand out as different from any Chinese tourist or fifth-generation Chinese-American to the 'average' WNY eye. Someone who experiences this on a regular or even intermittent basis has a different perspective on American nationality and core assumptions about who is or is not American. I would go so far as to suggest that the typical white middle-class WNY teenager would go with the "I treat people as people so the rest of the country must, too" position, while the typical Chinese-American adoptee would be much more likely to notice structural invitations and exclusions to an "American" identity even today.

Specificity matters. Yes, many get pushed into outsider status. So?

Your comment at the end about lower test scores rings weirdly to me, too. I thought you were the fan of The Bell Curve and it claimed that East Asians, regardless of upbringing, score higher on intelligence tests on average than any other group--could it be that you were thinking of an African-American adoptee of white parents at the end of the post (again, consistent with The Bell Curve's claim that, regardless of upbringing, black people score lower on intelligence tests on average than any other group)? Or do you accept that "race" isn't all, that culture and environment play a major factor in "intelligence" measures?

I know our race column isn't going in the DFO till late April, so we can follow up then, but I don't see how you can be so confident that valuing diversity means devaluing merit unless you start from the Hernnstein/Murray position.

The Constructivist said...

O, any comment on this take on the benefits of diversity from Feminist Law Profs?

The Constructivist said...

ACTA's report on Ward Churchill has exasperated Tim Burke. His defense of rigor when talking about "politicization" of higher ed is, dare I say, required reading.

The Constructivist said...

O, any comment on this analysis of critical mass theory and race-conscious admissions?

The Constructivist said...

Here's a review of a book arguing that diversity leads to better group decision-making.

The Constructivist said...

O, here's more grist for the mill, this time from Jerome Karabel.