All posts by Russell K. Nieli

Russell K. Nieli is a Senior Preceptor in Princeton University's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, and a Lecturer in Princeton's Politics Department. He is the author of "Wounds That Will Not Heal: Affirmative Action and Our Continuing Racial Divide."

Explaining Black Rage on Campus and in the Inner-City

Many factors have been suggested to explain the explosion in Black protest and Black rage over the past two years on college campuses and in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Milwaukee: racist police, insensitive college administrators, bigoted White students, pervasive “micro-aggressions,” the stigma-creating effect of racial preference policies, among others.

But most such factors fail to answer the crucial “why now?” question. It is a fundamental principle of social science analysis, as well as of simple common sense, that change cannot be adequately explained by a “constant.”  If the price of gasoline goes up it is not much of an explanation to say that the gas station owners and the oil companies must be trying to earn more profit.  Under a free market system market participants are almost always trying to maximize their profits, so if gasoline prices rise (or fall) some other factor besides changes in profit motive must be responsible for the price increase or decrease.

Almost all of the factors typically mentioned to explain recent racial upheavals are “constants” that existed just as much — or to a greater degree — five, ten, or twenty years ago. There is no credible evidence that America’s police have become more racist, that White college students are more bigoted or more “micro-aggressive” than they used to be, that college administrators and college presidents are more insensitive to Black concerns, or that there has been an increase in hostility to Black aspirations either on college campuses or in America’s cities. Something clearly has changed, but it is not to be found in the factors most commentators have focused upon.

Related: How Student Protesters Cheat Themselves

What clearly has changed is the level of Black frustration and disappointment in the closing years of Barack Obama’s administration.  And to explain it we must understand what is sometimes called the “Tocqueville Effect” and what social scientists in the 1950s began to describe as frustration born of an unfulfilled “revolution of rising expectations.” Whatever else one might say about Barack Obama’s two victories in his campaigns for the U.S. presidency, they raised the hope, pride, and aspirations of tens of millions of Black Americans in addition to that of many non-Blacks as well.  “Hope and change” was the dominant theme of his White House quest, and for many — including the Nobel peace prize committee — his campaign slogans were the source of great expectations.

Whatever else one might say about Barack Obama’s two victories in his campaigns for the U.S. presidency, they raised the hope, pride, and aspirations of tens of millions of Black Americans in addition to that of many non-Blacks as well.  “Hope and change” was the dominant theme of his White House quest, and for many — including the Nobel peace prize committee — his campaign slogans were the source of great expectations.

For many Black Americans the election of the first U.S. Black president was euphoric.  A pervasive sense of promise and the expectations for fundamental change were everywhere. A new day and a new dawn were upon us.  Here, for instance, is a memoir written by a family friend who watched the presidential election returns the night of November 4, 2008 as they were telecast on a large overhead screen in the heart of New York City’s Harlem:

The night Obama was elected for the first time I stood in Harlem in the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building Square with thousands of Harlemites watching the huge television screen mounted above our heads. … I was awed at the many black men who wept openly.  Parents lifted small children in the air and told them to remember this day in history.  Some people knelt in prayer.  I just felt I finally had personally gotten back at all those who had violated, abused or hated my existence because of the color of my skin.  A European media group … approached me because I obviously was an older woman who had experienced more racism than those younger celebrating around me.  They wanted to interview me.  Though I tried, I could not speak an intelligible sentence, I was too overcome with emotion. … It was a glorious, victorious night!  I had lived to see a needed change in this country.  My hopes were high for change.

A European media group … approached me because I obviously was an older woman who had experienced more racism than those younger celebrating around me.  They wanted to interview me.  Though I tried I could not speak an intelligible sentence, I was too overcome with emotion … It was a glorious, victorious night!  I had lived to see a needed change in this country.  My hopes were high for change.

With hopes raised to such exalted heights, it is no surprise that disappointment would eventually set in.  For most Black people, life during the Obama years went on pretty much as it had, with gradually mounting frustration and anger the inevitable result.  Even after six years of the Obama presidency, there was little if any fundamental change in the Black standard of living, Black social mobility, Black achievement in the nation’s school system, Black/White race relations, or improvements in the stability and solidarity of Black family ties.

Related: How Yale Tries to Dodge New Protests

The anger and frustration that resulted from dashed hopes and failed dreams led to a situation whereby minor irritants previously endured. A college building named after an early 20th century U.S. president who shared the White southern view of race relations typical of his time suddenly became intolerable outrages and symbols of extreme and painful oppression.

What was previously viewed as rare and hardly typical cases of rogue cops gunning down innocent and non-threatening Black men came to be identified as an all-pervasive feature of a Black-hating, Black-oppressing, White racist society.  Rioting, looting, seizure of college buildings, and the issuance of a host of non-negotiable demands for redress came to be seen by significant numbers of Black people and their White leftist supporters as the understandable — and perhaps even justifiable — response to such provocations.

People who are angry, frustrated, and disappointed often discharge their negative emotions on objects unrelated to the real source of their actual distress. Someone who has had a fight with his boss at work comes home, kicks the cat blocking the path to his favorite easy chair, and screams at his young son for leaving his bicycle in the driveway.

A similar kind of displaced anger and frustration, I believe, was a hidden factor behind much of the heightened racial resentment and Black rage that we have seen since the summer of 2014 on many college campuses and in several U.S. cities. Growing frustration over unrealistic hopes was the “non-constant,” I believe, that helps explain the otherwise inexplicable change in Black behavior. An increase in White racism — the explanation so beloved by the left — explains none of these developments since no such increase has ever been demonstrated and is hardly likely to have occurred.

This situation was in many ways a repeat of the social dynamic that existed in several of the inner-cities of America during the “riot years” of the mid and late 1960s.  Then too there was a “revolution of rising expectations” among many Black Americans, one triggered by the unprecedented legislative victories in civil rights during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.   Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in many areas of American life, was seen as a milestone in the Black quest for human dignity and equal rights.

Areas covered in its reach included private and public employment, educational institutions receiving government aid, and private businesses deemed to be “public accommodations” like restaurants and hotels. Hopes were also raised the following year by the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which assured Blacks the right to vote throughout America, a right effectively denied to them in many of the states of the Old Confederacy.

The passage of these laws, the injustices to which they drew attention, and the hype surrounding their claimed benefits by their most influential supporters led to both a) an exaggerated expectation of immediate positive change, and b) a heightened sensitivity to remaining problems and injustices that the laws did not reach.  This combination proved explosive in terms of triggering Black frustration and Black rage that in the years between 1965 and 1969 led to serious Black riots in over a hundred U.S. cities. Paradoxical — and incomprehensible — as it seemed to many, it was precisely in those years in which the social, legal, and economic conditions of Black people advanced most rapidly that Black anger, frustration, and violent behavior reached their peak.

The Tocqueville Effect

One person who would not have been surprised by this 60s-era development was Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his study of the French Revolution first described the relationship between rapidly accelerating expectations and the consequences that often follow from them in terms of frustration, heightened sensitivities, and outwardly directed anger and violence. “It was precisely in those parts of France where there had been most improvements that popular discontent ran highest,” Tocqueville explained about France’s bloody revolution. “This may seem illogical,” he went on, “but history is full of such paradoxes.

Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds.  For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to the others and they now appear more galling; people may suffer less, but their sensibility is exacerbated.  At the height of its power feudalism did not inspire so much hatred as it did on the eve of its eclipse.  In the reign of Louis XVI the most trivial pinpricks of arbitrary power caused more resentment than the thoroughgoing despotism of Louis XIV.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution.)

Revolutions of rising expectations are dangerous affairs and may have various causes. The one of the 1960s in America was produced by an array of factors similar to that of late 18th century France but quite different from that of the Obama years.  But whatever their source, greatly exaggerated hopes for change and improvement are always in danger of leading to great disappointment and frustration, heightened dissatisfaction with one’s lot in life, and a gross reduction in one’s overall sense of happiness and wellbeing. These in turn can lead to political instability, uncontrolled anger, and often violent social unrest.

It is this dynamic, I believe, which helps to explain much of the racial turmoil we have seen of late on college campuses and in many of our cities, and it is this same dynamic which explains why such seemingly minor irritants as a politically incorrect Halloween costume or a tasteless theme-party at a college fraternity house can unleash such immense hatred, pain, and rage.  Tocqueville would have understood it all very well.

Charles Murray Insulted but Allowed to Speak

The thought police are at it again. The latest confrontation is at Virginia Tech University at Blacksburg where the usual suspects — a coalition of black activists and white leftists — have called upon the university president to withdraw an invitation to Charles Murray, where he is scheduled to speak on March 25 at Tech’s business school. Murray will give an address drawn from his latest book, Coming Apart, which explains the increasing economic and cultural polarization that has taken place in America because of structural changes in our information-based, post-industrial economy.

Like much of Murray’s interest over the past three decades, Coming Apart focuses on the alarming growth of a downwardly mobile, and ever-more disoriented white underclass at the same time that a highly educated white over-class has pulled away and isolated itself in upscale, affluent communities.

These latter groups, Murray argues, have a vastly disproportionate influence on how public policy is conducted in America, yet they lack an understanding of the needs and traditions of less affluent and less well educated people. The protesters, however, seemed unconcerned with what Murray intends to say at Virginia Tech. Their sole objection is to the very appearance of Charles Murray, the co-author of the rarely-read but much vilified book, The Bell Curve, which was published more than 20 years ago.

<How Our Campuses Came to Reject Free Speech>

Together with his co-author, the late Richard Herrnstein — a distinguished Harvard psychologist — Murray documented in The Bell Curve the increasing returns in the job market to those with high abstract reasoning ability as indicated by high IQ test scores. The book’s primary concern was with IQ differences among socio-economic groups — a topic Herrnstein had written about many years earlier. But two chapters dealt with the data on IQ and race. It was this material that produced an explosion in commentary by reviewers, much of it hostile, uninformed, and irrational.

The Bell Curve pointed out that decades of testing had shown a persistent IQ gradient around the world with Ashkenazic Jews at the top, followed by northern Asians, whites, Latinos, African Americans, and at the very bottom black Africans, the latter a full standard deviation (15 IQ points) behind their descendants in America. After surveying much of the relevant technical literature on the topic, Murray and Herrnstein concluded with what, under more rational circumstances, would surely have been considered a very moderate, reserved, even anodyne statement about the likely causes of these differences:

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or the environmental explanation [for racial differences in IQ scores] has won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other.  It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences [in IQ scores]. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate. (p. 311)

Moderate and circumspect though such a statement may seem, it brought the roof down on the two Bell Curve authors, with Murray having to face the avalanche of criticism alone since his co-author died unexpectedly just as the book was going to press. The style, substance and quality of much of the criticism are well captured by the title of one of the reviews in The New Republic: “Neo-Nazi!”

The Bell Curve had clearly breached a powerful taboo, one that calls for explaining racial, ethnic, and socio-economic differences in IQ scores solely in terms of non-genetic, non-heriditarian factors.  To a large segment of the American intellectual and media elite a genes-plus-environment explanation was simply unacceptable and identified with the demented minds of Nazis and Klansmen. Even if Murray himself were not a Nazi or Klansman, he was, many commentators seemed to believe, at the very least a fellow traveler and his book gave aid and comfort to the most despised enemies of the human race.

An Open Letter from a Suddenly Disinvited Speaker

For many elements of the campus Left, this is still where Murray stands, and his appearance on a university campus, even to discuss matters unrelated to race, must never be tolerated. This is true despite Murray’s impeccable scholarship, his great personal integrity, his concern in recent years for developments among whites rather than non-whites (Coming Apart is subtitled “The State of White America 1960-2010”), and the ever-increasing acceptance by knowledgeable researchers of The Bell Curve’s basic genes-plus-environment explanation for a host of human differences.

Even in its own time The Bell Curve was hardly an outlier in terms of what it said about racial differences in IQ scores and their likely origin. A poll of professional psychologists, sociologists, and behavioral geneticists conducted years before publication of the Murray/Herrnstein book found the proportion of those favoring a genes-plus-environment explanation for the persistent black/white IQ-gap exceeding those favoring an environment-only explanation by a factor of 3-1.

Only 17 percent of the respondents were in the environment-only camp, versus 53 percent who believed that both genes and environment were responsible for the observed IQ differences. Of the remainder, only 1 percent adopted a genes-only explanation while the rest said the data were insufficient to make a sound judgment. See Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman, The IQ Controversy, the Media, and Public Policy. In recent years, with the exponential growth of interest in behavioral genetics, this 3-1 ratio may well have increased.

<How Universities Promote the Coming Apart of America>

Among the campus Left, Murray continues to be vilified as a “fascist,” “Nazi,” “Social Darwinist” and the like, though he is simply a rigorously honest scholar — the New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan once described him as “honest to a fault” — with an exceptionally humane, classical liberal approach to most social problems. At Virginia Tech, a group calling itself the Coalition for Justice fell into this standard pattern of Murray vilification. In a public statement, the group objected to having Murray speak on campus saying that his was a voice of prejudice and hate that should not be given a Virginia Tech forum.

“At the time when rising racism, misogyny and anti-intellectualism have moved to the forefront of our national consciousness,” the group said in its statement, “there is no better place than a college campus from which to focus our efforts against the voices of prejudice and hate. … Mr. Murray’s social Darwinist take on intelligence, ability and morality — and his assertion of the inherent racial and gender inferiority of non-whites and women — do nothing but promote a white supremacist agenda, cast in the guise of ‘scientific discourse’.” The group wanted the business dean to rescind Murray’s invitation.

(How the “misogyny” theme got in there is anybody’s guess, since Murray has never written anything that can be construed — or even misconstrued — as critical of women whether in The Bell Curve or, to this writer’s knowledge, anywhere else.  In Coming Apart it is the lazy, irresponsible, uninvolved white fathers in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown who clearly stoke his ire).

The anti-Murray onslaught was joined by both the local Virginia Tech chapter of the NAACP and several faculty members of the Africana Studies Program. The latter group issued a statement that while not calling for revocation of Murray’s invitation said that Murray was “engaged in a mission to use discredited pseudoscience to perpetuate the subordination of people of African descent, Latino/as, Native American Indians, the poor, women and the disabled.”  His ideas were seen as perpetuating a kind of narrative that would “visit violence upon marginalized populations — recalling the history of forced sterilization, unjust institutionalization and incarceration, and denial of basic human rights.”

The president of Virginia Tech, Tim Sands, also got into the act of issuing public statements with “An Open Letter to the Virginia Tech Community” that can best be described as combining elements of “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” On the good side, Sands refused to rescind the invitation to Murray while reaffirming the values of academic freedom and open debate at Virginia Tech.

On the bad and ugly side, the Open Letter erroneously claimed that Murray’s views on race and IQ had long been discredited, and that Murray’s scholarship promoted ideas that were not merely false but dangerous, since they gave aid and comfort to fascists and other evildoers. Murray, said the Open Letter, “is well known for his controversial and largely discredited work linking measures of intelligence to heredity, and specifically to race and ethnicity — a flawed socioeconomic theory that has been used by some to justify fascism, racism and eugenics.”

Murray could not take all this sitting down, and in the form of his own “Open Letter to the Virginia Tech Community,” he responded to president Sands’ remarks. While giving a “Bravo” to Sands’ defense of intellectual freedom, Murray accused Sands of being “unfamiliar either with the actual content of The Bell Curve …. Or, with the state of knowledge in psychometrics.” Anyone who has carefully read The Bell Curve and kept up with developments in psychometrics and related fields of intelligence research would hardly dispute Murray’s assessment.  Murray proceeded to cite some of the findings of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on intelligence, a group of leading specialists in psychometric testing, which published its findings in the February 1996 issue of the American Psychologist.

On the issue of black/white differences in IQ scores, the hereditability of intelligence, and the predictive validity of IQ for the differing black and white populations, the Task Force came to conclusions virtually identical to those of The Bell Curve authors (the Task Force’s report can be obtained online by googling “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns – CiteSeerX”).

<Princeton Takes a Stand on Free Speech>

Continuing his indictment of Sands’ statement, Murray wrote that it was particularly exasperating to have the president of a distinguished university accuse the authors of The Bell Curve of presenting material that has been scientifically discredited.  On the contrary, Murray says, “our presentations of the meaning and role of IQ [in The Bell Curve] have been … steadily reinforced by subsequent research in the social sciences, not to mention developments in neuroscience and genetics.”   Murray was most upset, however, by Sands’ accusation that he was promulgating a theory used in the past to justify fascism and racism.  At this point President Sands, Murray wrote, “went beyond the kind of statement that merely reflects his unfamiliarity with The Bell Curve and/or psychometrics. He engaged in intellectual McCarthyism.”

Such is the state of much of academia where a combination of left-wing political correctness, the cowardice of university presidents, and the fear of being called a racist determines the order of the day.  In saner times, a scholar of Murray’s stature would be honored wherever went and he would probably hold an endowed chair at an institution like Harvard or Stanford. Today, he never knows if he will be allowed to show up even at an institution that has invited him to speak.

Fisher II: A Mystery Solved While Asians Get Their Voice

Many legal experts were surprised in June of 2013 when the U.S Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited decision in the University of Texas affirmative action case, Fisher v. Texas. The mere fact that the Court had taken up the case when it could easily have declared it moot indicated to many that at least five Justices were prepared to restrict dramatically the degree to which public institutions could use racial classifications to further what they deemed “compelling” pedagogical  interests.

(The mootness option was readily available to the Court because Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff who claimed to have been the victim of racial discrimination in the admission to UT’s undergraduate program, had already enrolled in another university and would graduate before the case was decided, thus rendering her ineligible for UT undergraduate admission even with a favorable Court ruling).

Related: the Disappointing Non-Decision in Fisher

Virtually all assumed that the Court would be modifying, if not entirely overruling, the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bolllinger, which gave to state institutions great leeway in determining both the nature of the educational interest they believed justified race-conscious admissions, and the means appropriate to furthering that interest. And it was universally assumed that it would be a 5-3 or 4-4 decision with Anthony Kennedy the key swing vote (Elena Kagan had recused herself because of prior involvement in the case as Solicitor General).

It was a mystery then when the decision came down — supported by an unlikely 7-1 majority — reaffirming Grutter as operative law and merely remanding the case to the appeals court with instruction that it not defer so readily to UT’s claim that its race-based “holistic” program was narrowly tailored to achieving its diversity goal.  The University’s judgment about the compelling importance of racial diversity was not challenged, but the burden of proof was shifted to UT to show that no practicable alternative existed to achieve the racial diversity it sought that did not use overt racial classifications.  “Show us there’s no race-neutral way to achieve the racial diversity you want,” the court said in effect, “and if you do, all is OK as far as the Constitution is concerned.”  That seven Justices could a3gree on this formula suggested just how moderate the decision was and how little of a threat it posed to the pro-affirmative action Grutter decision so eagerly embraced by the nation’s leading universities and professional schools.

On remand, the appeals court voted, in a 2-1 decision, to accept UT’s claim that its holistic plan, which accorded admissions boosts to “underrepresented minorities,” was indeed narrowly tailored and fit tightly with the diversity-enhancement goal it was intended to achieve. While there was a sharp dissent by judge Emilio Garza, who argued that the university had not clearly defined or explained exactly what it meant by its main goal of enrolling a “critical mass” of minority students, some knowledgeable observers thought the case was now settled and that on the affirmative action front in higher education business would go on as usual.

Related: The ‘Mismatch’ Thesis and Fisher

But attorneys for Fisher appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in a second mystery move decided to accept the case (grant certiorari as the lawyers say).  What was going on here?  Were the four Justices needed to grant cert. for a second round of Fisher proceedings primarily concerned with reigning in to some degree what some saw as an overly permissive interpretation of a university’s obligation to seek non-racial means to enhance racial diversity?  Or were those who granted cert. hoping for a five-vote majority to reign in Grutter more substantially — or even overrule it and return to the idea of color-blind justice that had so motivated civil rights advocates through the first two-thirds of the last century? Something seemed to be going on here that even sophisticated court watchers found baffling.  What were the conservative justices, who must have been the ones to vote to hear Abigail Fisher’s appeal for the second time, really up to?

A Mystery Solved

The mystery may have been solved by legal journalist Joan Biskupic, who in researching a book on Justice Sonia Sotomayor learned that when Fisher I was first taken up by the Court, Anthony Kennedy and the four conservative Justices were all on board for a major revision or overruling of Grutter.  Racial preference policies were to be subject to real “strict scrutiny,” and the “diversity-enhancement” rationale itself might possibly have been called into question as a truly “compelling state interest” that can override the color-blind interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Biskupic’s sources claimed Anthony Kennedy was preparing a draft for a clear retreat from Grutter, but he was persuaded to change his mind by Justice Breyer who explained the extreme opposition to such a move by Justice Sotomayor, the court’s first Latino Justice. Sotomayor was preparing a sharply worded draft accusing the anti-affirmative action Justices of insensitivity on racial matters, and the effect of such a clash of opinions, Breyer told Kennedy, would have polarizing consequences both inside and outside the Court.

Justice Breyer Steps in

Breyer was apparently able to convince both Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts to forego any dramatic change in the Grutter framework substituting instead what seemed like a minor alteration in the obligation of universities to justify more rigorously their race-conscious recruitment methods.  Any major change in Grutter would have to await another day.

The result of the shift was to bring on board both Breyer and Sotomayor in the first Fisher ruling(Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter, who believed that UT had already done more than enough to justify its race-conscious programs). And from the standpoint of those Justices who would have liked a more substantial move away from Grutter, the incremental move was seen as one small step in a process that might include more radical changes in the future.

Sotomayor’s Rhetoric

Two important things changed from the time Fisher Iwas decided to the Court’s more recent decision to hear Abigail Fisher’s appeal for a second time. First, Justice Sotomayor issued a blistering dissent in the 2014 case of Schuette v. BAMN, a case on the constitutionality of Michigan’s ban on race-based affirmative action programs in state institutions.  Her opinion contained some of the kind of impassioned rhetoric — accusing the Court majority of insensitivity to racial discrimination and injustice — that allegedly was contained in her original, preliminary draft of a Fisher dissent.

Nothing particularly polarizing came of Sotomayor’s Schuette dissent, however, which some saw as out of place in the case at hand and not particularly resonant with either general public opinion in America or the opinion of the Court’s centrists. The polarization issue seemed neutralized, and one suspects that not only the three right-most Justices were more emboldened to revisit the Fisher case — i.e. Scalia, Thomas, and Alito — but very likely both Anthony Kennedy and the Chief Justice John Roberts.

Kennedy and Roberts Less Constrained

The second thing that changed from 2013 were the two dramatic victories for the Left handed down by the Court in 2015 in the gay marriage case (Obergefell v. Hodges) and the case interpreting Congress’s intention regarding the Obamacare law (King v. Burwell). John Roberts issued the majority opinion in the Obamacare case, while Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the gay marriage case. The Kennedy and Roberts performance in these cases were seen as a great betrayal by many political conservatives, but were warmly greeted by the Left and seen as an indication of the flexibility, fairness, and centrist leanings of both Kennedy and Roberts. The cases established for both Justices a certain level of respect from the left-leaning law school elite, whose opinions historically have often counted a great deal in the minds of the swing Justices and centrists on the Court.

Kennedy and Roberts almost certainly feel less constrained today to speak their minds on race-based preferences in academia than they did in 2013 before Obergefell and Burwell enhanced their bona fides (or at least diminished hostility towards them) on the part of the myriads of left-of-center court watchers and legal commentators. Any decision they might write today overruling Grutter or narrowing substantially the permissible range of racial preference policies is likely to encounter much less hostility and produce much less polarization than might have been the case even a year ago or when Fisher I was decided. This of course is a source of great encouragement for those of us who hope that the Court will overturn Grutter and reaffirm the simple truth that state institutions are not permitted to favor or disfavor people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or religion.

Asians Get in the Game

There is a third factor that may come into play in Fisher II that I have written about in an earlier Minding-the-Campus article — the rise of an aggressive Asian legal challenge to racial preferences in college admissions.  No longer quiescent or content to play simply the non-complaining “model minority” role, many Asian-American groups in recent years have come together and taken a page from the history of the NAACP to pursue an aggressive litigation strategy challenging racial preferences on 14th Amendment grounds. This strategy is clearly on display in Fisher II with an outstanding legal brief filed by two Asian-American groups, the Asian American Legal Foundation and the Asian American Coalition for Education, the latter an umbrella group representing 117 separate Asian-American organizations.

The AALF/AACE brief urges the Supreme Court not merely to modify Grutter‘s diversity-enhancement justification for racial preferences, but to overrule Grutter entirely and abandon “diversity” as a legitimate criterion for discriminating based on race. The brief is a model of legal craftsmanship, informed scholarship, and moral punch that announces to the Justices — loud and clear — that Asians will no longer take the widespread discrimination against them with indifference or passivity. The Asians are not going to keep quiet anymore when the universities establish the same kind of ceiling quotas against them that they imposed on the Jews in an earlier period of American history.

Related: Is Affirmative Action Micro-aggressive?

The constitutional question at hand, the brief began, is “whether Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), which upheld the use of racial preferences in higher education admissions for the non-remedial, and amorphous purpose of ‘diversity,’ should be overruled as fundamentally incompatible with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence?” The AALF/AACE brief answers this question with a resounding “yes” and backs up its claim not only with a reaffirmation of the color-blind interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause, but with extensive references to how Asian Americans have so often been victims of discrimination when this principle was ignored.

“Asian Americans, a minority group repeatedly victimized by discrimination, are the group most harmed by the University of Texas admission program,” the brief begins.  It continues: “UT’s use of race deprives Asian Americans of the right to be judged as individuals and not by the color of their skin.”  “For much of America’s history, race-based governmental programs have been used to oppress Asian Americans.”  “Today, supposedly benign racial balancing and diversity policies insidiously discriminate against Asian American students nationwide.” “[The Court] should re-establish the bright-line rule reserving use of race for remedial settings.”

The brief ends with two concluding sentences that cut to the quick: “For the foregoing reasons, the Court should find the UT admission program to be unconstitutional.  This Court should also revisit its holding in Grutter, to make clear that outside of a constitutionally-permissible remedy to prior discrimination, race may not be considered in college admissions.”

Asian Americans have come of age.  In the beginning of October of this year the London-based Economist ran an article titled “Asians Americans: The Model Minority is Losing Patience.”  Below the title, in a summary sentence, the article explains:  “Asian-Americans are the United States’ most successful minority, but they are complaining ever more vigorously about discrimination, especially in academia.” As the Economist writers report, after decades of relative quiescence, Asian Americans have found their voice of protest.  Like the Blacks and the Jews before them, they are no longer willing to accept in silence the overt discrimination against them. In the long history of American protest going back to the time of the American Revolution they are proclaiming to the world “Don’t Tread on Me!”

Whether this new assertiveness will have any effect on the outcome of Fisher II is impossible to say, but it just might provide the added push needed for five members of the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstitute the noble principle of color-blind justice so magnificently articulated by the elder Justice Harlan in the Plessy case.  The oral argument in Fisher II, scheduled for the end of this year, is going to be something to follow closely.

Asian Americans Move Against Harvard

Several years ago a Korean student in one of my precept classes at Princeton told me of the shock and anger among Asian students at his expensive California private high school when college acceptance letters arrived in late spring.  What really stoked the anger of many of his Asian classmates, he said, was the fact that the student in his class who did best in the college admission process was a Black female who applied to several of the most competitive universities in the nation and gained acceptance to every one of them, eventually choosing to enroll in Stanford.

“There were loads of Asian students with much better grades, much higher SAT scores, and who were much more active in the student council and a host of other extracurricular activities,” he said. To add insult to injury, he went on, this particular female student had a cold, off-putting, unfriendly personality — “she didn’t make it on charm” was the thrust of his additional remarks.  To many classmates the college admission system seemed rigged against Asians and absurdly tilted in favor of Blacks.

High SAT scores, top grades, extracurricular activities, and an ingratiating charm may not have been the strong suit of this particular Black prep school student,  but as those of us who have kept abreast of college admissions policies over the years know, being an “under-represented minority” can make up for a lot of lost ground.  Checking off the “Black” box on a college application rather than “Asian,” far from being the slight “thumb on the scale” that college administrators would like outsiders to believe, can be an enormous advantage in the college admission process, often counting as much or more than being a top athletic recruit.

In a widely publicized study of eight highly competitive colleges and universities, sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford found that on an “other things equal” basis in which adjustments were made for a large number of background factors, the Black-over-Asian advantage in college admissions was equivalent to 450 SAT points on a 1600 point scale (e.g. an 1100 Black score, other things being equal, carried the same weight in admissions as an Asian score of 1550).

Ceiling Quotas

Although they will invariably lie about it, many of the country’s top colleges and universities — including all of the Ivies — have informal “ceiling quotas” for Asian students, and informal “minimum quotas” for Blacks, not wanting “too many” of the one or “too few” of the other. Applicants from the high-achieving Asian group are at a huge disadvantage in the admissions process compared to both Black and Latino applicants since the universities resort to something very much like “race norming” — i.e. “within racial group” competition in which Asians, Latinos, and Blacks essentially compete only among themselves for a predetermined number of admits based on what is seen as a desirable racial balance.

The numerical quota and desired racial balance are slightly flexible in that they are allowed to vary within a narrow range from year to year depending on the quality of the applications received, but they are not permitted to stray too far from a predetermined racial proportionality goal.  Applicants from the different ethno-racial groups most certainly do not compete on a merit-only basis among the total applicant pool — a system that would lead to a huge increase in the number of Asian students and a corresponding decline in the number of both Blacks and Latinos. Merit-based systems, like those forced by popular ballot initiative upon Berkeley and UCLA, produce what most academic administrators at the Ivy League universities find unacceptable — i.e. a huge “over-representation” of the high achieving Asians and a corresponding “under-representation” of the much lower achieving Blacks and Latinos.

A Turn to Litigation

Despite the fact that they have been injured the most by racial preference policies, Asians throughout most of the affirmative action era have been rather quiescent in terms of public protest.  Like the Korean student in my precept class, individual Asians will protest privately what they see as outrageous racial double standards in university admissions, but they have not shown much interest in organized protest.  However, things may be changing, and the preferred vehicle of change seems to be an aggressive litigation strategy rather than legislative lobbying, campaigns to change public opinion, or organized street protests. In choice of strategies, the Asians of late seem to be following in the footsteps of the old NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which pursued a similar litigation strategy against racial discrimination in the middle decades of the last century.

Thomas Espenshade describes how the Asian community’s long-simmering anger over affirmative action policies may finally be entering the realm of organized protest.  “Up until five or ten years ago,” Espenshade says, “the [Asian] response [to affirmative action] has been, ‘Well we just have to work harder.’  But over the last decade, more groups are starting to mobilize, saying we don’t have to just accept this, we can push back against it.”

The most recent example of this pushing back occurred earlier this month when a formal complaint against Harvard University was lodged on behalf of a coalition of several dozen Asian groups with the civil rights divisions of both the U.S. Justice and Education departments. Sixty-four Chinese, Korean, Asian Indian, and Pakistani groups, organized under an umbrella organization called the Coalition of Asian American Associations, were alarmed by the much higher standards to which Asians are held in the college admission process and what are in effect implicit Asian ceiling quotas.  Much of the driving force behind the litigation and the organization of the complainants was the work of Yukong Zhao, a 55-year-old Chinese executive from Florida, who is the author of a much-underappreciated book on Confucian values and how they have propelled so many Asians to high levels of achievement in America.

Espenshade and Radford

The Asian group’s complaint reveals a clear understanding of the informal “race-norming” policies in place at Harvard and other elite universities.  “Asian-Americans understand that they are not competing for admission to Harvard against the entire applicant pool,” the Coalition charged in its complaint. “In light of Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies, they are competing only against each other — all other racial and ethnic groups are insulated from competing against high-achieving Asian-Americans.  Because Asian-Americans congregate at the high end of Harvard’s applicant pool, the competition is fierce.  This has deterred and continues to deter many qualified Asian-Americans from [even] applying to Harvard.”

The Coalition drew upon many sources in its complaint, including the scholarly work of Espenshade and Radford and the important study of quota-like admissions at the eight Ivy League universities presented by Ron Unz in his influential study “The Myth of American Meritocracy.”  It is difficult to read authors like Unz and Espenshade/Radford without concluding, as the Asian Coalition did, that our most elite universities practice something very much like the kind of “within-group” race-norming that has been explicitly prohibited by our Supreme Court as violative of both the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  This is the basis of the Coalition’s legal challenge.

A Second Challenge to Harvard 

Another legal challenge to Harvard’s admissions policies came last November when a group called the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging what was alleged to be illegal racial preference and racial balancing policies at Harvard College, which discriminate against Asian applicants.  The SFFA group was the brainchild of the anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, who launched a website seeking the names of students who believed they were rejected by Harvard and two other universities because of their race.  Blum had earlier been instrumental in connecting Abigail Fisher with attorneys willing to take on her racial discrimination case against the University of Texas at Austin (i.e. the case that led to the ambiguous Fisher v. Texas decision in 2013).

While not a lawyer himself, Blum describes his legal activities as that of a “Yenta match maker” who brings together those he believes have been the victim of affirmative-action-like prejudice (“reverse discrimination”) with suitable attorneys willing to take their case on a pro bono basis.  “I find the plaintiff,” he explains, “I find the lawyer, and I put them together.”  He receives no money for his activities and is driven entirely by a sense of justice and a sympathy for victims of unseemly race-based public policies.

Harvard seems to be listening. In responding to the discrimination charge of the Asian Coalition, Harvard’s general counsel Robert Iuliano offered the usual boilerplate about “holistic admissions” and a “diverse class,” but he also announced something quite encouraging: the percentage of Asians admitted to Harvard College in its most recent freshmen class had risen to 21 percent.  He gave no reason for this modest rise, but when one considers that the percentage of Asians accepted in the recent past at Harvard College has always fluctuated between the narrow bands of 15-20 percent, one gets the impression that something may be changing.

Harvard, one suspects, is beginning to feel the heat. And in the future one can expect that people like Yukong Zhao, Edward Blum, and better-organized Asian complainants will continue to ratchet up the temperature.  Harvard and other race-norming institutions are on notice:  the days of Asian passivity may be over. The time of Asian protest may have just begun.

Princeton Takes a Stand on Free Speech

Our university campuses are now islands of oppression in a sea of freedom.”—Abigail Thernstrom, 1990

So say many critics of our colleges, and, alas, in many cases correctly.  Here are the hallmarks of today’s college campus:

  • The implementation of hate speech codes
  • The stultifying strictures of political correctness
  • The greatly expanded notions of verbal harassment
  • The absence of right-of-center viewpoints among the faculty and high-level administrators
  • The disruption of talks given  by those on the  wrong side of issues like gay marriage and affirmative action
  • The denial of the most elementary rights of due process to students accused of sexual misconduct
  • The overt indoctrination of mandatory attendance at diversity orientation and sexual harassment assemblies

Amidst all such developments colleges and universities today are often highly politicized arenas in which students are required to check their free speech rights at the college gates

While civil libertarians and defenders of our First Amendment freedoms sometimes exaggerate the harms that they see, they are not wrong when they single out America’s colleges and universities for special rebuke.  It is largely because of the egregious situation they describe that organizations like FIRE and the Minding the Campus website are kept in business — doing yeoman’s work to provide a countervailing force to the stultifying atmosphere and outright repression of free speech found on so many of our campuses.

What Universities Could Be

The situation is particularly lamentable when one considers the high hopes once raised for the social role of universities in a democratic society.  Karl Mannheim, the Hungarian-born sociologist of a century ago, believed that modern universities should become places where broad-minded intellectuals holding diverse views on the many contentious social, political, and religious issues of the day.  The goal was to come together to mutually enrich and expand the understanding of each other’s alternative perspective and arrive at a more comprehensive truth about the nature of the issues at hand. Like John Stuart Mill, Mannheim believed that controversial public policy issues are usually multi-faceted and that the human mind naturally tends toward one-sidedness.

Mill’s On Liberty stated the basic idea with its author’s characteristic clarity: “Truth, in the practical concerns of life,” Mill wrote, “is so much a question of the reconciling and combining of opposites, that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial to make the adjustment with an approach to correctness.”  In politics, morality, religion and other areas outside of mathematics and natural science, Mill believed, “popular opinions … are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth.  They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjointed from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.  Heretical opinions …are generally some of these suppressed and neglected truths.”  Mill continued, “Such being the partial character of prevailing opinions, even when resting on a true foundation, every opinion, which embodies somewhat of the portion of truth which the common opinion omits ought to be considered precious, with whatever amount of error and confusion that truth may be blended.”

In England during Mill’s time, rather than finding its home in universities, vibrant intellectual discourse was typically carried on in highbrow journals and learned societies (think of the Westminster Review and the Royal Society). Ideas were promoted mostly by freewheeling thinkers and virtuoso intellectuals (Bentham, Ricardo, Darwin, James Mill, etc.) rather than Oxford or Cambridge dons.  Some today would see parallels to the contemporary American scene, with much of the best discussion on issues of politics, religion, and morality taking place outside the universities in think tanks such as Brookings, Heritage, Cato, AEI, the Manhattan Institute and the like.  But however important institutions outside our universities may be, there is really no substitute for the potential that universities today can offer to achieve the high purpose that thinkers like Mannheim have ascribed to them,

Clarity and Force

In my time at Princeton since the late 1980s, few developments have given me as much reason to rejoice as what happened on April 6th of this year at a general meeting of the faculty.  Presided over by the university’s president Christopher Eisgruber, the faculty passed, with little or no opposition, a magnificent statement on the university’s commitment to freedom of speech.  The statement is a model of both clarity and force, and was patterned after a similar statement adopted by the University of Chicago last year.  Here is the Princeton statement in full:

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.  Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community “to discuss any problem that presents itself.

Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.  Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish.  The University may restrict expression that violates the law that falsely defames a specific individual that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.  In addition, the University may reasonably regulate time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.  But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.

In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.  Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression.  Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.  To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

Princeton’s version of the Chicago resolution was proposed to the faculty by Sergiu Klainerman, a professor in the mathematics department. “Although academic freedom is one of the university’s most basic principles,” the Klainerman letter began, “its meaning and significance often tend to fade over time.” The letter continued:

Every so often, then, it becomes crucial to reaffirm the importance of freedom of expression on our campus.  It is with this thought in mind that the University of Chicago recently published a report heartily reasserting its commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university community. Several of us representing various scholarly disciplines at Princeton are joining together to propose that our university endorse the principles of the Chicago report.

The signers of the letter were disproportionately drawn from the STEM fields (particularly mathematics, physics, and computer science), but there were also among the endorsers many from social science and humanities departments.  I emailed Klainerman after the vote and asked why he sent the letter and whether he saw any specific threats to free expression on the campus. Instead of singling out a specific group, he said he “would rather point to a broad collective forgetfulness about the meaning of free speech on colleges and universities.

The editorial board of the Daily Princetonian hailed the new statement on free speech and urged the university to do more:

We suggest the University go one-step further and wholly replace the existing free speech code in the guidebook with the new statement.

The current code bears a “red light” designation from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, due to policies that “both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.” The present language allows for University sanctions against an individual whose verbal behavior “demeans” or “intimidates” another.

Here, as in many behavior codes, Princeton’s language of sensitivity dilutes the insistence on free speech. The university may well follow the editorial board’s suggestion, but for now, the faculty letter is an impressive win for free speech.

The faculty declaration became significant almost immediately after its passage as a controversy emerged in the second week of April over a skit performed by a campus group calling itself Urban Congo that was widely perceived as demeaning to Africa and Africans.  There were calls on social media to have the group officially reprimanded or disband, but there was also considerable support for a criticize-but-don’t-censor position.

One columnist for the Prince, who sympathized for those offended by the Urban Congo skit, nevertheless offered some practical advice about what to do about the situation that did not involve censorship.  “Free speech doesn’t mean that students harmed by others have no recourse except for a thicker skin,” the student columnist wrote. “If Urban Congo offended you, tell them why; tell other students why they’re wrong; ask your classmates to boycott or condemn the show.  Use your free speech against theirs.  Change the attitudes of your classmates; don’t police their behavior.”

Let’s hope attitudes like this prevail on other college campuses and that declarations like those of the Chicago and Princeton faculty become the new reigning norm.

25 Years on the Affirmative Action Firing Line

Over the more than 25 years that I have been writing articles and giving talks critical of racial preferences at American universities, I think I have learned something about the contours of the public debate on this issue, especially as it pertains to the more selective institutions.  Here are four salient conclusions Continue reading 25 Years on the Affirmative Action Firing Line

Grade Inflation—Why Princeton Threw in the Towel

In my freshman year at Duke in the mid-1960s, C’s were still the most common grade in my courses, about equal to the total number of A’s and B’s combined.  In my first-semester freshman composition course, there were no A’s given, only two B’s, one or two D’s — and all the rest C’s.  The professor in question, a middle-aged man with a Harvard Ph.D. (who may have been a bit frustrated over having to teach freshman English) was stricter than most in his grading but he was by no means an extreme outlier. Later,  I recall reading in a student publication that the average grade for all courses given in the university was something like a C+.

In large, introductory courses taken by a substantial cross section of the student body the grade distribution at a typical college or university in earlier times might look something like this: A’s:15%, B’s:25%, C’s:45%, D’s:10%, and F’s:5%. In words, the meaning of the letter grades were given as: A=Excellent; B=Good or Above Average; C=Average or Fair; D=Poor; and F=Failing.  Like so many other aspects of American society and culture, things changed very rapidly on the grading front in the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was then that what we now call “grade inflation” got its initial start and experienced its most rapid rise.

Continue reading Grade Inflation—Why Princeton Threw in the Towel

Is Affirmative Action Really Doomed?

In a recent article in the New York Times (6/17/14), economic columnist David Leonhardt says that “affirmative action as we know it is probably doomed”. I wish I could be so confident.  Premature obituaries for affirmative action have been a periodic  feature of commentators and op-ed writers for three decades now (I foolishly engaged in such speculation myself many years ago), yet racial preferences, especially those in academia, have proven highly resistant to a final demise.

Continue reading Is Affirmative Action Really Doomed?

How UCLA Lies about Affirmative Action

As critics have noted for years, the affirmative action regime in America inevitably requires deception and untruthfulness from its operatives.  In his new book, Cheating: An Insider’s Report on the Use of Race in Admissions at UCLA, Tim Groseclose gives us a rare glimpse into the covert racial preferences given at UCLA, where he is a professor of political science. 

BCcheating.jpg For ideological reasons UCLA, he shows, is committed to granting racial preferences in undergraduate admissions, while at the same time, for legal and political reasons, it must deny that it is doing this.  Such denial, Groseclose thinks, may in some cases be only partially conscious, at least for those not directly involved in the actual process of administering the admissions preferences. The human capacity for self-delusion and contorted “doublethink,” he believes, is substantial.  Nevertheless, there is a general lack of transparency in UCLA’s admissions process, Groseclose shows, and a relentless effort on the part of top administrators to make sure the process stays secretive and non-transparent.

Groseclose’s book offers an insider’s account of how UCLA clearly violated its legal obligations under California’s Proposition 209 (the California Civil Rights Initiative), which amended the California state constitution in 1996  to prohibit state institutions from considering race, gender, or ethnicity in areas of public education, public employment, and public contracting.  Groseclose first got wind of UCLA’s disregard for the law in the Spring of 2008 when he served on the faculty oversight committee on admissions.  Incredible as it may seem, when he asked for actual statistical data on applicants and admits to the university in order to be able to make informed recommendations about UCLA’s actual admissions policies, he was flat-out refused by the admissions committee.

Continue reading How UCLA Lies about Affirmative Action

How ‘Undermatching’ Harms Smart Low-Income Students

radford.jpgMost readers of Minding the Campus are well aware of the phenomenon of “mismatching” in colleges first brought to national attention in regard to African American students by Cornell economics professor Thomas Sowell in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Sowell showed that many of the black students at Cornell, who often had scores on national exams like the SAT that would have placed them in the middle of the pack at hundreds of respectable middle-selectivity colleges and universities, were upwardly thrust into the competitive hothouse of an Ivy League institution like Cornell where they were simply overwhelmed by the academic demands of the college curriculum. Many of these mismatched blacks, Sowell found, were on academic probation; some lashed out in frustration at the Cornell administration in the famous “guns on campus” episode.

Shunning the Best Schools

Since the 1970s we have learned a good deal about mismatch and in particular the harmful effect it has for undergraduates seeking a degree in a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, math) and for those in law school who hope to graduate and pass the bar exam. (Readers who want to learn more about the harm of mismatch might begin with Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor’s Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It).  In recent years, however, there has been a fair amount of research on a different kind of mismatch than the “overmatching” that Sowell and others have written about.  Some students, including many poor whites and students from rural and small town backgrounds, have SAT scores and a general high-school preparation that would enable them to gain access to highly competitive colleges and universities purely on their own academic merit without “affirmative action” preferences of any kind.  Yet they often fail to apply to such schools and wind up attending lower- level institutions where most of the students are considerably beneath them academically.  Instead of being “overmatched” they are “undermatched,” and researchers have sought to determine why this situation occurs and what might be done to correct it.

Over the past year two important studies have appeared addressing this undermatching phenomenon, which have received considerable coverage in the popular press.  Both see undermatched students as missing out on what more highly selective colleges and universities have to offer.  The first is by Stanford economist Carolyn Hoxby and Harvard public policy professor Christopher Avery. It appeared as a National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper (“The Missing ‘One-Offs’: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students”).  Hoxby and Avery had access to enormous data bases that enabled them to look at all students from lower- income backgrounds (bottom quartile of all U.S. households containing high school seniors) who scored at the 90th percentile or above on either the SAT (with scores higher than or equal to 1300) or the ACT (with scores higher than or equal to 29).  Since only about 40 percent of all secondary school students take one of these two college aptitude tests (the other 60 percent are usually not college-bound or intend to enroll in a non-selective college), this top 10 percent of SAT and ACT test takers represents the top 4 percent of all high school seniors — an elite group to be sure.

A Striking Finding

What Hoxby and Avery found was striking.  More than half (53 percent) of these “low-income, high achievers” do not apply to even a single selective college or university, defined as one whose median SAT or ACT score is within 15 percentiles of their own high score.  And some who do apply to high-selectivity schools often apply to just one, not realizing what a poor strategy this is.  “It is not unusual,” Hoxby and Avery write, “to see [low-income, high-achieving] students who apply to only a local non-selective college and one extremely selective and well-known college — Harvard, for instance.  No expert would advise such a strategy because the probability of getting into an extremely selective, well-known college is low if a student applies to just one — even if the student’s test scores and grades are typical of the college’s students.”

Those low-income high achievers who do apply and enroll in very competitive colleges are usually those who come from large central cities “where they are likely to attend selective, magnet, or other high schools with a critical mass of high achievers.”  Such schools, Hoxby and Avery report, typically have not only many students applying to higher-selectivity institutions, but have recent graduates who have enrolled in such institutions and guidance counselors who are savvy about the prospects of their better students getting admitted to such schools.  They are also usually aware that the more elite colleges and universities, while they have high “sticker prices” in terms of tuition, room, and board, also have much more money than lower-ranking institutions to give out in scholarship aid.  These urban institutions are disproportionately black, Latino, and Asian.

Call on the Alumni

Many of the low-income, high-achieving students who do not currently apply to very competitive colleges are white and live in areas far from the major urban centers, often in small to medium-sized towns or rural areas.  These are the “low-hanging fruit” whose number Hoxby and Avery estimate, for the high school graduating class of 2008, to be between 25,000 and 35,000. Rural and small-town high schools often have few students who score at the level of the typical student in an elite college, and those who do have few peers like themselves and little knowledge about either their prospects of gaining access to an elite institution or the scholarship advantages that acceptance to such an institution might provide. If the most competitive colleges and universities want to increase income diversity among their students, these are the obvious targets of recruitment.  Hoxby and Avery recommend that they do this by employing more of their alumni in the recruitment and information-providing process since it would be prohibitively expensive to have a permanent admissions staff large enough to send representatives to areas of the country thinly populated with high-achieving students.  Recruiting such students would clearly increase income diversity on many college campuses, but Hoxby and Avery acknowledge that it would not bring many more blacks and Latinos to campus, a prime goal of most institutions.

The other important undermatch study is by Alexandria Walton Radford titled Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College.  Radford is a Princeton-trained sociologist who co-authored with Thomas Espenshade the influential study of affirmative action preferences and college-admissions practices, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal.  Radford’s most recent work is an in-depth study of approximately 900 high-school valedictorians all of whom graduated between 2003 and 2006. The valedictorians were selected from local newspaper accounts in five states, and each filled out an extensive questionnaire about their family background, their college admissions behavior, the colleges and universities they got accepted to, and the institutions they actually enrolled in.  Respondents were separated into three socioeconomic categories, high- medium-, and low-SES. A subset consisting of 55 of these students were selected for extensive personal interviews.

Fear of Overmatching

Much of what Radford found coincides with the findings of the Hoxby/Avery study.  Low-SES valedictorians, for instance, were much less likely to apply to a top-rated college than those from wealthier families, though their academic credentials were often equal to these higher-SES students.  While four in five of the valedictorians from high-SES families applied to at least one of the top 72 colleges and universities listed in the U.S. News and World Report ratings, only half of the low-SES valedictorians did so.  The low-SES valedictorians usually got much less encouragement from home to apply to elite colleges, often because their parents had little knowledge of such institutions, did not know about their generous financial aid, and encouraged their offspring to attend colleges close to home.  The low-SES students were often without friends, neighbors, or classmates who had ever attended an elite college, and some thought they would be overmatched intellectually at such institutions even though their own high school achievement and scores on standardized tests indicated otherwise.

It is for these reasons, Radford says, that the top colleges and universities have so few students who do not hail from middle or upper-middle-class backgrounds.  “Without affecting the quality of matriculants enrolled,” Radford writes, “top institutions could increase the proportion of less-affluent students in their student bodies” by a considerable margin.  Like many other commentators, Radford thinks greater socioeconomic diversity would be a very good thing for the top colleges and universities in America, and that those from lower-SES circumstances who have the academic qualifications to attend such institutions miss out on a great deal by attending lower-selectivity schools.  “America’s best students,” she writes, “should all be bound for America’s best colleges and universities, regardless of their socioeconomic status” (emphasis in original).  The benefits of attending a top-rated school, she says, include more generous financial aid packages, greater chances of graduating, and greater chances of going on to graduate or professional school.   To encourage more high-achieving, low-SES students to apply to elite colleges and universities Radford recommends better outreach to these students by college-admissions officers, better high school counseling, and better dissemination of information about the generous financial aid often available at these institutions.

Big Fish, Small Pond

I have three comments to make about the recent concern over these undermatched students.  First, the concern is well-placed in so far as many high-achieving students who come from lower-SES backgrounds and who are often the first in their family to attend college aren’t well informed about their college options.  Many, if better informed, would wind up applying to, and attending, much more selective institutions than they attend now.  The institutions would surely benefit from what affirmative action policies today clearly do not deliver — i.e. greater demographic diversity without compromising academic standards.  Whether the students themselves would benefit is a difficult question to answer, since there’s something to be said for being a big fish in a little pond (i.e., a high-end student in a middle-level school) rather than one medium-sized fish in a large pond of many equals and superiors.  And contrary to what many think, the independent “school effect” of attending a more selective college, once motivation and background factors are weighed in, is not very great — most of the income and other career advantages of graduates of elite colleges can be attributed to the greater talent, motivation, and drive of the students who get admitted to those institutions rather than to the institutions themselves.

My second comment concerns the misplaced hope of some that a better search for low- income, high-achieving students will greatly offset the middle-to-upper-middle-class bias found on most elite college campuses.  Without lowering standards, modest changes can certainly be affected in the socio-economic makeup of college campuses by reaching out to low-income, high achievers, and such changes would certainly be welcome.  But there is no getting around the hard logic that Richard Herrnstein explained more than 40 years ago.  Parents with high academic ability are much more likely to have children with similar academic gifts than parents with lower abilities (academic ability is partially heritable), and high academic ability in America, when combined with perseverance and hard work, usually translates into higher-paying jobs and higher socio-economic status. The children of highly educated professionals from Scarsdale will always be more likely to possess the intellectual and other talents needed to gain admission to elite institutions than the children of blue-collar workers from Brooklyn, and they will also have many other advantages that translate into a class skewing of the student bodies at the most selective institutions.  There is no getting around this fact.

My final concern is with the “brain drain” and its aftermath that would inevitably follow if top-achieving students universally spurned middle-level colleges. Having myself taught at four such colleges (Moravian College, Valparaiso University, College of New Rochelle, Rider College), I know how important such students can be to elevating the intellectual level of the colleges they attend.  Almost all sizable middle-level colleges will contain at least a few students who would do well at Ivy League institutions, but their loss to the institutions they now attend would be substantial.  I don’t know whether this loss should be of less concern than the diversity-enhancement gain their presence in the Ivies and other elite institutions would represent. I’m genuinely conflicted on this question.  Others may have a different weighing of this tradeoff, but it is important to realize that there is a tradeoff here and that high-end students who fail to attend high-end institutions do not necessarily do themselves or others a disservice.  They are, in fact, an invaluable resource to the lesser-selectivity institutions they attend.