If you like “whodunit” books and “perfect crime” plots, I heartily recommend the Tim Groseclose experience of trying to obtain the data to evaluate the “holistic” admissions process of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Groseclose is the political science professor who blew the whistle on what he considers to be UCLA’s violation of the California Constitution with regard to the use of race preferences in admissions to his campus.
As a regent of the University of California (UC), I supported the use of what we called “comprehensive review” as an alternative to over-reliance on standardized test scores. Yet, at the time of approval, I and others expressed concern that allowing UC campuses the discretion to view applicants for admission “comprehensively” opened the door to the use of subjective factors that could not be detected or proven; however, it was my belief then that UC administrators would resist the temptation to cheat and violate the California Constitution and that they would administer this new process with integrity. In the case of UCLA, I am now strongly convinced that my faith in the institution’s honor has been misplaced.
Why the perfect crime?
Originally, UCLA reviewed applications for admission by determining the academic competitiveness of those in the applicant pool solely on the basis of academic performance. Nonacademic factors were reviewed separately. This approach was a fail-safe method of ensuring that the constitutionally prohibited factors of race, color, ethnicity, sex and national origin would not be factors in admissions decisions.
The process worked well, except that it resulted in fewer black students being admitted. The reasons for this result are quite obvious. First, the pool of black students who are competitively admissible to academically select institutions of higher education, such as UCLA, is comparatively quite small. Second, when nonacademic factors are applied to the admissions process, in California, the reality is that such factors tend to benefit Vietnamese and other Asian students more than black students, because the former evidence greater “obstacles overcome” — a central tenet of comprehensive review — than the latter. Blacks in the admission pool have more likely than Vietnamese students been children of parents who have attended college, not been faced with language problems and come from households with higher incomes. Thus, while the black students in the admission pool have typically lower academic achievement, their academic performance cannot be traced to socioeconomic disadvantages inasmuch as Asian students, especially Vietnamese, can demonstrate greater obstacles.
In response to the lack of academic competitiveness on the part of black students, leading to their “under-representation,” black advocates complained that the admissions system was unfair to black students and needed to be changed. Predictably, UCLA administrators responded to their complaints by implementing the necessary changes to trigger higher rates of admission for black applicants. although they steadfastly deny that this was their rationale. Their denial does not pass the giggle test, however. Here is how they committed the crime and why the crime is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove.
The first step was to merge the nonacademic factors with the academic ones, thereby creating a fuzzy process that is described as “holistic” review. It is the explicit purpose of holistic review to create mystery, to not be transparent, to not a leave a trail of how any admission decision was arrived at for admitting “applicant a” instead of “applicant b.” In homicide units of law enforcement, for example, motive is the most important factor when looking for the perpetrator of a crime. Holistic review is a process that seeks to totally hide the motive for admitting any specific applicant.
While written essays were not of significant importance during the era of race preferences in California, once preferences were eliminated the essay became critical. How else can the university determine the worthiness of a specific applicant from among 48,000 – 51,000 applicants without a personal essay? I mean, the lives of 16- and 17-year old high school graduates are so enormously complex and their accomplishments are so considerable that only 250-word essays can fully describe the backgrounds of such individuals. [I hope my sarcasm doesn’t bleed through the page.]
But, who is to read these essays and make the determination of which applicant, from among 51,000, would make a “greater contribution to diversity?” The answer for UCLA was to hire a disproportionate number of black high school counselors, as the “Groseclose Report” reveals (roughly a fourth of the application readers hired by UCLA for the 2007-08 review process were black). The rationale for this decision, I have no doubt, is that UCLA assumed that black readers would be more “sensitive” to applicants who are black. And, why should they not be, inasmuch as it is widely known that many black teachers and counselors frequently advise black high school students to “tell them about yourself” when preparing those critical college essays.
In discussions that I have had with various UC admissions staff over the years, it is clear that the essay is the primary tool for identifying “under-represented minority” students. For example, if a student emphasizes that he was president of the “black student union” at his high school, the probability is extremely high that this student is not Vietnamese or Filipino. Sharing such information is a legally acceptable way to provide an essay reader in search of the applicant’s race with such information.
To complete the perfect crime, UCLA assigns multiple readers to each application to create the false impression that each application has received sufficient objective scrutiny when, in fact, all readers are part of the same professional network and, thus, inclined to scratch each other’s backs.
So, we have a system which elevates subjective factors such as “adversity,” leadership, and community service to a status equal to that of the more objective standards of academic achievement. We include the requirement for an essay and make it critical that applicants tell the university about themselves in ways that particularly identify how the applicant might contribute to “diversity,” we develop and recruit a cadre of high school counselors who are primed to advise students about what to include in essays so as to reveal the essential race identification information, and then the university hires the requisite readers to complete the task. And, in none of these elements of the process is there the smoking gun. Thus, the “perfect crime.”
When asked why not make applications that include reference to the prohibited factors automatically ineligible for review, Kevin Reed, UCLA’s vice chancellor for legal affairs, replied:
“University of California policy and the state constitution forbid UCLA from discriminating against, or granting preference to, candidates on the basis of race or ethnicity — or sex, or national origin. All admissions officials and reviewers receive explicit instructions that race and ethnicity are to play no role in their rankings of candidates. While race does not play a role in any individual admissions decision, UCLA can and must take steps to ensure that its admissions process overall works in such a way that exceptional candidates from all of California’s racial and ethnic groups have a fair chance at admission. Student diversity is a compelling interest at UCLA. It contributes to a rich and stimulating learning environment, one that best prepares leaders-in-the-making for the challenges and opportunities of California, the nation and beyond.”
It is my belief that any reader being given the instructions supplied by Mr. Reed would feel a sense of obligation to select students who promote “diversity,” because “diversity is a compelling interest at UCLA.”
When asked about the reason for changing to holistic review and whether this change was for the express purpose of benefitting black applicants, Mr. Reed said:
“The shocking decline in 2006 in the number of African American high school students offered admission to UCLA — combined with the small number of African American students who elected to attend the university — became a catalyst for consideration of changes in the admissions process in 2006…”
“The change was implemented in an attempt to improve the fairness and accuracy of the admissions process in selecting those most likely to succeed at UCLA. It was not designed to increase the number of African Americans admitted as freshmen, but the very low numbers of African Americans admitted under the prior system caused UCLA to question whether the admissions process in place at the time served UCLA’s compelling interest in ensuring equal opportunity.”
In short, it is the conclusion of UCLA that because black students were not as academically competitive as Asian and white students once race preferences were eliminated, UCLA was justified in questioning whether race-neutral measures “served UCLA’s compelling interest in ensuring equal opportunity.” (i.e. “diversity”).
What UCLA has done is indefensible, it seems to me, and I believe the campus knows it. That is precisely why the request of Groseclose for admissions data was denied, why the campus has been so jittery about its use of holistic review, and why an “independent evaluation” has been commissioned by the parties who conspired to prevent the requested information from being given to Groseclose.
Public universities across the nation need to start getting comfortable with the high probability that the era of race preferences is coming to an end, either due to a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, elections at the ballot box, or popular sentiment of the American people. In preparation for that likelihood, university admission officers need to develop an effective tool for evaluating applicants without regard to their race, color or ethnicity. “Comprehensive review” makes complete sense in such a circumstance. It will be important, however, that this approach be administered with honor and integrity and not used as a means of circumventing the prohibition against the use of race preferences.