The Affirmative Action Zealots Have Won: Time to Surrender

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For a half century
I’ve vehemently opposed racial preferences in higher education. Opposition was
partially ideological–I believe in merit–and partly based on sorrowful
firsthand experience with affirmative action students and faculty. Though my
principles remain unchanged I am now ready to concede defeat, throw in the
towel and raise the white flag. Abolishing racial preferences is the academic
equivalent of trying to win a land war in Asia: the enemy is just too strong,
too tenacious and willing to use whatever means necessary. Our side may win a
few battles, e.g., California’s Proposition 209, Hopwood, but at the end of the day, hoards of faceless
bureaucrats and left-wing faculty soldier on. If it takes a village to uncover
special abilities that justify admitting the academically marginal, rest
assured, the village will be recruited, trained and then celebrated as
champions of social justice. Our side just lacks the stomach to outlast zealots
who shamelessly use every ruse imaginable.

The Articles of
Surrender will proclaim (1) universities, whether state or private, religious
or secular, can admit any student according to any criteria whatsoever; (2)
schools are now permitted to bestow degrees according to whatever standards
that suit them. That’s it: zero restrictions, a total, complete and
unconditional surrender.

What possible benefits
derive from surrender? Most plainly, it will end the barefaced lying that now
permeates university life. Absent any academic standards for admission,
university presidents will no longer be obligated to insist that every single
enrollee satisfies rigorous academic standards. 
Freed of the usual lying, universities might restore its credibility
though, to be sure, a 100-point average SAT decline in the incoming freshman
class might raise questions about the university’s academic mission.

This newfound freedom
to ignore merit is hardly revolutionary. It restores the long standing (and
uncontroversial) tradition of admission offices indulging their unfettered
proclivities. Let’s not forget quotas limiting Eastern European Jews in favor
of less smart but “well-rounded” WASPS (the cream of American society–thick and
rich). Is the once venerated but fuzzy trait of “leadership” really much
different than putting a thumb on the scales for those suffering racial
discrimination?   Let’s be frank:
American universities have never enjoyed a Golden Age of merit even at today’s
elite schools; provisions exist for athletes, members of the marching band,
legacies and who knows what else.       

Relieved of the need
to lie, truth-tellers now have a fair shot to advance up the university’s
career ladder. The Darwinian dividend, so to speak. Gone will be the
humiliating public performances in which candidates for school president insist
that they can create near-perfect diversity without resorting to illegal
quotas. At last, shameless liars will be deprived of their competitive
advantage.

Second, with
mendacious cover stories gone (“we don’t use race but it just so happens….”),
the public will now see how the university really operates, for better or
worse. Freedom to admit anyone for any reason brings accountability. No need to
hide behind complex formulas to obscure ideologically motivated deviousness.
Faced with the rejection of countless Asians with perfect SAT scores and 4.0
GPA’s, the Berkeley Dean of Admissions cannot claim that the school is just
super sensitive to unique talents ignored by paper-and-pencil tests. The Dean
can only say that Berkeley just didn’t want all those bright Asians, an
admission identical to what the Ivy League openly acknowledged prior to the
late 1950s–who wants all those smart pushy Jews when well-rounded rich legacy
kids from Exeter will do just fine?   

Clearly, given the
ideological inclination of today’s admissions officers, this freedom will dilute
the value of diplomas from ideological elite institutions. But, does this
dilution undermine academic excellence? Reality is a bit more complicated and
matters may improve in the long run.

Yes, employers will
now face higher sorting costs, but this burden is easily surmounted.  Employers can just check majors, SAT scores,
and other indicators of intellectual quality apart from owning a piece of paper.
Companies like
Brainbench provide multiple tests, many taking only a few
hours, to measure cognitive skills, personality, and knowledge of potential
employees, and with the diploma reduced in value, such firms and their tests
will proliferate. Think of the eras when paper bank notes circulated alongside
gold and silver–regardless of face value, gold and silver were preferred and
prices were adjusted accordingly. Flooding the market with inflated degrees
thanks to soft admissions standards is only a nuisance and hardly the end of
the world.  

As Richard Epstein
argues in his
Forbidden
Grounds
, the
marketplace usually stamps out wasteful foolishness. While Epstein focused on
employment law, the same argument holds for university admissions policy: let
universities suffer from their “social justice” dream. I cannot recall a single
law suit from the 1950s in which a Jewish student sued to gain entrance into an
Ivy League school. Admission officers there just realized that the old quota
policy would now mean their school’s demise.

The costly
consequences of letting admission
apparatchiki
redefine merit into race and ethnic quotas are predictable.  Various
college guides will quickly sound
the alarm. Parents of brainy kids will seek alternatives to declining elite
schools and rest assured, fewer applications from smart kids (many of who can
afford full tuition) will create panic. Egalitarian professors will now see the
wages of sin as they confront an upsurge of unprepared students (“I knew that
these kids didn’t know much but I had no idea…”). And just wait until these
Ivory Tower diversity ideologues see their research budgets redirected to
expensive search for hard-to-find Native American physicists, yet more
administrators to oversee identity programs and the newly allocated millions to
mentor and role model iffy students into “graduates.” Better yet, these
champions of inclusion will lose academic prestige as their school slides
toward community college status (many, I suspect, will also abandon
undergraduate teaching rather than face this new world order). Let’s not also
forget the public officials obligated to raise taxes to cover the loss of
tuition plus the fallout from dumbing down a university that once attracted
tax-paying industry.

Meanwhile the schools
that withstood the siren song of replacing merit with inclusiveness will
prosper. Just let market forces perform their invisible tasks and far more
cheaply (and more efficient) than seemingly endless expensive litigation. If
Berkeley goes all quotas 24/7, decent but hardly top-tier schools like
Claremont-Mckenna will see better undergraduate applicants
plus faculty who want to teach bright students who are anxious to learn.
They’ll be dancing in the streets in Palo Alto. 

 Hypothetical disaster scenarios of higher
education by quota do not penetrate deeply. The pain must be real. I can
personally remember the unheeded warnings about CCNY’s impending doom when it
embraced the open admissions experiment that began in 1970.
The vision of a city filled with diverse, multicultural scholars once consigned
to humble community colleges was intoxicating. Reality, however, refused to
cooperate. The poor person’s Harvard virtually overnight collapsed into
disaster. Graduation rates were dreadful, remedial courses proliferated, majors
were created that lacked students, graduates struggled with professional
certification exams and senior faculty often fled to the university’s more
selective Graduate School. It took nearly three decades to end the fantasy, but
the lesson has left an indelible mark, at least among those who can recall the
disaster.

As the old adage says,
be careful what you wish for, and since those enamored to the quota fantasy are
currently incorrigible, an example must be set and since California is already
in deep trouble killing off Berkeley and UCLA will scarcely be noticed and, as
we suggest, the corresponding benefits elsewhere will mitigate costs. So, a
teachable moment is at hand–let the ideological fantasy begin.   

—————————————————————-
Robert Weissberg is professor of political science emeritus at the University
of Illinois-Urbana and occasionally teaches in the NYU politics department MA
program.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

2 thoughts on “The Affirmative Action Zealots Have Won: Time to Surrender

  1. I have another suggestion. Let’s demand absolute rigid quotas for all possible classifications of people: gender, age, race (all of them), income, religion, political affiliation, etc.
    These quotas apply to the faculty and staff as well as the students.
    The quotas apply not merely to the school as a whole, but to each subunit, college, department, division etc.
    The quotas also apply to all the school’s sports programs.
    For state schools, use the state’s own distribution of classes. For private schools, use the nation’s distribution.
    In each class, to avoid discrimination based on bogus IQ scores, hire and admit by a random draw among applicants.
    As to graduation, demand that everyone admitted get the degree he/she/it asks for.
    As to salaries and benefits for faculty and staff, everyone gets the exact same amount.

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