‘Holistically’ Eliminating a Lot of ‘Them’ in Admissions

It’s rare indeed to get an inside look into how the “holistic” admissions process actually works at a major university. The “holistic” approach allegedly treats all applicants individually but, it’s widely assumed, actually serves as a cover to allow public universities to employ unconstitutional, quota-like racial preferences.

A first-person recollection of Cal-Berkeley’s “holistic” process penned by a former evaluator, Ruth Starkman of Stanford, confirmed the obvious about hidden racial and ethnic preferences. The column starts out with Starkman noting the enormous academic gaps between an Indian-American and a Hispanic applicant that she graded, even as both received similar overall application scores. The piece also hints at relentless pressure from upper-level admissions bureaucrats to flag more academically challenged, but suitably diverse, candidates. Starkman comes across as sympathetic to Berkeley’s basic “diversity” goals; her critique appears to be focused more on the opaqueness of the process rather than the use of racial preferences.

None of this is in any way surprising. But one vignette Starkman recounts is deeply disturbing. Her essay recalls Berkeley’s goal to have a more “socioeconomically diverse” admissions class that would have a smaller percentage of Californians, and also an emphasis on a vaguely defined quality of demonstrating leadership, or engaging in extra-curricular activities that separated the applicant from the crowd.

At one training session, Starkman encountered “a low-income student with top grades and scores, and who had served in the Israeli army.” But this applicant received only a score of 3 (on a 1-5 scale). The admissions officer conducting the training responded dismissively, “Oh, you’ll get a lot of them.”

Starkman doesn’t record who the “them” in this case were–Jews as a whole, or only Zionists, or simply IDF veterans. But the vignette reflects extremely poorly on Berkeley.

To reiterate: this candidate, on paper, seemed to be just what Berkeley wanted–socioeconomically diverse, and (through a record of military service) someone who had demonstrated leadership. Yet the “3” score all but ensured that Berkeley would reject this applicant. Do you think that the applicant’s fate would have differed if he or she had spent a stint in the Mexican army rather than in the IDF?

In her Fisher dissent, Justice Ginsburg cautioned, “As for holistic review, if universities cannot explicitly include race as a factor, many may ‘resort to camouflage’ to ‘maintain their minority enrollment.'” While Ginsburg, of course, was arguing for universities to have the right to consider race in a quota-like fashion, her critique of holistic review seems, if anything, too timid. The Berkeley IDF vignette suggests that “holistic review” also allows universities to camouflage the often ugly prejudice against Israel and Zionists that infects too much of higher education today.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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