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.
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.
Just how a member of the oversight committee was to make intelligent recommendations in the absence of actual enrollment data was never explained. Groseclose believed that his denial of access to the admissions data was almost certainly on orders from higher-level administrators who feared what the data might reveal. Although he was in no way a campus political activist, and seems to have assumed a rather low campus profile before his run-in with UCLA administrators, he was apparently known as someone with conservative, Republican leanings. And as subsequent events proved, he was not someone who would keep his mouth shut in the face of clear violations of state law.
Before his work on the oversight committee, Groseclose seems to have had little interest in UCLA admissions policies or the controversial topic of racial preferences. His main academic interest was–and remains–mathematical models of democratic politics and the economics of sports. But two events raised his suspicions about UCLA and its obligations under Proposition 209. The first was the huge increase in the acceptance rate for African American applicants that occurred between the years 2006 and 2007 (from 11.5 percent to 16.5 percent), and a corresponding doubling of the annual number of black students enrolled between those years (from 102 to 204). Since this huge change came in the aftermath of an angry demonstration in front of the Chancellor’s office in 2006 by over 200 students protesting the low number of black undergraduates at UCLA, Groseclose suspected that UCLA was using racial preferences, in contravention of state law, to achieve a desired racial outcome. His suspicions were greatly intensified when a special meeting of the oversight committee was called in the summer of 2006, and in an unprecedented appearance before the committee by the university’s Chancellor, it was explained to him and other committee members the pressure that was being exerted upon the Chancellor and the university to increase the number of minorities on campus. It was clear to Groseclose, and probably to the other oversight committee members as well, that the Chancellor’s appearance was intended to encourage committee members to go along with whatever policies UCLA had used to achieve its spectacular rise in black student enrollment.
While these two events heightened Groseclose’s suspicions, the clincher came when UCLA’s administrators refused his request to examine the actual admissions data that UCLA itself had compiled on its undergraduate applicants. To get a sense of how irregular–indeed outrageous–this denial was, consider an oversight committee of the U.S. Congress, assembled for the purpose of overseeing the operation of a federal executive agency (say, the Department of Defense or the Post Office) being denied a request directed at the executive agency it was responsible for overseeing to turn over data on its budgetary expenditures or the names of its major contractors. In protest against this denial, Groseclose resigned from the committee and went public with his suspicions of UCLA’s flouting of the relevant law. His book explains in detail how he had the good fortune to be able to employ the services of an effective publicity agent–an out-of-work actor who didn’t charge him very much–and how he was able to get his whistleblower story successfully out to influential news outlets.
What Groseclose wanted most of all, however, was the actual admissions data that UCLA didn’t want him to see. It was only after he teamed up with UCLA law professor Richard Sander, a leading critic of racial preferences in law school and undergraduate admissions, that Groseclose was able to gain access to the admissions data he so eagerly sought. Sander, a seasoned veteran of the affirmative action wars on college campuses and co-author (with Stuart Taylor, Jr.) of Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, proposed that Groseclose avail himself of California’s Public Records Act–a state equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act–and make a formal legal request for the admissions data. Working together, Sander and Groseclose–with the implied threat of a law suit–were able to get a very reluctant UCLA administration to make at least some usable data on admissions available to them for quantitative analysis.
The data contained both surprises and confirmations of what the two suspected. The surprise came in examining what might be called the “first cut” in the admissions process. All applicants to UCLA’s undergraduate program, Groseclose explains, have their applications read by two readers — a process requiring an army of approximately 150 evaluators drawn from both within and without the ranks of the university. These readers then rate the applicants based on a “holistic” assessment of everything in the applicant’s file (e.g., SAT scores, high school grades, essays, obstacles overcome, socio-economic deprivation, extra-curricular activities, etc.), with those receiving very high scores from both readers usually gaining automatic admission while those receiving two very low scores usually getting outright rejections. This “first cut” is how most students who are accepted or rejected at UCLA are evaluated.
Contrary to expectations, in his statistical model Groseclose could find no evidence of racial bias in this “first cut” evaluation. Here a color-neutral merit system seemed to prevail. For some students, however, there is a “second chance” avenue toward acceptance, which is accorded to students who receive widely diverging scores from their two readers, or who are among those for whom the admissions committee requests additional information. This “second chance” group, Groseclose explains, is not evaluated by the original readers but by a small, permanent group of UCLA admissions officers. It is, here, Groseclose found, that a racial bias was clearly introduced into the UCLA admissions process–and the racial bias was huge.
Examining one subgroup among the “second chance” students–specifically, those who received a high-middle score from one reader and a low-middle score from another reader (a 2.5 and a 4 on a 1-5 scale) Groseclose found some striking disparities. Within this subgroup–all of whom were rated roughly equal on the “holistic” scale–46 percent of African Americans were offered admissions while among North Asians (a group including all Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans) only 17 percent were. Although these two groups were rated about equally qualified by the first evaluators, those in the African American group were more than two and a half times as likely to be offered admission as those in the North Asian group.
Even more striking was the relative indifference to socio-economic deprivation that Groseclose found. Among those in this low-middle/high-middle group of second chancers, poor North Asians whose families earned less than $30,000 per year had an acceptance rate not only much lower than equally poor African Americans (23 percent vs. 55 percent), but much lower even than rich African Americans with family incomes above $100,000 per year (23 percent vs. 38 percent). Race was clearly a dominant factor in these differences, and being black counted much more in one’s favor than being from a socio-economically deprived family. “The race-based affirmative action that UCLA grants,” Groseclose calculated, “is approximately four times greater than the class-based affirmative action that it grants” (p. 3).
Groseclose is virtually unique among affirmative action critics in that he doesn’t seem to base his opposition to preferences on the many inherent drawbacks of counting by race in the university admissions game. There is very little (if anything) in his book about the harms of stigma and mismatch, the performance disincentives and moral hazards of granting unmerited preferences simply on the basis of skin color, the zero-sum nature of an upward-ratcheting, downward-parasitism regime, the inter-racial hostility and self-segregation effects on campus of racially differential acceptance standards — to name just some of the evils affirmative action critics over the years have ascribed to racial preference policies. Groseclose’s opposition to UCLA’s covert use of racial preferences seems to be driven entirely by his repugnance at the dishonesty and illegality of what UCLA is doing in making it much easier for African Americans to get admitted than Asians. The “dishonesty issue” is always front and center, and is stated clearly in the concluding chapter of his book:
While I’ve spent 150 or so pages writing about race admissions at UCLA, I really don’t have much interest in the topic. Before writing the book, I never had any desire to research race or college admissions. Nor do I have any plans to return to the topic. … The main reason I wrote this book … [is] to expose the disregard for truth that I see slowly becoming a habit among university professors and administrators. … One hundred years from now, I believe historians will marvel at how crazy things currently are in academia–how such smart people can have such a massive disregard for the truth. I believe that such historians will look upon this era approximately the way we present-day Americans look upon the accusers during the Salem witch trials or slave owners during the early American republic. Just as we ask “How could they be so irrational?” or “How could they be so cruel?” future historians will ask of present-day professors and university administrators, “How could they be so casual with the truth?” (pp. 158-159)
In many ways Groseclose’s account of UCLA’s racial preference policies parallels the results of economist Robert Klitgaard’s classic examination of earlier policies at America’s leading universities almost twenty years ago: “The secrecy and sensitivity surrounding many American programs of preferential treatment,” Klitgaard wrote, “may enhance popular suspicions and resentments … . A leading educator once remarked to me that there were two issues about which many university presidents [either] deluded themselves or lied: preferential admissions for athletes and affirmative action.” (Choosing Elites, Basic Books, 1985, p. 187). Groseclose gives a good account of why academic administrators at UCLA either delude themselves or lie about their racial preference policies. The policies are clearly illegal under Proposition 209 but for a variety of reasons university presidents and administrators are committed to “diversity” that above all requires the presence of a certain minimal percentage of African American students on campus. While most administrators and professors at UCLA, Groseclose says, are committed to honesty and transparency in the conduct of university affairs, they are even more intensely committed to “diversity” as they understand it. When the two commitments clash, he says, honesty and transparency lose out to “diversity”–and dissimulation and concealment become the order of the day. Groseclose himself accepts the desirability of “diversity” as currently understood, but he says he values truth and transparency more, so when the two clash in his mind, “diversity” must take a back seat. Truth, he believes, must be the overriding virtue among the leaders in America’s premier institutions of higher learning.
Groseclose’s exclusive focus on honesty, transparency and the truth question certainly has its upside. But his neglect of the social, practical, and relationship harms of current affirmative action policies on college campuses at one point leads him seriously astray. By his own admission Groseclose has not concerned himself with these other aspects of current preference policies and as a result he seems to accept unquestioningly that the kind of racial diversity that UCLA seeks is a healthy and desirable goal. The only problem with trying to engineer a certain minimal portion of African Americans on campus through overt racial preferences, he seems to believe, is that such a policy would be illegal in California given Proposition 209–and the illegality of such a policy inevitably requires deceit, deception, and outright lying for its implementation and maintenance.
Given this stance, Groseclose can–in all seriousness it seems–support as an alternative to UCLA’s current, covert use of racial preferences, a non-racial means of increasing the proportion of black students on campus that involves a radically divergent, two-tiered system of admissions based on family income that would certainly be much worse in its harmful effects than even the most rigid racial quota system. Groseclose says that UCLA can achieve the proportion of African Americans it wants on campus (5 percent at a minimum) by dividing its applicant pool into students from families making less than $50,000 per year and those earning more than this, and then accepting almost 70 percent of those in the poorer group but only 4.6 percent of those in the wealthier one. With these extreme differentials, Groseclose calculates that in the period 2007-2009 UCLA could have reached, without the use of a racial category, its desired 5 percent of African American admits.
Such a system, he acknowledges, would have considerable drawbacks, including the decline of the average SAT score of admitted students from 680 (i.e. a 2040 total on the three-part SAT) to only 580 (1740 three-part score); a dramatic decline in white enrollment and large increase in Latino enrollment resulting in an entering class with more than twice the number of Latinos as whites; and a general loss of prestige for the institution. Groseclose might have added that such a dramatic decline in standards would cause UCLA to drop out of the elite category of research universities; make it much more difficult to recruit world-class faculty; exponentially increase the “mismatch” problem in which mediocre students with mid-range SAT scores and high school GPAs take classes with high-end students far surpassing them in intelligence and past academic performance; and make it increasingly difficult in this retreat from meritocracy to recruit top-notch students either to UCLA’s undergraduate or graduate programs.
While acknowledging its downside, Groseclose defends his extreme version of SES-norming that seems to come more from the ranks of the far-left academics who he has done battle with on campus than from a maverick, conservative-leaning outlier professor (which I think is what he basically is):
Although this system [I have outlined] is harsh on applicants with incomes over $50,000 (there admission rate is tiny compared to the admission rate of poorer students), it achieves racial diversity … Another feature is that it achieves a very high level of social justice. That is, unlike most universities, a large percentage of the students would come from lower- and lower-middle-class families. … Besides greater racial diversity, the system strongly advantages poor and middle-class applicants over richer applicants. And maybe most important of all, the system–unlike the current system at UCLA–would be honest and legal. (157)
Honest and legal such a system might be, but it would destroy UCLA as a great research university and transform it into little more that a West Coast version of CCNY. If such were the alternative, I would eagerly go back to the pre-209 racial quota system. At least the damage to meritocracy then was substantially contained since the affirmative action admits were relatively few in number. It is hard to imagine a worse alternative than what Groseclose proposes. Tim, have you been smoking something?
Putting Groseclose’s final proposal aside, I recommend Cheating to all those outside the academy who want to get a sense of what life is like inside the academy for those who oppose its reigning orthodoxies on race and race preferences. Groseclose has displayed a rare courage almost unique in the halls of academe.