Bleemer Blooper: How UC is Using Fake Research to Promote Prop. 16

Everyone is familiar with fake news. Now the University of California (UC) has presented us with what can only be described as fake research: an unpublished policy paper by a UC employee, Zachary Bleemer, criticizing Proposition 209 and defending affirmative action. The paper was also shared and distributed by the UC Office of the President.

Proposition 209, which was passed by 55% of the voters in 1996 (remember that date), added a provision to the California constitution declaring that the state “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Democrats and progressives of all pigments have been seething ever since. After one failed attempt in 2014 to repeal Prop. 209 was thwarted by angry Asian American groups, progressives have succeeded in placing a repeal measure, Proposition 16, on the November 3 ballot.

Bleemer argues that “Ending affirmative action caused UC’s 10,000 annual underrepresented minority (URM) freshman applicants to cascade into lower-quality public and private universities,”deterred “thousands of qualified URM students from applying to any UC campus,” reduced “undergraduate and graduate degree attainment …overall and in STEM fields,” and resulted in lower wages and salaries for URM graduates.

The most important thing to say about this argument is that it is demonstrably wrong, as UCLA Professor Richard Sander, co-author of Mismatch, demonstrates brilliantly in his short but devastating critique. In fact, reading his withering criticism calls to mind what Mary McCarthy famously said about Lillian Hellman on the Dick Cavett TV show: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

That, of course, is hyperbole, but note the very first sentence of Bleemer’s abstract preceding the text of his paper: “Proposition 209 banned race-based affirmative action at California public universities in 1998.”That is not an innocent, simple typo but an error that occurs repeatedly throughout the essay’s text and charts. For example, when Bleemer asserts that the number of admitted URMs declined “after 1998, when the university’s eight undergraduate campuses all ceased implementing race-based affirmative-action.” He should have said “after 1997,” since race-based affirmative action was banned by Proposition 209 in 1996 and its effects began to appear after 1997.

Before turning to the more substantive problems with Bleemer’s paper, two other related, troubling aspects should be noted. By eagerly taking sides in the ongoing controversy surrounding Proposition 16, the University of California may have violated the state constitutional provision designed to keep public universities out of politics. But whether or not it has violated the law, it has clearly violated academic norms of transparency in refusing to share the data used by Bleemer with other scholars, especially those deemed to be unfriendly to “its truth.”

Can Scholarship (Even Bad Scholarship) Ever Be Unconstitutional?

Presumably, scholarship, even highly tendentious, partisan scholarship, is protected by academic freedom and the First Amendment. But what if it is funded as part of a political campaign by a public institution that is barred from political activity? Note that Article 9, Section 9(f) of the California constitution provides that “the university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom in the appointment of its regents and in the administration of its affairs.”

There can be no doubt that the University of California, far from keeping free from politics, has jumped with both feet into the middle of a raging political controversy. With “passionate remarks about the pernicious effects of racism,” on June 15 the UC Board of Regents “unanimously supported the repeal of Proposition 209. . . . UC Board Chairman John A. Pérez declared that a ‘colorblind’ model for society denies the reality of racism and quoted South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s admonition that to remain neutral amid injustice is to choose the side of the oppressor.”

Whether or not Bishop Tutu would be proud, UC has definitely not remained neutral in the political struggle between racial equality and racial preferences.

The sponsorship of Bleemer’s paper, moreover, reinforces the idea that it is much more part of a political campaign than normal academic research. On his own website he describes it as a “policy brief,” and the biographical information states that “The author was employed by UC in a research capacity throughout the period in which this study was conducted.”

Legality Aside, The Violation of Scholarly Norms

The scents of politically biased impropriety waft so strongly here thanks to the refusal of Mr. Bleemer’s employer to allow any other scholars access to the unique university data on which its paper is based.

On August 23, retired UCLA professor Jim Enstrom, president of the Scientific Integrity Institute, wrote Mr. Bleemer, requesting that he provide copies of his data sets. “Clearly,” Enstrom wrote, “your Policy Brief has a direct bearing on Proposition 16 on the November 3, 2020 California Ballot. Consequently, it is very important to independently test the validity of your findings.”

The reply on August 26 came not from Mr. Bleemer but his employer, the UC Office of the President, and bears quoting. (These two emails can be found here.)

The data referenced in Mr. Bleemer’s policy brief is maintained by my office, the UCOP [University of California Office of the President] Office of Institutional Research and Academic Planning (“IRAP”). Because this data contains sensitive, personally identifiable information, access is limited to IRAP and UCOP employees such as Mr. Bleemer. Mr. Bleemer’s work on this project was performed as part of IRAP’s work for Provost Michael Brown and his office is using the work to advise The Regents and other University leaders

Our office is staffed to provide administrative decision support for the institution and unfortunately we are not able to provide services including data sets to support student or faculty research or research by external entities.

Pamela Brown (She, Her, Hers)

Vice President for Institutional Research & Academic Planning (IRAP)

University of California, Office of the President

UC’s History of Hoarding Politically Sensitive Data

UC VP Pamela Brown (She, Her, Hers) is no doubt aware that UCLA Professor Rick Sander and other scholars had sought this very same data years before Mr. Bleemer appeared, and they were stonewalled. “As it happens,” Sander writes,

I and a number of other prominent scholars asked UCOP in August 2017 for some of the very same data that it has provided to Bleemer (we were unaware of his role, or even his existence, at the time). We offered to pay any expenses and asked that the data be de-identified so that it could be accessed and evaluated by other scholars. The university took our request under consideration for six months, and then gave us a blanket denial; they refused to provide any individual-level data whatsoever (all of Bleemer’s analysis are done with individual-level data). Some of us filed suit against the university in November 2018. Early in the suit, we asked the university to disclose the names of others who had received data of the kind we were seeking from UCOP. The university refused to disclose even this, until the court ordered them to do so; we then learned that literally dozens of other “approved” scholars had obtained UCOP datasets. It’s not hard to connect the dots and see that the university is using its data as a political weapon, to be withheld from objective scholars who might report “inconvenient truths,” and to be shared with graduate students willing to follow the party line.

“To me,” Sander told the New York Times, “this has always been a civil rights issue. If you cut off the data, you’re saying we don’t think the public has a right to examine any of the factors determining admission or success at the university.” In addition, he said, “researchers and universities were too focused on admissions data when analyzing campus diversity. They should also be looking at outcomes data … which includes majors, grades, how long it took students to graduate, whether they went to graduate or professional school and even their earnings after graduation.”

That is the type of data Professor Sander is seeking in his lawsuit. Bleemer purports to have done precisely that, but UC will allow only “approved” scholars to access the data it provided him.

A spokeswoman for the University of California told the Chronicle of Higher Education that “Sander has asked us to prepare for him a specific data set that we do not have, and, apparently, he is suing to compel us to do so,” she said. “Under the California Public Records Act, we are not legally obligated to do so.”

Whether or not the University of California had that data in 2018 (and it is hard to believe it did not), it certainly has it now, since Bleemer relied on it. One of VP Brown’s excuses for not releasing it—that Bleemer’s data, “maintained by my office, … contains sensitive, personally identifiable information”—may not be relevant, since Sander appears to have been willing to pay for the cost of computer runs to make the data anonymous. More important, and more troubling since it suggests UC officials don’t have their stories straight, it appears that the data has already been “anonymized.”

A press release about the policy brief from the UC Goldman School of Public Policy states:

Using a highly-detailed, anonymized database of every California high school senior who applied to any University of California campus between 1994 and 2002, and linking those individuals to a wide range of later-life outcomes like degree completion and annual wages over 15 years, the study transparently measures the impact of Prop 209 on Black and Hispanic applicants in the years before and after Prop 209, compared to their white and Asian peers.

In its ongoing effort to keep politically sensitive data from falling into the wrong hands, the University of California has developed an odd view of transparency.

Other Than Possibly Trespassing into Constitutionally Protected Territory and Flouting Scholarly Norms, What’s Wrong With Bleemer’s Paper?

A more appropriate question (and one that would produce a shorter answer) might be, what’s right with it?

Those familiar with Professor Sander’s work, and especially those who know him personally, know him to be a careful, non-ideological scholar. Most of his recent career has been devoted to an empirical study of the effects of affirmative action, eschewing heated debate over its morality or legality. Thus Sander’s scathing criticism of Bleemer’s policy brief—“Demonstrably false” appears more than once—must be taken more seriously than it would coming from a partisan scholar with an ideological axe to grind.

Here is Sander’s brief introductory overview:

The Bleemer paper in its current form is worse than useless in assessing the effects of Prop 209 at the University of California. As I show below, Bleemer is demonstrably wrong on his core claims. The basic numbers about URM enrollment, graduation, and STEM completion show URM numbers and achievements at UC rising strongly within a couple of years of the implementation of race neutrality. Moreover, there is a host of careful, peer-reviewed research that shows race-neutrality, and the consequent reduction of the mismatch effect, had a direct effect upon better URM outcomes. And it is critical to realize that the studies finding powerfully positive effects from Prop 209 are based on publicly available data. Bleemer’s research is based on secret data that neither he nor the university will share with anyone else. Since Bleemer is wrong on many major points, and his other analysis cannot be checked (since the data is secret), none of the material in his paper should be trusted, much less reported credulously.

Bleemer’s conclusions, of course, were reported credulously by the usual suspects, such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, neither of whose reporters cited any of the published, peer-reviewed studies finding that Prop. 209 helped, not hurt, minorities, nor were Sander or any of the other authors called for comment. Fake news to go with fake research?

To get chapter-and-verse detail on Bleemer’s errors regarding enrollment, majors, graduation rates, etc., read Sander’s critique. It is concise, written in clear English, and has some compelling charts showing discrepancies between Bleemer’s conclusions and publicly available data, usually from the University of California itself.

A second analysis—this one a Memorandum to the UC Board of Regents dated September 17—demolished another of Bleemer’s arguments: the ubiquitous claim of preference proponents that the number of URMs admitted to UC declined dramatically as a result of Prop. 209. In his analysis discussed above, Sander demonstrated that that conclusion is simply false as a matter of absolute numbers. “However,” Sander notes in his recent Memorandum,

absolute numbers do not tell the whole story, for three reasons. First, the size of UC itself has grown substantially over the past generation (enrollment of California freshmen rose 53% from 1997 to 2017). Second, the size of the Hispanic population in California has grown, too, so that Hispanics make up a significantly larger part of the college-age population. And third, California has made progress over the past generation in narrowing K-12 educational achievement gaps between URMs and the rest of the population, so that a larger share and number of URMs have the qualifications to enter UC by any measure. How does the story of URM representation at UC change when we take these factors into account?

Sander provides three tables, showing the “relative representation” of groups admitted to UC in 1997 and 2017—their proportion, for example, of all high school graduates, or their proportion of high school graduates in the top eighth of their class compared to their proportion of admitted students.

In 2017, for example, blacks were 2.6% of California high school graduates in the top eighth of their class but 4.8% of UC California freshmen, for a relative representation of 1.8. Hispanics: 17.9% and 32.3%, also for a relative representation of 1.8.

In a finding that surprised, even shocked, many observers, Asian relative representation was lower: 25.6% of graduates in the top eighth; 38% of UC admits, for a relative representation of 1.5.

Bringing up the rear are whites, with a relative representation in 2017 of only .45. “Very strikingly,” Sander emphasizes, “Anglos are heavily underrepresented under any of the three comparisons in Table 3…. They are the standard ‘disadvantaged’ group in the competition for UC spots.”

Sander Is Right, But …

By now it should be clear that I am impressed by Professor Sander’s work and am persuaded by his conclusions, as well as the conclusions of others that he cites, that Proposition 209’s effects were beneficial to minorities. Their enrollment numbers quickly reached pre-209 levels; their grades improved; more got degrees in STEM fields; their graduation rates improved; and they escaped the stigma of receiving special treatment as affirmative action admits.

But I do have a reservation, similar to the one I stated in my review of his and Stuart Taylor’s book, Mismatch, which I called “magisterial.” After stating that “in short, [it] is a major contribution to the debate over affirmative action, a model of vigorous but fair and balanced argument and analysis,” I concluded that “its only flaw, so far as I can see, is its failure to agree with me. Well, not just with me but with all those who believe that preference based on race should be ended, not mended.”

Sander and Taylor refrained from calling for an outright end to racial preference because they were convinced that university administrations were so committed to keeping it that they would cheat, the results of which would be worse than keeping it in a restricted form.

Here, Bleemer argues that race-neutral equal treatment is bad because it harms minorities, while Sander et al. disagree about the harm. The question of who is right is certainly important, but the fate of racial preference policies should not depend on the answer. Whatever the answer, Americans should be treated, as what has been called the American Creed insists, without regard to race. Discrimination on the basis of race is wrong and is—or at least should be—both illegal and unconstitutional whether it helps minorities or not.


Image: Alton, Public Domain

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

3 thoughts on “Bleemer Blooper: How UC is Using Fake Research to Promote Prop. 16

  1. I think it is time we make our top ten schools, Ivy League + Stanford + MIT, as well as UCB and UCLA, 100% black, Hispanic and Native American. Let’s give these historically oppressed groups the best education we can give them, with all the endowments that these wealthy schools can bestow on them. Consider it reparation.

  2. How is it possible for “Anglos [to be] heavily underrepresented” when admissions are supposed to be racially neutral? Unless they are going somewhere else (e.g. USC), it would appear that Prop 209 is being violated — and aren’t private colleges still able to engage in Affirmative Action?

    Could it be that administrators are breaking the rules?

    But there is a much larger issue here — preventing outside (disinterested) researchers from accessing both research and data so as to preclude any public evaluation of what arguably is quite politicized research. This is a real problem in K-12 where the public is being forced to accept a Common Core curriculum which is largely secret, to the point where even (PARCC) exam questions are kept secret *after* the exam is administered.

    This is a real problem for someone such as myself who would like to review all of this from a pedagogical perspective, and it flies in the face of the tradition of research being duplicatable. This is what did in “Cold Fusion” back in 1989 — no one could duplicate the results….

    Quantitative research involves statistical methods which are regulated by accepted mathematical formulas. It’s just like with accepted auditing standards and you can’t “cook the books” if others can do the same math themselves and see if they get the same results. And for all we know, the UC statistics could have been fabricated out of whole cloth — I am *not* saying they were, but we don’t know they weren’t.

    More importantly, data being kept secret permits research methods to also be kept secret — you don’t have to mention the assumptions and presumptions that are being made in how you analyze your data. That was the issue with the infamous “hockey stick” graph that purported to demonstrate a unique period of global warming — which was refuted when a batch of email got leaked out of East Anglia University a decade ago.

    People often think of “academic freedom” as applying to the ability to speak, and it does. But the greater aspect of it involves the ability to research — the ability to research the research of others and verify that the findings aren’t being fabricated out of whole cloth. As Reagan said, “trust, but verify.”

    Why should any of us expect people to accept our findings if we don’t show our work?
    We wouldn’t accept this from a student, would we?

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