Sins of admission
Race can legally be a "plus" or a "tipping" factor in close calls on college admissions. That was Justice Lewis Powell's opinion in the Supreme Court's famous 1978 Bakke decision. The universities did not comply with that wording. Instead, they opted for broad and dishonest preference schemes designed to admit large numbers of non-Asian minorities, no matter what the courts said, and no matter how underqualified minority applicants happened to be.
The University of Michigan set up a preference system so clearly illegal that it was jettisoned soon after one campus professor, Carl Cohen, forced it out into the open through a Freedom of Information Act request. In its place the university installed another odious system that gives 20-point bonuses on undergraduate admissions to all non-Asian minority applicants. Under this system, not being white or Asian is a far better qualification than a perfect SAT score, which counts for only 12 points. This plan, rightly denounced by President Bush last week as unfair, is a good bet to be struck down by the Supreme Court this term as a quota system in disguise.
In a separate case, the court will also rule on preferences at the University of Michigan law school. The thumb on the scale at the law school is a heavy one. Race can add more than one point to the college grade-point average or give at least an 11-point and 20 percentile boost on the LSAT. The result is that 3 of every 4 non-Asian minorities who get accepted would have been rejected if white or Asian.
Mass critique. Because preferences this large are hard to defend, the colleges paddled over to a relatively new "diversity" defense--the argument that a truly diverse student body (i.e., one heavily dependent on preferences) crucially benefits whites and Asians. Along with this strained argument, the universities have contended that a "critical mass" of underrepresented minorities is necessary so that blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians will speak out in class without fearing that their comments will be taken as representing their entire racial or ethnic group. But "critical mass" sounds very much like "quota," and it is not clear under the argument why students who are Welsh, Basque, Mormon, or Baptist shouldn't get their own "critical mass" on campus, too. (Nor is it clear in the first place why students who are Laotian or Polish immigrants are not eligible for preferences, but anyone with a Spanish surname is.)
The whole system is a house of cards that deserves to come tumbling down. It degrades the curricula and grading practices at many colleges, leads to more racial tension and separatism on campus, and implicates large numbers of administrators in furtive, dishonest practices. In the words of Stuart Taylor Jr., the moderate and insightful legal analyst at National Journal, preference policies "can only live on lies" because they offend the values of Americans of all races. When questions are fairly worded, poll after poll shows that huge majorities oppose preferences. In a recent survey, 92 percent of adults said hiring, promotions, and college admissions "should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race/ethnicity." The poll was sponsored by the Washington Post, Harvard University, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Only 5 percent said race and ethnicity should be taken into account "in order to give minorities more opportunity." Black opinion was 7 to 1 against preferences. Most talking heads say Bush will pay a heavy price for opposing preferences. Yes, the preference lobby can inflict some damage by demagoguery about racism and insensitivity. But in reality, this is yet another case of the Republicans ever so reluctantly daring to join an immense majority.
With so much opposition, the preference people should face reality and try something else. The American people support the goal of diversity. They will most likely support any serious effort to get more minorities into the mainstream that does not involve preferences or the lowering of standards. The bad news is that the lobby for preferences seems implacable. This lobby keeps inventing schemes to evade the law by adopting more and more essentially dishonest but apparently race-neutral policies. The University of California's "comprehensive review" of an applicant's whole life seems to fit nicely into this category. In their 1998 pro-preferences book, The Shape of the River, former Ivy League presidents William Bowen and Derek Bok predicted more "ingenious efforts" to get around any obstacles to preferential admissions policies. We can take them at their word. The lobby for preferences now functions like a religion, featuring militant believers who don't much care what the public thinks or what the law says. Even if the Supreme Court strikes down both Michigan plans, there will still be a lot of antipreference work to do.
This story appears in the January 27, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.