Elite Colleges and Affirmative Action

Following up on some of my previous affirmative-action posts, I found this op-ed in the Boston Globe particularly interesting. The op-ed centers around some new research of the most highly selective Universities in the US. What they find is that roughly %15 of white students at these Universities fall below the institution’s minimum admissions standards. Contrary to the story propagated most recently by the Supreme Court, white students who fall below the minimum standards are twice as likely to be admitted to these Universities than their minority counterparts.

This evidence clearly discredits the myth of the over-qualified white student who is denied acceptance to the most selective Universities because of racial quotas. What it demonstrates is that the much older system of affirmative action, namely, the good ol’ boys network, is still the most powerful system of disenfranchisement at elite colleges.

Of course, this kind of empirically driven argument seems incapable of convincing staunch conservatives, who find Justice Robert’s pithy logic–“the best way to end discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”–more compelling.

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Ira Socol on Virginia Tech

This is a nice commentary on some of the reaction to the recent tragedy at VT by Ira Socol who is better known for his work on higher education for people with disabilities. His commentary points out some of the problems already beleaguering University mental health care systems and suggests that “cracking down” on students exhibiting mental health problems will exacerbate them.

link. Also see this article from the perspective of a forensic psychologist.

More on affirmative action

Keeping you up to date on this issue: an asian student, Jian Li is filing suit against Princeton University for descriminatory policies against asian students. This Chinese high school student, in the top 1% of his class, with perfect SAT scores, was denied admission to Princeton after being wait-listed (he is attending Yale this year). His claim rests on recent research performed by Princeton’s faculty who found that at America’s elite Universities, Asian-Americans would be the group that would benefit most from eliminating affirmative action, predicting three-fold increase in their enrollment, from 12.2% to 33.7%. Conversely, enrollment of blacks and hispanics, the article claims, would fall from 9% to 3.3% and 7.9% to 3.8%, respectively.

The suit may not succeed, but it puts an interesting spin on the affirmative action policies. Is there a perception that grades + SAT scores = admission to elite Universities? Having just returned from France, where I stayed at the Ecole Normale Superieure, a true meritocracy, I can say that that system too has its disadvantages: students take two or three years after high school preparing for the entrance examination to be admitted; they are often overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, etc. (manifesting itself in nearly annual suicide attempts–this past year, resulting in the death of one student); the system is under-funded and lacks vitality; and almost no racial diversity apparent at the institution.

Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, Democracy and Higher-ed

One of the interesting trends to notice in this year’s political season (apart from the fact that this is the first time that parties have spent more money in an interim election than in the preceding presidential race) is the current trend toward ballot initiatives: proposing ammendments to state constitutions on controversial “wedge” issues. The broad issue is certainly a failure on the part of legislators across the country to do their job. Constitutional ammendments are an ineffective and illegitimate way to push through controversial legislation. Unfortunately, because of the political polarization of these issues, legislatures themselves lack the political wherewithal to creat compromise, write appropriate legislation and open that legislation for judicial review. Instead, judges and the people at large are forced to make decisions on issues that are beyond their capacity or authority.

One particular issue that should have all educators ears perked is MCRI. The ammedment essentially states that no publicly funded institution of higher education can base the decision for admission, employment or contracting of work on the basis of race, sex, gender, ethnicity, color or national origin. University of Michigan provides all the relevant information about the ammendment and its impact on current school policies.

This issue goes well beyond the typical scenario where a well-qualified white candidate is denied admission to the college of his or her choice in favor of less well-qualified candidates of color. First, it would directly effect the hiring policies of college employees and faculty, as well as potentially effecting other government programs, like health services, targeted toward specific genders and races. Second, the fact that it is addressed through a ballot initiative raises an additional concern from the point of view of democracy and an informed public, as a recent Inside Higher Education article demonstrates. Are voters at large the right ones to be making these kinds of choices? And are they receiving adequate substantive information about the topic through the news media?

In general, this is an issue I have rarely understood. Ordinarily, affirmative action debates are framed in terms of the fairness and equality of preferential treatment: either you think it is just and right to treat certain people preferentially for whatever reason, or you don’t. From this perspective, the debate hardly has any hope of reaching a reasonable compromise. Add to that the usual scary scenario of losing a job or a place at the University of your choice to a less well-qualified candidate based on race, and there is almost no hope for even reasonable dialogue. However, in higher education it seems clear to me that the whole purpose of the institution is to design an environment (albeit at times artificial) that will contribute to the kind of education one want students to receive. Universities achieve this by hiring certain types of employees and by admitting certain kinds of students. Now the formula for success here is difficult to guage, but there is good evidence that a diverse student body produces a better prepared work-force for the global economy; one more responsive to issues of racial integration and immigration of foriegn nationals; one prepared to integrate into a diverse work environment and make political decisions that benefit all Americans, not just a particular ethnic or social group; in short, it produces good citizens.

Justice O’Connor, writing the majority opinion in the Grutter v. Bollinger case that upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action criteria cites:

numerous expert studies and reports showing that such diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession. Major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints. High-ranking retired officers and civilian military leaders assert that a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps is essential to national security. Moreover, because universities, and in particular, law schools, represent the training ground for a large number of the Nation’s leaders, Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 634, the path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. Thus, the Law School has a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body.

The same conclusion was upheld by Justices Scalia and Thomas in their opinion (assenting in part and dissenting in part):

The “educational benefit” that the University of Michigan seeks to achieve by racial discrimination consists, according to the Court, of “ ‘cross-racial understanding,’ ” ante, at 18, and “ ‘better prepar[ation of] students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society,’ ” ibid., all of which is necessary not only for work, but also for good “citizenship,” ante, at 19.

This is exactly the point. Higher education is meant not only to provide an avenue for success and to prepare graduates for the workforce, but also to produce “good citizens” in the broadest possible sense of that term. As long as Universities can demonstrate that affirmative action programs are directed toward this end, they should be encouraged to continue that project.

Insight into the American University from abroad

A recent editorial in Inside Higher Education points to the value of the American liberal arts college education from the perspective of Middle East educators. The article, titled “Lessons from Middle East ‘de Tocquevilles,'” concludes that the core of American higher education that makes it the envy of the world is its focus on student-centered education, its goal of preparing the student for life, not just for a post-graduate job, and its focus on the continuing education and development of its faculty. As the title suggests, the author believes that these Middle East educators may have more keen an insight into the essence of American higher education than we do.

For many reasons, American Universities have been very quick to catch on to what we might call the democratization of education: one that is “student centered” rather than based on the “content-expert model” of dissiminating information. I would even suggest that one need not go as far as the Middle East to see the differences mentioned in this article. In many ways, American Universities are leagues ahead of their European counterparts (with the possible exception of the top British Universities) in exactly the areas mentioned. In the end, the article concludes that the maligned and lamented aspects of American higher education, such as the pursuit of prestige through a veritable arms-race of state of the art facilities and banner athletic programs, these are ultimately detractions from the core of American higher education; they are signs that we are losing our focus.

However, it might be interesting to entertain the possibility that the democratization of the classroom is in some sense tied to the adverse effects of publicity and marketing sought through prominent athletics programs and higher rankings. In other words, the wishes of the consumer (i.e., the student and his/her parents) drive the policies of the University. In many ways, this creates a much more responsive and valuable culture for higher education, but it clearly has its detractions.

Educators in an American liberal arts colleges have a distinct window into the state of American culture. While I often complain about the privilege of expensive technological and recreational facilities over meaningful interaction between educators and students, I have to admit that these trends are not unique to the American University. Moreover, they are not necessarily the signs of a unhealthy atmosphere in higher education. University Administrators are constantly under pressure to provide tangible signs of the competitiveness of their University. Until we, as a culture, can devise ways to put a concrete value on higher education as a part of personal and moral development, we will not be able to change the University culture. Until we see higher education as a key component in the development of a populus for the purpose of good moral and political action, the deficiencies of the University to provide that kind of education are not symptoms of bad University policy, rather they are symptoms of the state of our culture at large.

Bad news for colleges; good news for humanities teachers

Inside Higher Ed is reporting today on a new survey released by an independent business group, The Conference Board, which finds that 431 HR representatives of companies hiring college graduates rate all college graduates–i.e., four-year as well as community college–poorly in the areas of Written Communication, Writting in English and Leadership. In fact, the only area in which all college graduates were rated as “excellent” by a majority of HR representatives was application of information technology.

This is a slap on the wrist of colleges, especially four-year liberal arts colleges. But it is an opportunity for those of us teaching in the humanities to demonstrate that our place in higher education is integral and ought to be reinforced. There is no better place to learn good writing skills than in History, Philosophy, Litterature, Theology or Classics courses. These courses are often begrudgingly included in the “core” curriculum for liberal arts colleges, but their faculty, financial support and status within the University has consistently been undermined: they are often seen as refuges for neo-marxist, feminist, queer-theoretical or postmodern nonsense and are consistently contrasted with those disciplines that fit more easily into the framework of modern technical sciences. This new report suggests that our emphasis on learning science and technology has done its job; now we need to return to the classical skills of reading and writing that can be taught so well in the humanities.

Teaching a Fish to Swim

In a recent post on High-Tech "Cheaters", I argued that the essential problem with cheating, high-tech or otherwise, is a problem that faces all educators, namely, how to reach students' needs effectively and then evaluate their response to our efforts. In the May 2006 issue of the Proceedings and Addresses of the APA, I ran accross John M. Dolan's "Statement for the Academy of Distinguished Teachers" appended to his obituary. John Dolan was a Professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, and passed away on 15 September 2005. He says:

"My philosophy of education can be expressed in a single sentence: 'You are teaching a fish how to swim.' I am suspicious of instructors who, thinking they understand what is going on when real intellectual growth takes place, wax eloquent about their pedagogical 'methodologies.' Examined closely, episodes described as 'inspired teaching' are occasions in which abilities and powers already present in the 'student' are somehow stimulated and stirred into more vivid realization and growth. Neither the 'teacher' nor the 'student' is wholly in charge of the direction or character of that new life and growth."

He goes on to compare a student to a plant, which develops out of its own inner force, and he warns teachers to take heed of the old doctor's credo: "Primum non nocere" (first of all, do no harm). How much does a teacher's effort to control the dynamic of the classroom, to resist the intrusion of new technologies, to submit students to artificial and narrow methods of evaluation constrict the growth of students?

In a real sense, what we do as teachers is not much: we simply try to let our students be what they already are. Yet there is also no doubt that letting things be what they are requires a determined will and a sharp mind.