December 3, 2018

WU | The Questions Affirmative Action Conceals

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In high school, I found that most discussions of affirmative action came in the form of a snide remark. During the standardized testing days, it went like, “If only I were black, then I wouldn’t have to worry about this test.” And later, as acceptances and rejections drew smiles and tears, the remark bobbed back up: “Makes sense why he didn’t get into [elite school]. It’s so hard to get in if you’re Asian.”

There is a vital, sometimes frustrating, debate to be had on affirmative action. The common story on race-based admissions appeals to the passions. Surely, any just admissions system will ensure marginalized groups — disempowered by centuries of compounding disadvantage — get a fair shake. But since admissions slots compose a fixed pie, surely it is unfair to boost one racial group at the expense of another. Whichever way you swing, someone is getting unfairly treated. Righteous outrage abounds.

Yet this discourse is limiting. Though affirmative action is an important debate, it is but one of many. My conversations with two education professionals, including one at Cornell, reveal three big questions about race in admissions that too often go unasked.

First, what should elite universities value in selecting applicants? Should they place a stiff emphasis on “hard” measures like GPAs and test scores, using “soft” elements like essays only in edge cases? Or should they attempt to construct a class, engineering the right brew of personalities and proclivities? In other words, should elite universities be meritocracies first or communities first?

In a recent conversation with an education professional at Cornell, I noted the role of competing priorities in shaping the makeup of each incoming class. Through admissions, the University seeks the “right” balance of athletes, math geeks and artists. Cornell’s holistic admissions philosophy suggests that race is considered, but only as one of many attributes (make of that what you will). It is up to skilled education professionals, I was told, to weigh the balance of who gains entry into the University’s hallowed halls — perhaps more an art than a science.

My conversation about Cornell admissions underscores the need to debate what elite universities ought to value. Assume, for sake of argument, that universities place a high value on an applicant’s interpersonal skills. So if it were true that, by some metric, Asian applicants are on average less personable than others, a systematic bias against Asians would thus emerge in the aggregate numbers. Is this an acceptable reality? If not, how should universities adjust their admissions priorities? Whatever one might believe, it bears discussing.

I also spoke with Jill Yoshikawa, a partner at Creative Marbles Consultancy, an educational consulting firm which I used to work for. Yoshikawa posed yet another question often left unasked in the contentious debates over race in admissions: “What is the purpose of going to college? Is it job training? Is it self-actualization? And what would be the right places for [students] to do that?”

Even within Cornell, our colleges serve different purposes. As Michael Johns, Jr. explored in a recent column, Arts and Sciences embodies the liberal arts tradition, whereas the Hotel School is a pre-professional program. As such, maybe it’s right for the Hotel School to lean toward spiffy grades and test scores — which would likely mean admitting more Asians, who score higher on average — even as Arts and Sciences assigns such measures less import. This, too, warrants debate.

Lastly, what societal role should an elite university play? On its face, the question is straightforward. Here’s Yoshikawa again: “[Universities] have a three-part mission. Job training, [to foster] economic development. They have a knowledge-generating function, the research function. That’s what draws a lot of academics to the university. But they also have a teaching function, and that’s the undergraduate institution.” Universities decide how to balance resources between these three functions. That balance, in turn, informs the school’s admissions priorities.

For example, Caltech, boasting the highest percentage of graduates who pursue PhDs, has elected to drill down on the research function. The university also does not consider race in its admissions process. But MIT, a similarly research-oriented university, does. Which of these admissions policies best suits the social function each university has set out to fulfill? It is an open question.

Debates become charged when an underlying set of values is in conflict. Friends and foes of affirmative action understand the issue through differing moral frames, though this is rarely acknowledged. Earnest, open moral arguments are the best way to air such differences. Otherwise, the contest risks becoming one of power — of who can impose their morality — and not of ideas. And contests of power have a way of embittering the losers. In these fractious times, that is the last thing we need.