The Harvard Case

The lawsuit brought against the Harvard University admission process breaks new ground in the discussion of affirmative action. Previous cases in the affirmative action debate that were settled in the Supreme Court decided that race could be considered one factor in deciding whether to grant admission to a candidate, even though the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the laws would lead one to think that race, religion and national origin should not be used as a basis for discrimination, even to achieve a good end, because it violated the idea that one could not be deprived of life, liberty or property (and admission to an elite college is a matter of some value) without due process of law, which means that the rights of a person cannot be abridged without a trial of personal culpability for a wrong. Sandra Day O’Connor in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) declared that the Fourteenth Amendment had to be suspended for a while, perhaps a generation, so that the nation could right the wrongs of discrimination. Creating a diverse student body that included African Americans justified what was constitutionally unpalatable.

Whatever one thinks of that holding, and we are reaching the expiration of the twenty year shelf life O’Connor thought would be required to remedy past wrongs, the present lawsuit would reverse that ruling. The plaintiffs ask whether it is ever permissible to consider race at all in making admissions decisions. The Chinese American students involved in the suit argue that a fair or constitutionally acceptable admissions process would use quantitative measures, such as performances on the SAT, as the sole basis of admission because they are objectively reliable while interviews that judge personality are subjective and therefore unreliable as judgments of merit and so likely to lead to Chinese American students to be categorized as uninteresting grinds. That results in students from that category to have scores considerably higher than those of white, black or brown candidates to secure admission. No fairness there.

Present day Freshmen at Harvard, according to New York Times interviews, seem to share the view that there is something unfair about being legacy admittances rather than subject to the same competitive admission standards as anyone else. Moreover, also according to the New York Times, Harvard has not been very good at explaining how the non-quantitative measures are used in the admissions process. Does being outgoing count for you or against you? Saying it is part of a global evaluation of a candidate doesn’t explain very much. Harvard is either being disingenuous about how it uses its standards or else those standards are themselves unreasonably vague. Whatever their actual procedures, they could still argue, however callous it might seem to say so, Harvard is still leaving enough slots open for pure merit admissions that a minority student very good at tests would still have a good chance at admission even if not a perfectly fair one. And anyway, truth be told, Harvard or the Ivy League is not the only place you can get a good education. Maybe the elite schools have so priced themselves out of the market that people will take advantage of the over two hundred, let us say, institutions around the country, including state schools, that supply superb educations--which is to grant the point, by no means certain, that Harvard supplies a wonderful curriculum for its admitted students once they arrive on campus.

The question, then, is whether we want college admissions to be totally a matter of merit. Set asides of positions for those who are athletes or musicians or legacies could still obtain because each of those serve some social purpose, but that is not so for racial and religious categories, however much we may speak of the need for diversity, which was always just a way to sugarcoat the process of giving preferences to black and brown students because there is no attempt to otherwise make students interact with one another across racial lines, such as requiring a certain distribution of blacks and browns in individual classes. And anyway, if diversity were indeed a goal, then one could include political diversity. Conservative students and liberal students would also go into separate pools so as to assure that there were a significant amount of each of those admitted to a college. No, the real issue is to make sure that black and brown students get a leg up on admissions, never mind whether or not they are part of the rainbow mix.

There is a good reason, a social interest, in giving an advantage to black and brown students through admission standards bent in their favor. Remember that Harvard and Yale and other elite institutions see themselves as training the next generation of the nation’s leaders. This is going to become a minorities majority nation by then and so Harvard and Yale and the others have to make sure to train people from those groups to take over leadership positions even if that means selecting people who are less proficient on the SAT’s than other candidates. After all, few American leaders have come from the top of their classes, Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama notable exceptions. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush were gentleman’s C students. There are other things to be considered, such as character and dedication, even if these do not lend themselves to quantification.

The question arises, then, whether those institutions other than those which train Presidents and Senators can allow themselves the same leeway to select for admissions candidates who might contribute to the public sector or some other realm of society who do not have objective characteristics of merit. They can become alderman and local lawyers and educators. Those categories can also be served by people of character. School smarts isn’t the only thing, and so we are back in the ballgame of using any number of qualifications on which to base admissions.

Put it this way. There is a difference between fairness and diversity. Fairness is the idea that every person competes with every other person on their own personal merits and is judged accordingly. Diversity means that there is some benefit in including representatives of different social groups in the student body as a whole. Diversity conflicts with fairness even though some would say it is only fair that there is some inclusiveness in the student body that results from an admissions process. In that case, fairness may not mean that everyone has an equal shot at admission, but that there are sufficient slots open so that any candidate has a shot at admission. But how many slots does that mean should be reserved for pure merit applicants? Half or three quarters? Where there is not a handicap of one hundred points on the SAT’s? I don’t know how the Supreme Court can deal with fine tuning the admissions process. The best it can do is determine if there are categories whereby the admission pool for merit selection is reduced and perhaps add some notion on outer limits for the unfairness of the process.

A much better policy is to enhance efforts to get qualified applicants from groups whose members the college wants to include. That can mean enrichment programs whereby Harvard reaches out to minority elementary and middle schools or otherwise entices students who are motivated in the Chinese community to study and join cram courses all on their own. After all, the Chinese population is the poorest one on average and still it motivates its children. Find out how to do that and transfer it to communities of color. That, of course, would be very hard to do. So the use of quotas is a way to shortcut the need to do so even as it creates a problem for the American ideal of treating all groups as equal that stretches back to the time when Ivy League schools set a cap on the number of Jews they admitted because they, like the present day Chinese, had a reputation for being high scoring  grinds not suited for becoming the leaders of the nation.

There are so many conflicting impulses in American society that elite education is supposed to address, as if it were the only institution that had a hand to play in forming our people. On the one hand, Americans want to prepare students for the next generation of jobs and take that to mean that students learn all about the so-called STEM subjects--science, technology, engineering and medicine--from their earliest years in school, that way the nation able to stay ahead of China, even though it is obvious, once you think about it, is that we need first rate scientists, not just more students who manage to pass the high school algebra Regents exam but who could never go on to become real scientists. And yet, at the same time, we want students inoculated against racial hatred by being exposed to civics and history. That way they will be educated enough so that they won’t vote for fearmongers. But that can also happen through youth groups and the inevitable likelihood that a more middle class population, as that happens when people get jobs that leave them with clean hands at the end of the day, will become and make itself, as if by magic, more literate and tolerant. You can’t, in schools, give highest priority to both science and civics. There are only so many hours in the school day and there are only so many credits you have to earn to graduate, though I have noticed that STEM majors are required to take more credits to graduate than are other students.

The same dilemma presents itself with regard to fairness in admissions. Do we want to mix many ethnic pools so that the graduates of elite institutions represent the diversity of America, never mind whether people of a variety of ethnic groups actually mingle that much once they get on a campus? Or do we want some objective standard, some measure of fairness, to prevail in our educational institutions, even as they do not do so in other institutions of social life? Wall Street, finally, took in the Jews, and Silicon Valley is taking in the women, even if it has not adjusted very well, as yet, to doing that. I don’t have a general solution to deal with this problem in education much less in other institutions of American life.