Like Harvard, the school has trouble defending an admissions policy that ill-serves minority students.
Harvard isn’t the only university defending its discriminatory admissions policies in court. Its nonprofit adversary, Students for Fair Admissions, filed a similar complaint against the University of North Carolina in 2014. UNC’s initial defense, submitted last month, is a case study in the willful ignorance underlying the racial-preference regime in higher education. Above all, schools like Harvard and UNC have deliberately ignored the negative effects of preferences on their supposed beneficiaries.
UNC told the court it needs to employ racial double standards in admissions because “certain classes, fields, or areas of campus” lack black and Hispanic students. Though UNC didn’t elaborate, the subjects deficient in underrepresented minorities undoubtedly include science, technology, engineering and math—the so-called STEM fields.
UNC has it backward: Racial preferences aren’t the solution to black and Hispanic underrepresentation in STEM, they are a cause of it. Admitting students with academic qualifications significantly below those of their peers puts them at a disadvantage, whatever their race. Students who are catapulted by preferences into schools for which they are academically mismatched struggle to keep up in classrooms where the teaching is pitched above their level of preparation. Studies have shown that African-American and Hispanic freshmen in preference-practicing schools who intend to major in STEM switch into softer majors at a high rate once they realize their fellow students are much better prepared to do the work. Had those students enrolled in schools that matched their level of preparation, they would be more likely to graduate with a STEM degree.
One part of the UNC administrative brain dimly perceives the pernicious effect of preferences on academic success. A UNC Retention Task Force convened to address low minority graduation rates concluded that outcomes “differed significantly by level of academic preparation at the time of entry to Carolina.” Yet the only solution UNC’s bureaucrats can think of to the underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics in STEM is to double down on a counterproductive policy.
Given the size of the school’s racial preferences, that strategy is guaranteed to continue failing. The average African-American admitted to UNC has combined SAT scores 200 points (on a 1,600-point scale) below those of the average admitted Asian-American student—over a standard deviation of difference. Students for Fair Admissions retained Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono to analyze UNC’s admissions data. An in-state Asian-American male applicant whose test scores and grade-point average give him only a 25% chance of admission would have a 90% chance of admission if he were black, according to Mr. Arcidiacono. An out-of-state Asian male applicant with a 25% chance of admission would see his odds rise to 99% if he were black.
Paternalism animates such lowered expectations. One UNC admissions officer quoted in Students for Fair Admissions’ preliminary motion recommended: “If its [sic] brown and above a 1300 [SAT] put them in for [the] merit [scholarship].” Another functionary explained her decision to admit an applicant with an extremely low ACT score as a way to “give these brown babies a shot at these merit $$.” A third admissions officer expressed disappointment that an applicant with perfect test scores was Asian and not “Brown.”
Preferences are the cause of two other problems that UNC claims requires preferences to solve. Minority students report “feelings of isolation and unfair pressure to represent their race or ethnicity,” the school tells the court. The university asserts it needs to continue using preferences to overcome those feelings. But the Supreme Court’s rationale for racial preferences in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) is precisely that minority students will represent their race or ethnicity to white students by providing what Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called a “critical mass” that would produce “educational benefits . . . including cross-racial understanding and the breaking down of racial stereotypes.”
It’s an unfair burden to place on minority students, but one can’t embrace the logic of “diversity” admissions and repudiate its consequences. As for feelings of isolation, the self-segregation of black and Hispanic students on virtually every selective campus across the country is a response to the academic handicap imposed on them by different admission standards. Ironically, when diversity is engineered through lowered admission standards, any stereotypes that students may have about the academic capacities of various racial groups are confirmed, not refuted.
Racial preferences may not help their alleged beneficiaries, but they are an unequivocal boon to the diversity bureaucracy. The greater the academic struggle and alienation on the part of preference beneficiaries, the greater the purported need for an ever-expanding diversity infrastructure to fight “microaggressions” and “implicit bias.”
Either the Harvard or UNC case, or both, is likely to reach the Supreme Court. The justices should finally seize the opportunity to discard their incoherent “diversity” jurisprudence and replace it with a recognition that preferences are not just discriminatory, they undermine their stated goals.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion (available now). Follow her on Twitter here.
Photo by Ryan Herron / iStock