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Preening Over Preferences

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Preening Over Preferences

As the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two affirmative action cases, Harvard’s president virtue-signals in an email blast. October 31, 2022
Education
The Social Order

In a nauseating display of vanity and duplicity, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow defended the school’s use of racial preferences this morning in a blast email sent to all members, past and present, of the “Harvard community.”

The occasion for that email was today’s oral arguments before the Supreme Court in two cases challenging Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina’s racial admissions policies. Harvard’s “legal battle” in defense of its racial admissions preferences has been waged on behalf of all of “society,” according to Bacow. Adopting the cadences of high moral oratory, Bacow notes that Harvard has been joined in that battle by society’s elites:

Educators and scholars, civil rights organizers, historians, and education advocates stand with us. Leaders in business and technology stand with us. Former military officers and the heads of the nation’s service academies stand with us. Their voices—ringing out in amicus briefs—are part of a chorus that has risen across our campus and throughout our country in defense of forty years of legal precedent, as well as the history of the 14th Amendment.

According to Bacow, Harvard and other practitioners of racial admissions preferences reject a crabbed understanding of human worth, unlike the advocates of colorblind admissions policies: “Whatever promise we hold as individuals—for ourselves and for our world—is not predicated on narrowly structured measures of academic distinction. . . . Harvard is not alone in believing that we are more than our test scores and that our unique perspectives bring a wealth of educational benefits to a high-quality educational enterprise.”

This statement is notable only for its implicit acknowledgement, all but missing in Harvard’s legal filings to date, that there is a “test score” problem in its admissions practices—that is, Harvard admits racially defined groups of students with wildly different levels of academic qualifications. Otherwise, Bacow here is arguing against a straw man. No advocate of race-neutral decision-making would argue that individuals are defined exclusively by test scores. What such advocates do maintain is that individuals are not defined by race, and that the same standards of admissions should apply to all groups. Harvard (and every other selective college in the U.S.) violates those principles massively. Blacks have a 324 percent greater chance of admission to Harvard than similarly qualified whites, according to uncontested analysis in the plaintiff’s brief. Asians are penalized most of all, having a negligible chance of admission compared with similarly situated blacks and a 16 percent lower chance of admission compared even with similarly situated whites. If Harvard admitted students on a colorblind basis, it would be 43 percent Asian, 38.4 percent white, 0.7 percent black, and 2.4 percent Hispanic, according to a 2013 study by the university itself. Instead, Harvard’s undergraduates in 2013 were 43.2 percent white, 18.7 percent Asian, 10.5 percent black, and 9.5 percent Hispanic. Those disparities have not budged.

Naturally, Bacow justifies Harvard’s racial favoritism as educationally enriching, an argument adopted by the 1978 Supreme Court opinion in University of California v. Bakke. That “diversity” rationale has been reaffirmed in Supreme Court precedent and parroted in academic boilerplate ever since. Bacow intones that “research and lived experience teach us that each student’s learning experience is enriched by encountering classmates who grew up in different circumstances.” Actually, the research cited on behalf of this “diversity” benefit is laughably weak. And “lived experience” shows that students admitted under lowered admissions standards disproportionately drop out of STEM classes and self-segregate in social settings—as the ubiquitous “black” table in student dining halls and the nonstop demand for racially segregated dorms and institutional “safe spaces” demonstrate.

Harvard has little interest in diverse “economic . . . backgrounds” when it comes to race, contrary to Bacow’s email. Ever since a disastrous experiment in the late 1960s when Harvard did admit lower-income blacks (these admits bombed spectacularly), it has shifted its focus to middle-income and wealthy blacks, privileging the children of well-to-do blacks far ahead of the children of poor blacks. It is not “different circumstances” that Harvard seeks, but different skin color. Such skin color can serve as a proxy for different lived circumstances only under the assumption that racism is so ubiquitous in contemporary America that it disfigures the experience of the children of investment bankers. That assumption of systemic racism is now the controlling creed in academia.

Despite Harvard’s selecting its black students overwhelmingly from privileged backgrounds, the test-score gap between black students, on the one hand, and white and Asian students, on the other, has not lessened. It is that test-score gap, almost never acknowledged, that drives the entire sordid business of lowering academic standards for favored racial groups. Harvard’s purported indifference to “narrowly structured measures of academic distinction” is a myth; it calculates the academic index of Asians and whites with razor-like precision out to several decimal points and admits most students from those disfavored groups only from the highest reaches of academic qualifications. If Harvard really did believe that “we are more than our test scores,” it could eliminate those finely tuned academic calculations and go to an admissions lottery system.

The “leaders in business and technology” who “stand with” Harvard in its defense of racial preferences are as morally preening as the college administrator class. They seek the status-imprimatur that an Ivy League degree confers on their black hires, rather than the black hire itself. Otherwise, those elite businesses could hire those same black graduates in the absence of a racial-preference regime, simply by recruiting black students from schools for which those students were actually academically qualified. Ironically, without a racial-preferences regime, those students likely would have learned more than at present, since they would have attended a school where they shared the academic preparedness of their non-black peers and would not have been left behind in their classes. Mismatch theory, pioneered by UCLA law professor Richard Sander, has amply documented this reality.

In closing his email, Bacow claims that Harvard will “honor” the “final decision” in today’s racial-preferences case, while “remaining true to our values.” Even without that qualification, the chance that Harvard will discontinue its racial preferences, should the Court rule against the university, is almost zero. Race has now become the dominant reality guiding the vast majority of academic policy, regardless of how inimical to academic achievement and equality racial preferences are. But the chorus of voices that has allegedly “risen . . . throughout our country” in defense of such preferences is as much of a fiction as Bacow’s other assertions. Nearly three-quarters of all Americans, including a majority of minorities, oppose using race in college admissions, according to a 2022 Pew Research survey. Over the last five decades, academia has influenced much of American society for the worse. But on the matter of racial preferences, the country has held on to a more principled and more empirically sound understanding of merit than the educational establishment. If the Supreme Court reverses its embarrassingly incoherent “diversity” jurisprudence, it may not induce colleges to forego their racial obsessions. But it will return the law of the land to a measure of fidelity to the nation’s founding ideals, too long ignored in practice.

Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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