The Magazine

Affirmative Disaster

A Duke study documents the harm racial preferences in college admissions can do to the intended beneficiaries.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Naturally, the BSA has leveraged its protest into demands on the Duke administration for more black faculty and administrators and for more funding of black-themed programs. A Duke professor of English, women’s studies, and law, Karla Holloway, tweeted that the study “lacks academic rigor”—this women’s studies professor neglected to specify which of its algorithms she found flawed—and that it “re-opens old racial wounds.” A senior research scholar, Tim Tyson, wrote in an op-ed that the paper was a “political tract disguised as scholarly inquiry,” representing a “crusade to reduce the numbers of black students at elite institutions.” (Both Tyson and Holloway were active in the witch hunt against the three Duke lacrosse players who were falsely accused in 2006 of raping a black stripper.) A group of recent black Duke graduates called on the study’s authors to “stop their attack on students of color.” 

To the extent that these critics tried to address the paper’s arguments, they missed its gist entirely. The Duke alumni alleged that black students “shy away” from “so-called ‘difficult’ majors” because they’ve been told all their lives that they are “inferior”—overlooking the fact that Duke’s black students “shied away” from the sciences only after starting out in those fields. Tyson claimed that black students choose the humanities over the sciences because they “come from cultural and intellectual traditions different than—not less than—most white students at Duke”—again, ignoring the fact that black students overwhelmingly intend to major in the sciences when they arrive at Duke. An essay by a professor of critical culture, gender, and race studies at Washington State University faulted the researchers for not exploring the “countless” ways in which “racism” denies black high school students equal access to SAT prep and Advanced Placement courses. But the focus of the major-switching paper was on what happened to minority students after they arrived at Duke, not before. Moreover, the paper did note that the racial difference in academic preparation is “not surprising, given disparities in resources between black and white families.” 

The study’s critics also asserted that the intellectual demands of humanities and science majors are indistinguishable. Applying Ferdinand de Saussure (a 19th-century Swiss linguist invoked today only in literature classes) to The Matrix, it was claimed, is as challenging as mastering the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Here, too, the protesters ignored the paper’s empirical evidence: Seniors in the hard sciences have lower grades than freshmen in humanities and social sciences, even though the SATs of science majors are on average higher than those of humanities majors. For blacks, the disparity in grading is even greater. Black freshmen get higher grades in the humanities and social sciences than freshmen of all races get in the hard sciences, though black students’ test scores and overall grades are significantly lower than other students’. As for the coursework demands in the various fields, it is students themselves who report spending 50 percent more time studying for the hard sciences, and who rate those courses as more difficult than the humanities and the social sciences. 

In a different world, the Duke administration might have tried to dispel some of the distortions of the Arci-diacono paper, given the authors’ patent lack of invidious intent and the rigor of their work. Instead, Duke’s top bureaucrats left the authors twisting in the wind. In an open letter to the campus, provost Peter Lange and a passel of deanlings declared: “We understand how the conclusions of the research paper can be interpreted in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes.” It is hard to imagine a more hypocritical utterance. To the extent that the paper reinforces “negative stereotypes,” it does so by describing the effects of Duke’s policy of admitting black students with lower academic qualifications than whites and Asians. It is Duke’s predilection for treating black students as a group whose race trumps their individual academic records that constitutes “stereotyping,” not the authors’ analysis of the consequences of that group thinking. (Campus spokesman Michael Schoenfeld ignored a request to specify the “negative stereotypes” that the paper might reinforce.) 

But perhaps a concession to black anger had to be made to clear some space for a defense of the Arcidiacono paper? Not a chance. The deanlets and provosts followed their invocation of “negative stereotypes” with an anodyne generalization about academic freedom: “At the same time, our goal of academic success for all should not inhibit research and discussion to clarify important issues of academic choice and achievement.” In other words, don’t blame us for what these wacky professors might say. 

Recent Blog Posts