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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
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The bureaucrats went on to explain the origins of the student database which the professors had used for their study, as if the very gathering of information had been called into question by the paper. (The Duke data repository was a response to William Bowen and Derek Bok’s 1999 study of college affirmative action, The Shape of the River, which had exposed the low grades of preference beneficiaries nationwide; the Duke data project was intended to identify and help resolve similar problems of underachievement locally. In other words, the Arcidiacano paper was squarely within the mandate of the Duke student database.) Duke has worked to create an “empowering, safe, and stigma-free environment” for students to get help in science, the administrators added, implicitly acknowledging that the administration has known for years about minority students’ struggles with science. (As for the nauseating women’s studies’ rhetoric about the need for “safe spaces” on campus, the idea that Duke is anything other than the cushiest, most supportive, most compassionate environment ever experienced by late adolescents is preposterous. The often-observed self-segregation of minority students at elite campuses into “safe,” race-themed “spaces” results, in large part, from preferential admissions and the resulting disparities in academic skills.) 

Finally, as is de rigueur in all such flaps over “diversity,” the administration pledged to try even harder to be sensitive to Duke’s black students. “We welcome the call to action. Many people have been working for a long time to create a positive climate for African-American students. We look forward to ongoing conversations with BSA and others about ways that we can improve,” Schoenfeld penitently announced. Of course, as Schoenfeld meekly hints, Duke has been engaged in color-coded programming and funding for decades, pouring money into, to name just a few endeavors, a black student center, a black student recruiting weekend, and such bureaucratic sinecures as a vice provost for faculty diversity and faculty development and an associate vice provost for academic diversity, who, along with the faculty diversity task force and faculty diversity standing committee, ride herd over departmental hiring and monitor the progress of the 2003 10-point Faculty Diversity Initiative, which followed upon the previous 10-year Black Faculty Strategic Initiative. But no college administration in recent history has ever said to whining students of any race or gender: “Are you joking? We’ve kowtowed to your demands long enough, now go study!” And why should the burgeoning student services bureaucracy indulge in such honesty, for it depends on just such melodramatic displays of grievance for its very existence.

The BSA may have misunderstood the paper’s argument, but it was right about one thing: The Duke administration had completely ducked the substance of the study. Referring to the bureaucrats’ open letter, the BSA’s executive vice president told the campus newspaper: “They didn’t mention the words ‘race,’ ‘black’ or the phrase ‘affirmative action’ in their response, and we feel that this was a deliberate attempt to avoid directly addressing the issues at hand.” No kidding. The Duke hierarchy uttered not a word on the question whether the school’s black students were dropping out of the sciences because of their relative lack of preparation. It was as if Arcidiacono, Spenner, and Aucejo had committed a social transgression so embarrassing that the only polite thing to do was to ignore it. 

The uproar over the major-switching paper has had its intended effect: Lead author Arcidiacono may be browbeaten out of affirmative action research. “Honestly, I’m not sure how much further I want to go with this line of inquiry,” he says. “I may have been naïve to think I could do this work.” Arcidiacono’s other scholarly focus, applied econometrics, has the distinct advantage that “no one gets upset” with you, he says. Moreover, economists understand the concept of distribution—to talk about average black academic preparation, for example, does not mean that there are no black students superbly qualified to study engineering and chemistry. 

A handful of scholars have been documenting the negative consequences of so-called “academic mismatch,” but the scourging of Arcidiacono and his fellow authors cannot encourage many others to enter the fray. Nevertheless, the evidence is already strong that preferences are contributing to the undereducation of minorities. In 2005, UCLA law professor Richard Sander demonstrated that blacks admitted to law schools because of their race end up overwhelmingly in the lowest quarter of their class and have much greater difficulties passing the bar than students admitted on their merits. A working paper by Sander and UCLA statistician Roger Bolus extends the Arcidiacono analysis of students at Duke to a comparative setting: Science students with credentials more than one standard deviation below their peers’ are half as likely to graduate with science degrees as students with similar qualifications attending schools where their academic preparation matches their peers’. 

As such findings mount, the conclusion will become inescapable: College leaders who continue to embrace affirmative action do so simply to flatter their own egos, so that they can gaze upon their “diverse” realm and bask in their noblesse oblige. Faced with the Arcidiacono analysis and other research like it, the responsible thing for Duke administrators to do would be to admit all students on the same basis, so that all would stand an equal chance of success in the most challenging majors. Getting rid of racial preferences would reduce Duke’s black population, now 10 percent of the student body, by half, but the half that remained would be fully competitive with their peers. Admittedly, such a drop in the black student census would trigger charges that Duke was hostile to minorities. And unless other schools reformed their own admissions policies, the students whom Duke would have admitted through racial preference would simply go to other elite institutions, where they would be just as handicapped by deficiencies in their academic preparation. All the more imperative, then, to air the mismatch research as widely as possible. But until it becomes possible to discuss the effects of preferences without being accused of racial animus, it may be impossible to dislodge academic affirmative action, no matter how discredited its purported justifications.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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