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Monday, March 31, 2003

The Well-Rounded Class

In the New Yorker, Louis Menand looks at the current debate about U.S. college admissions:

[A]dmissions offices have always given preference to various types of candidates whose grades and standardized-test scores may be below average. They have done so because they have other institutional needs besides putting scholars in the classrooms. They have football teams to field, orchestras and marching bands to staff, student organizations to be led, alumni to be kept in a giving mood, and feeder schools to be kept in a feeding mood. They have a gender balance to preserve. They can’t have ten times as many poets as physicists, or thirty students from Exeter and none from the local high school.

Later on, he adds:

Most people feel that a heterogeneous class is better than a homogeneous one, and the fact that this makes it harder to get in does not mean that the process is unjust. It’s just a supply-side system: excess demand gives the colleges the advantage in deciding what they want their student demographics to look like. And the truth is that anything that reduces the power of the S.A.T. is a good thing. It is absurd to believe that a test taken when a person is sixteen can predict how well that person will be performing when she is twenty-two.

This is an instumentalist view of affirmative action--the University of Michigan case prompted Menand's article. Universities are imperfect markets because we want them to be--no one wants "worthy" students to be deprived of an education, so other criteria are used aid admissions decisons. In essence, Menand, who desribes the lack of transparency--and the consequent unpredicability--of Ivy League admissions, is defending not so much affimative action as a university's right to be arbitrary in it's selection process if it helps meet "instiutional needs".

I'm not sure about the legal basis for this--can institutions legally be arbitrary? A huge part of regulation is designed to reduce uncertainty and arbitrariness in the process, if not the outcome, of decisionmaking. Consider the issue raised by Jack Baklin's post back in January about baselines in colour blindness:

[L]aws like the 1964 Civil Rights Act that guarantee blacks equal opportunity clearly are designed to help them, so doesn’t that make them race conscious? Well, if your baseline is a world in which everyone has the right to refuse service to anyone they don’t like, and the right to hire and fire anyone they don’t like, yes, it does. The law is altering common law rules of contract and property for the explicit purpose of benefitting black people.

Anti-discrimination law does not prohibit prejudice--merely the ability to act based on that prejudice. Can that same law overlook positive discrimination? In a few months, perhaps, we'll find out.