A River Runs Dry

Review of William G. Bowen and Derek Curtis Bok. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton University Press.

By Michael Greve

Policy Review, April 1, 1999

AS FORMER PRESIDENTS of Princeton and Harvard respectively, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok played leading roles in committing two of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning to racial preferences in student admissions. Their collaborative effort last year, The Shape of the River, came billed as a turning point in the debate over affirmative action. In it, the authors examine the consequences of these policies and find that they and their colleagues at other elite colleges have done an outstanding job. “Race-sensitive” admission practices, they find, have been good for blacks, good for elite universities, and good for the country.

No other social science book has been promoted so lavishly and with such determination to alter public debate. The eminences who submitted dust jacket blurbs sing the praises of “race sensitivity,” Bowen and Bok’s euphemism for race preferences. With equal attention to detail, the manuscript was withheld from experts and journalists suspected of harboring critical views, while advance copies were mailed to media outlets and experts who could be relied on to provide an echo chamber. True to form, the New York Times devoted a page-length article to the book and its authors, printed excerpts, and endorsed the tome in an editorial.

There is a potent reason for the hype, the spin, and the eagerness with which so many have seized on The Shape of the River: The defenders of race-based preferences have been on a long, unbroken losing streak – in the courts, at the polls, and in the public debate. Demoralizing events of the past three years include a March 1996 appellate court decision in Hopwood v. State of Texas, which held that racial preferences in student admissions are virtually always unconstitutional and, in particular, that an alleged interest in racial “diversity” provides no warrant for such policies; the abolition of admission preferences at the University of California; the enactment of California’s Proposition 209 in November 1996 and, in 1997, a strongly worded appellate court decision sustaining the measure; also in 1997, the filing of additional lawsuits against the University of Washington Law School and the University of Michigan; and, over the past year, successful constitutional challenges to race-based student assignments in primary and secondary education. In November 1998, a large majority of voters in the state of Washington approved a popular initiative barring race- and sex-based preferences at all public institutions in the state, including universities. Federal district courts in Georgia, New York, and, of all venues, the liberal First Circuit Court of Appeals joined the growing number of jurisdictions to declare racial preferences in education unconstitutional.

Preference advocates have grown increasingly worried about the possibility of stopping this juggernaut. As first steps, they need to draw some line of defense and to shore up confidence in their own camp. The Shape of the River is an attempt to do just that. The book does indeed contain a mountain of data, including some previously unavailable information on race-based admission preferences and their consequences. However, it impresses mostly for the authors’ obliviousness to the forces and arguments that have, for the better part of a decade, generated broad public and judicial support for official colorblindness.

Bowen and Bok’s own evidence suggests serious reservations about their cheerful conclusion that racial preferences “work.” The black students who graduate from elite institutions, we are told, earn a lot of money and, on the whole, feet good about themselves and their educational experience. All that, though, is also true of white graduates, except more so. Similarly, 61 percent of white students now get to “know well” two or more black students, whereas (the authors estimate) only 53 percent would if the number of black students were cut as a consequence of race-neutral policies. Either way, elite colleges seem to fall short of the larger American polity, where 86 percent of whites say they have black friends. But one does not learn this from The Shape of the River.

One does learn, if one did not already know, that college campuses are marred by racial tensions. Bowen and Bok emphasize what they take to be the bright side, even going so far as to rationalize that “it is often through racial slights, misunderstandings, and disagreements that minds are opened and the understanding of differences enlarged.” (One wonders if the LAPD has heard the news.) But the facts remain discouraging. One in four black admittees; to elite colleges fails to graduate, compared to 14 percent of whites, and the disparities in drop-out rates increase with the colleges’ selectivity. Black students earn grades that on average place them at the twenty-third percentile of their class, and the average includes those who would have been admitted under race-neutral standards. The authors express concern over this fact, but they never really address it, preferring instead such relativistic generalizations as “by any standard, the achievements of the black matriculants have been impressive.” Many pages and charts later, the evidence of high achievement by blacks is “overwhelming.”

Bowen and Bok mean to encourage “defensive or disillusioned” university administrators “who have worked hard to increase minority enrollments.” Demoralized educrats do need cheering up, and perhaps this book will help. But outside the groves of academe and the liberal civil rights lobby, The Shape of the River has failed to reshape the affirmative action debate. It has produced no significant rethinking among opponents of racial preferences. Anti-preference civil rights organizations such as Linda Chavez’s Center for Equal Opportunity and Ward Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute promptly published effective responses. Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have dissected the book’s claims in a devastating review (Commentary, February 1999).

Though its intentions are clearly otherwise, The Shape of the River may in fact accelerate the trend toward official colorblindness. The most fundamental reason is that while Bowen and Bok’s consequentialist argument may succeed in “informing” the debate (as the authors hope), it cannot change the terms of a debate that is fought, on both sides and for good reason, primarily over constitutional and moral principle.

For instance, Bowen and Bok argue that the demise of racial preferences would only marginally increase white or Asian applicants’ chances of admission. Among thousands of non-minority applicants who think they were displaced by racial preferences, according to them only a handful were in fact displaced. Even on purely utilitarian grounds, this argument cuts both ways, since the perception itself is a serious social cost. Leaving that aside, though, the argument is unlikely to impress “reverse” discrimination plaintiffs, the courts that entertain their claims, or the voters. It is a lot like saying that on those crowded Southern buses, most blacks wouldn’t have obtained whites-only seats anyhow. The argument presupposes that the principle isn’t terribly important in the first place.

MOST PEOPLE bend or break with principle only when the consequences of adherence become too awful to contemplate. And so Bowen and Bok paint a dreadful picture of the consequences that would ensue from race-neutral practices. Echoing the central defense of racial preferences in Hopwood and subsequent lawsuits, they warn of virtually-all-white-and-yellow colleges from here to what might as well be eternity. They also contend that elite college graduates “with advanced degrees are the back-bone of the emergent black and Hispanic middle class.” Their data do not remotely support that claim. In America, the black middle class “emerged” decades ago, which explains why 86 percent of black admittees in Bowen and Bok’s sample already came from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. As the Thernstroms observe, a few hundred elite school graduates – who, as Bowen and Bok concede, would have led successful lives even without Harvard degrees – hardly amount to the “backbone” of a middle class of over 10 million members.

Voters and judges, fortunately, do not believe that a handful of elite institutions are as important to the country’s well-being as the authors of The Shape of the River make them out to be. At the time, the demise of racial preferences in Texas and California produced jeremiads about the decline of minority enrollment at flagship institutions in those states. But the hoped-for backlash against race-neutral admission standards never materialized. Bowen and Bok’s evidence of the dire consequences of abolishing racial preferences is far too inconclusive to persuade anyone but higher education administrators, who need no persuading.

The book does, however, establish two points in the opposite direction. First, competitive colleges and universities administer very substantial racial preferences. Upwards of 60 percent of all black students at elite colleges owe their admission to such policies. Second, Bowen and Bok explain that elite institutions administer racial preferences for the purpose of boosting black enrollments.

While higher education experts have known these facts for well over two decades, judges, prospective plaintiffs, and the public have not. Curiously, the authors seem not to recognize that their own findings undermine their cause in the institutional venues where their arguments might matter. For the courts, “getting the numbers up” is discrimination for its own sake, which is verboten. So, too, with discrimination for broad societal objectives: It is unconstitutional per se. Voters, for their part, tend to ask whether those white kids who sue universities would have been admitted had they been black. The Shape of the River strongly confirms the suspicion that of course they would have – and that the same is true of thousands of others. This is all most citizens need or want to know about race “sensitive” practices.

SENSING PERHAPS that their empiricist argument can’t do the job, the authors end their book with a string of bare assertions. Colorblind practices are “unworthy of our country’s ideals.” We must not turn back from efforts to integrate blacks into “the mainstream of American life.” A few sentences later, the remedial argument for race preferences, otherwise ignored throughout the book, makes an appearance – coupled with a reaffirmation of Harvard’s role as the nation’s conscience: Racial preferences at elite colleges “will encourage others to press on with the hard work needed to overcome the continuing effects of a legacy of unfair treatment.” Besides (and still in the same paragraph), racial neutrality would induce despair among blacks, which “seems a high price to pay for a tiny increase in the probability of admission for white applicants” to elite institutions. Thus does the moral imagination shaped at Harvard reduce an argument over principle to a disagreement over probability distributions.

Bowen and Bok attempt to clinch their case by insisting on “The Importance of Institutional Autonomy.” American universities, they proclaim, are great because the government respects their autonomy, and that autonomy must encompass a license to engage in practices that in every other arena constitute race discrimination. Otherwise, highly selective colleges that are faced with a choice between color-blindness and elite aspirations will either lower admission standards or find furtive ways around obnoxious legal commands to cease discrimination. As the authors observe, “it is very difficult to stop people from finding a path toward a goal in which they firmly believe.” True enough; that is exactly why Southerners of an earlier generation discovered literacy tests.

Bowen and Bok urge that we trust our elite colleges to administer racial preferences sensibly. Institutional safe- guards, we are promised, ensure that they will do so:

University faculties and administrators know that they will have to live with their mistakes, and this realization acts as a restraint on hasty, ill-conceived policies. The admission practices of colleges and professional schools are highly visible, and there is no lack of individuals and entities ready to criticize their results.

After 285 pages of circumlocutions, these preposterous falsehoods come almost as a relief. In the academy, there is only one “mistake”: No provost or dean at a prestige institution can afford to question the “diversity” orthodoxy, which is why none have done so. As for the “visibility” of college admission practices, the nation’s elite schools have in fact harassed students (such as Georgetown Law School’s Timothy Maguire) who made the data visible. They have doctored documents and submitted perjured testimony, as University of Texas officials did in Hopwood. If the affirmative action debate has been uninformed by the sort of evidence presented in The Shape of the River, that is not because researchers, advocates, or the public lacked interest in the data, but because universities did everything in their power to keep the data secret. Bowen and Bok themselves will not permit independent researchers access to their “restricted access database.”

BEHIND THE OBSESSION with race and “diversity” lies a kernel of good sense: Public universities, at least, have a democratic or (in James Q. Wilson’s phrase) “representational” function. We do not like public institutions that serve only a select few. By definition, though, elite universities won’t be representational by any measure, be it race or religion or income. Elite public education redistributes income and life chances upward: Students at the University of Virginia (one of the most demanding public universities in the country) are being subsidized by taxpayers who will be lucky to see Mr. Jefferson’s institution as tourists. There may be a case for subsidizing the education of heart surgeons or nuclear physicists. But one is hard-pressed to articulate an argument for subsidizing the education of predominantly wealthy kids who will go on to become even wealthier lawyers.

There is an equally serious argument, albeit another one these authors do not address, for the autonomy of private colleges. America’s (mostly private) elite universities are the envy of the world, whereas our overwhelmingly public K-12 system is a mess. Public institutions must adhere to the Constitution and to public norms distilled in uniform laws and regulations, with all the attendant rigidities. Perhaps we should repeal the civil rights laws that tie private institutions to constitutional commands and let those institutions be truly private. Let each define its own mission and admission standards. Let there be institutional choice and (for lack of a better word) diversity.

Regardless of one’s views of the merits of these arguments, their forthright consideration would enrich an often sterile debate. Conservatives and liberals alike should be concerned about the redistributive implications of public higher education. Both camps, too, ought to respect the autonomy of private or privatized institutions. The captains of higher education could do worse than to query whether we really need a public Boalt Hall to produce white-shoe lawyers; whether Harvard and Columbia really need to pine for federal subsidies to the point of becoming well-nigh indistinguishable from the University of Alaska.

Such a debate, though, would present and eventually demand choices – between elitism and representation; between public and private; between Harvard’s autonomy and its claim to be a model to America. Bowen and Bok, however, want the best of all worlds. They want elite institutions with a multi-chromatic veneer. They want diversity – so long as it conforms to their definition. They want private autonomy for Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Michigan – on the taxpayers’ nickel. They want permission to discriminate – and yet harangue everyone else for latent racism.

In the end, all the data and charts and graphs in The Shape of the River cannot camouflage the brazen arrogance of the authors’ demand for our money and our gratitude and an exemption from the rules that apply to everyone else. They can forget it.

Michael S. Greve is the former executive director of the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), a public interest law firm. CIR serves as legal counsel to the plaintiffs in Hopwood v. State of Texas and in the cases against the University of Washington and the University of Michigan and its Law School.