Alamo in Ann Arbor

A test case for racial preferences

By Stephen Thernstrom

The National Review, September 13, 1999

PANIC may be setting in. The legal conflict over racebased admissions at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor may become “the Alamo of affirmative action,” warned Time magazine columnist Jack E. White recently.

The Michigan suits, which will soon go to trial, have been brought by the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington-based public-interest law firm. At issue are preferential admissions at the university’s College of Literature, Science and Arts and its Law School. No matter how the district court rules, the decision is sure to be appealed all the way to the top. In 1996, the Supreme Court refused to review the Fifth Circuit’s Hopwood decision that ended racial preferences at the University of Texas Law School, and it may duck the issue again. But it cannot forever ignore the incoherence and ambiguity of its decades-old decision in the Bakke case. And it cannot indefinitely close its eyes to the fact that schools like Michigan have long been operating a “dual admissions” program difficult to distinguish from that found unconstitutional in Bakke.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece titled “Inclusive America, Under Attack,” former president Gerald Ford came to his alma mater’s defense. He was inspired to do so, according to Jack White, by a briefing from Lee Bollinger and William G. Bowen, presidents of the University of Michigan and the Mellon Foundation respectively.

Bowen is the co-author, with Derek Bok, of The Shape of the River, which declared “racially sensitive” admissions policies at elite colleges and universities to be a total success. [Ed.’s Note: For a thorough evaluation of this work, see “Reflections on The Shape of the River” by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom in the June 1999 UCLA Law Review.] Lee Bollinger is equally enthusiastic. Although Michigan now rivals the University of California, Berkeley, as the nation’s most distinguished public university, intellectual excellence does not appear to be his highest priority. Racial diversity, he has said, is “as vital” for a university as “teaching Shakespeare or mathematics.” In fact, one suspects that if he had to choose between closing down the English and math departments and eliminating Michigan’s preferential-admissions policies, he would unhesitatingly opt for the former. In the conclusion of The Shape of the River, Bowen and Bok argue that administrators barred from using racial double standards in admissions will elect to lower standards for all applicants so as to secure enough non-Asian minorities in the student body. Bollinger would seem to be squarely in this camp.

President Ford opens his essay with a sad story about Willis Ward, an African-American teammate of his on the Michigan football squad in the mid-1930s, who chose to sit out a game against Georgia Tech, its officials having objected to sharing the field with a black player. “Do we really want,” he asks, “to risk turning back the clock to an era when the Willis Wards were … penalized for the color of their skin?” Do we, indeed? Surely the lesson here is the vicious irrationality of treating blacks and whites differently — which is precisely what the “diversity” policies that Ford defends do.

Like most defenders of preferential policies, Ford insists that race is but “one of many factors” weighed by Michigan’s admissions officers. Jack White makes the same claim, and argues that the U of M’s preferential programs “have been reviewed to ensure that they comply with Supreme Court rulings.” (He fails to tell us who did the reviewing. Surely the university did not assemble an impartial team of lawyers.) The Michigan system, according to White, is “among the best in the country-designed not only to produce diverse student bodies but also to withstand the sort of right-wing onslaughts, in the courts or at the polls, that have outlawed the use of preferences in California, Washington and other states.”

Perhaps Michigan’s system is among the best in the country, but if so, one shudders at what must be going on at more typical institutions. This is how the Michigan admissions process works: Getting in is, of course, intensely competitive — but only if you come from the wrong racial background. The College of Literature, Science and Arts declares that “all qualified American Indians, Black/African American, and Hispanic/Latino American applicants will be admitted as soon as a high probability of success can be predicted.” “Virtually all” applicants from these three “underrepresented” groups are accepted, so long as their high-school grades and scores on the SAT or ACT exceed a certain minimum.

All other applicants — Asians and non-Hispanic whites — receive radically different treatment. Since “many more students apply each year than can be admitted,” and every “qualified” black, Hispanic, or American Indian is guaranteed a place in the class, it takes much stronger academic credentials for members of non-preferred groups to make the grade. In 1996, for example, the admission rate exceeded 90 percent for all “underrepresented” minorities with GPAs above 2.8 (a dismal B minus) or SATs over 830, well below the national average for all who took the test. Asians and whites, by contrast, needed a 3.8 GPA or an SAT score above 1,200 to have a better than 90 percent chance of admission.

Since the admissions officers can’t be sure how many of the students they admit in the first round will actually come, they maintain a waiting list for those who come close but didn’t quite make the initial cut. If some slots remain open when the letters of acceptance have come in, some students from the list are given late admission. Amazingly, this is a segregated waiting list — a list for Asians and non-Hispanic whites only. All minority applicants who met the minimal standards had been admitted before it was drawn up.

Although the two groups of applicants (preferred and nonpreferred) do not compete with each other, the college makes a curious effort to make them appear comparable. It rates applications on a scale that goes up to 150 points. Up to 80 points can be earned for a perfect high-school record, 12 points for getting 1,600 (the highest score possible) on the SATs, 1 point for an outstanding application essay. In order to narrow the gap between the scores of candidates from preferred and non-preferred groups, however, the admissions office awards 20 points for being black, Hispanic, or American Indian. If race is just “one of many factors,” it is nearly twice as important a factor as scoring in the 99th percentile on the SATs.

The minimal standards that minority applicants must meet are far below those of the rest of the Michigan student body, but the school insists that it grants preferential admission only to those students with “a high probability of success” in the classroom. Either they don’t bother to monitor the effects of their decisions or they have an odd definition of “a high probability.” In fact, alarmingly large numbers of the students admitted as a result of racial preferences fail to graduate. Of those who were freshmen in 1991-1992, for example, 35 percent of all African Americans and 48 percent of black male students had not received their diplomas six years later, dropout rates nearly triple that of the whites and Asians who had entered at the same time. And these figures include black students who would have been admitted even without benefit of preferences; they would doubtless be higher for those for whom race made all the difference. President Ford’s assurances that students admitted to Michigan as a result of racial preferences have a “record of academic success” that is “outstanding” derive from wishful thinking, not any inspection of the evidence.

If the College of Literature, Science and Arts were really producing so many outstanding graduates, it is hard to understand why the Michigan Law School would also feel the need to discriminate against white and Asian applicants. The law school is a bit less vulnerable to legal attack than the college, in that it does not openly guarantee admission to all applicants from favored groups who meet a certain minimum standard; nor does it have a white-and-Asians-only waiting list. But the school does make plain that it is eager to recruit black, Hispanic, and American Indian students, and it clearly judges them by much lower standards.

The record indicates that the Michigan Law School has for many years sought to ensure that at least 10-12 percent of each entering class come from a preferred group, and the statistics demonstrate that it has consistently reached that goal. To do so, it has had to accept minority applicants with dramatically weaker credentials than whites and Asians it rejected. Thus Barbara Grutter — a plaintiff in the suit against Michigan — had a 3.8 GPA as an undergraduate and a score of 161 on the Law School Admissions Test, which put her in the 86th percentile. All but 2 of the 43 minority applicants with equally strong records were accepted by the school, but not Barbara Grutter. Indeed, fully 80 percent of all applicants from favored groups with a 3.25-or-better GPA and LSATs of 156 to 163 were admitted. For whites and Asians with those credentials, the admissions rate was a mere 8 percent.

Neither the college nor the law school at Michigan is at all exceptional in its use of racial double standards in admissions. Bowen and Bok’s study of 28 elite colleges and universities contends that racial preferences at those schools are really very modest. The authors’ own data, however, show racial disparities in acceptance rates of the same glaring magnitude as found at the U of M, and similar disparities in academic performance and graduation rates.

These patronizing policies should be brought to an end. President Ford concludes his essay with the plea that we remember that “America remains a nation of have-nots as well as haves. Its government is obligated to provide for hope no less than the common defense.” Certainly so. The persistence of a black underclass is a problem that we should not ignore. But racial preferences at an elite university do nothing whatever for the true have-nots (in Detroit, for example). Their academic skills are too undeveloped to give them the slightest chance to make it through the University of Michigan or indeed any other college. What they need desperately is better K-12 education. Only good schooling can provide them with realistic hopes of a better life. And race-based admissions policies in higher education are a pernicious palliative that deflects attention from the real problem.