Prof. Espenshade Runs From His Own Research

On July 12th Russell Nieli reminded readers of Minding the Campus what critics of racial preference policies (widely known by the euphemism “affirmative action”) have long known — that when university administrators talk about “diversity,” what they really mean is blacks … and to a lesser degree Hispanics. “Most elite universities,” he pointed out,

seem to have little interest in diversifying their student bodies when it comes to the numbers of born-again Christians from the Bible belt, students from Appalachia and other rural and small-town areas, people who have served in the U.S. military, those who have grown up on farms or ranches, Mormons, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, lower-middle-class Catholics, working class “white ethnics,” social and political conservatives, wheelchair users, married students, married students with children, or older students first starting out in college after raising children or spending several years in the workforce.


Drawing on a recent study by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, Nieli pointed out the rather extreme preference enjoyed by favored minorities and the negative preference suffered by one of the most disfavored minorities, Asian Americans.

On an “other things equal basis,” where adjustments are made for a variety of background factors, being Hispanic conferred an admissions boost over being white (for those who applied in 1997) equivalent to 130 SAT points (out of 1600), while being black rather than white conferred a 310 SAT point advantage. Asians, however, suffered an admissions penalty compared to whites equivalent to 140 SAT points.
…. To have the same chances of gaining admission as a black student with an SAT score of 1100, an Hispanic student otherwise equally matched in background characteristics would have to have a 1230, a white student a 1410, and an Asian student a 1550.

Asians, however, were not the only minority Espenshade and Walton found to suffer from negative preference.

At the private institutions in their study whites from lower-class backgrounds incurred a huge admissions disadvantage not only in comparison to lower-class minority students, but compared to whites from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds as well. The lower-class whites proved to be all-around losers.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat, citing both Nieli and Espenshade, emphasized that the Espenshade study

provides statistical confirmation for what alumni of highly selective universities already know. The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions.

“For minority applicants,” Douthat noted,

the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

What is really interesting here is not so much what Nieli and Douthat have taken from Espenshade’s work but that Professor Espenshade appears uncomfortable, to say the least (and below I will say considerably more than the least), with the idea that anyone would think his data — any of his data — support the conclusion that university administrators discriminate against anyone. As John Leo noted on Minding the Campus a few days ago.

If damaging evidence against affirmative action turns up in a pro-affirmative action book, the author often explains it away as misunderstood or exaggerated. This has happened once again, this time to a book that made no splash when it was published last October, but drew attention here at Minding the Campus in criticism that spread to Ross Douthat’s column in The New York Times, Pat Buchanan’s syndicated column and now Time magazine.

Princeton’s Thomas Espenshade is the poster boy for pretending that he (or his evidence) doesn’t mean what almost everyone else thinks it says. In a reply to Douthat, for example, Espenshade charges that Douthat “seizes on one relatively minor finding in the entire book to push an interpretation that goes far beyond the bounds of the actual evidence,” a charge he has recently repeated to interviewers from both Newsweek and Time. To Time he stated, in a now familiar fashion, that Douthat took “a relatively minor finding and push[ed] an interpretation that goes beyond the bounds of available evidence.”
To a Newsweek interviewer he was a bit more expansive:

“We didn’t have a particular point of view and wanted to just be a mouthpiece for the data,” said Espenshade, who told me that Douthat had “overreached” in his interpretation of the Princeton research….
And while Espenshade’s data does conclude that the chances for admission improve for poorer black, Hispanic, and Asian-American students and decrease for poor white students, he doesn’t believe this is a plot to deny poor whites an Ivy League education. “There aren’t that many poor students applying to these schools,” he explains. “The applicant pool itself tends to trend toward middle and upper-middle class. But all elite schools value diversity, both racial and socioeconomic, so maybe giving scarce finiancial [sic] aid dollars to poor black kids achieves two aims at once and they’re already admitting a lot of white kids.” Please note that Espenshade is not drawing a conclusion, only coming up with what could be a reasonable interpretation of the data….

[For Douthat’s reply to these charges, see his “The White Anxiety Debate, Continued.”] Now, not to put too fine a point on it, Espenshade’s claim that he is merely an opinion-less “mouthpiece for the data,” and Neewswek’s gullible swallowing it, is pure, unadulterated malarkey. Not drawing a conclusion? Give me a break. He’s certainly drawing the conclusion that the conclusions others have drawn from his data is unjustified.
But at least there’s nothing new here. Espenshade has a long pattern and practice of denying the clear implications of his data, using the same strained arguments over and over. No plot to deny access to poor whites? Not surprising, since he also found no “smoking gun” evidence to deny access to Asians. Indeed, he won’t even admit that his data reveal the presence of discrimination.
For example, in discussing back in February Prof. Espenshade’s steadfast refusal, either obstinately or obtusely, to acknowledge what his numbers, charts, graphs, and statistical analyses clearly reveal — that “affirmative action” as practiced by admissions officers at elite colleges results in massive discrimination against Asian-Americans, I quoted from an interview with him in the Princeton News Service in which he said that he couldn’t conclude discrimination was present in the admissions process

because I’ve never actually sat in on an admission committee. But I’m convinced they don’t have an equation like this and say, “OK, if you are Hispanic, you get a certain number of points; if your SAT scores are in this category, you get a certain number of points,” right down the list.

See? No “plot” means no discrimination. I concluded at the time that this dodge was not only lame but silly, and quoted more from his interview:

People may read this and want to say, “Oh, because I’m Asian American, my SAT scores have been downgraded.” That is not really the way to interpret these data. Many times people will ask me, “Do your results prove that there is discrimination against Asian applicants?” And I say, “No, they don’t.” Even though in our data we have much information about the students and what they present in their application folders, most of what we have are quantifiable data. We don’t have the “softer” variables — the personal statements that the students wrote, their teacher recommendations, a full list of extracurricular activities. Because we don’t have access to all of the information that the admission office has access to, it is possible that the influence of one applicant characteristic or another might appear in a different light if we had the full range of materials.

Espenshade practiced the same evasion in almost identical terms in an interview with Inside Higher Ed back in November 2009.

Espenshade said in an interview that he does not think his data establish this bias [against Asians]. He noted that while his formulas are notably more complete than typical test score comparisons by race and ethnicity, he doesn’t have the “softer variables,” such as teacher and high school counselor recommendations, essays and lists of extracurricular activities. It is possible, he said, that such factors explain some of the apparent SAT and ACT disadvantage facing Asian applicants.
At the same time, he said he understood that these numbers would certainly not reassure Asian applicants or those who believe they are suffering discrimination.
“I understand the worry of Asian students, but do I have a smoking gun? No,” he said.

If these passages mean anything they mean that those Asians may look good on paper (grades, test scores, etc.), but for all Espenshade knows they may all share an inability to write admissions essays that can compete with those written by blacks and Hispanics and a similar inability to garner enthusiastic letters of recommendations from their teachers. Actually, this attempt to deny the evidence of discrimination against Asians is neither lame nor silly; it is almost humorously dumb, and offensive.
Critics of race preferences do not believe that admissions officers “plot” to discriminate. Quite the contrary, despite Espenshade’s unconvincing attempts to deny what his data reveal, discrimination in favor of some and against others on the basis of race and ethnicity is the very heart and soul of affirmative action admissions. Otherwise, why would the defenders of affirmative action get so up in arms against proposals to prohibit racial preferences? The only “smoking gun” necessary is the data itself, and those data reveal that a shot is fired every time an applicant is turned away who would have been accepted in the absence of preferential treatment based on race.
I’m not the only one to notice Espenshade’s evasions. See, for example, Robert VerBruggen’s excellent review of Espenshade’s book and his additional comments about it. Even more pointedly, a friend who is quite familiar with all the social science literature on affirmative action and has friends at Princeton emailed me in response to one of my earlier posts that he’d heard some students there were so impressed by Espenshade’s “almost Soviet-commisar-esque ability to boldly deny the obvious implications of his evidence that they referred to him as Prof. Espenshady.”
Finally, I think it is noteworthy that Prof. Espenshade, certainly widely believed to be one of the foremost academic authorities on the practice of “diversity” these days, is so revealingly, carelessly sloppy when he discusses it. Asked by the Time interviewer “What is it about diversity that is so important? People take its value to be axiomatic, but why does it matter?” he gave two reasons. The first:

I think it matters in two respects. One has to do with opening up pathways to leadership for all members of society. This would be true whether we’re talking about the legal profession, the medical profession, Congress, whatever. We want to make sure that our society is creating opportunities, access to these elite schools and pathways to upper mobility for all groups in the population.

One needn’t be a constitutional law professor, nor even a regular reader of Discriminations, to recognize that “opening up pathways to leadership” has absolutely nothing to do with “diversity.” It is racial balancing pure and simple, which university administrators take great pains to deny they practice. You’d think a pro-preference Princeton professor would know better than to let this particular cat out of the bag.
The second reason:

It also matters in another respect. In the old days, going back to, say, the 1950s, if you looked at the Princeton campus and who came here, it was all white men, most of whom were from privileged backgrounds. Their perspectives on life didn’t vary that much from one student to another. So the learning that they did was largely book learning, but there’s another aspect of learning that one hopes takes place in college, and that has to do with expanding one’s horizons, expanding one’s perspectives, coming into contact with people whose life circumstances are different than your own and broadening your outlook as a result of that. That can’t happen if there isn’t a diverse group of students.

This sounds more like diversity as most people understand the term, but note that, like all such defenses of the preferential treatment on which affirmative action admissions depend, it is all but irrelevant to the actual “diversity” policies practiced at elite institutions. Those policies, day in and day out, as Espenshade’s data show to everyone’s but his own satisfaction, define “diversity” almost entirely in terms of skin color.

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