November 2, 2012

UCLA's Latest Display of Outrage

Cross-posted from Can These Bones Live 

UCLA law professor Richard Sander has been the target of student protests at his university this week. Sander, a critic of affirmative action, published a report that argued UCLA's supposedly "holistic" admissions process was quietly including race as a prominent factor in deciding who would be admitted to the university. Based on his analysis of admissions data, Sander argued that while UCLA's holistic process, which included factors such as socioeconomic disadvantage in deciding who would be accepted, was not racially discriminatory by itself, admissions officers did not strictly follow the process and made offers to students who not only had relatively weak academic backgrounds, but even low scores in the holistic ranking. These offers, according to Sander, went disproportionately to black students. If Sander is correct, then UCLA's admissions office has been surreptitiously violating California law, which prohibits the state's universities from considering race in admissions or hiring.

The report, according to Inside Higher Ed, "infuriated minority student leaders at UCLA (not to mention administrators)." The students perceived it as "offensive" and described themselves as being "under attack." UCLA Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Youlanda Copeland-Morgan had not reviewed the statistics in the report and therefore could not judge the report's accuracy, but nevertheless described Professor Sander's analysis as "hurtful and unequivocal attacks."

As I read through the Sander report, I could see no attempts to "attack" or "hurt" anyone. He makes an argument, based on evidence. One may disagree with his argument or, after having reviewed his evidence, conclude that the facts do not support it. But other than making vague claims that somehow the holistic process includes considerations that cannot be measured statistically, apparently no one has made any serious efforts to rebut Professor Sander's reasoning. In an interview excerpted by Inside Higher Ed, Sander, who had attended the protest against his report (brave man), observed that "Some fairly cynical leaders saw an opportunity to create a cause ... and they are milking it to the full. There was no rational discussion. There was no identification of any mistakes in my report, and no concern about what it would mean if the analysis were correct."

I have no argument with the right to peaceful assembly and it would be perfectly legal for people to gather to protest the laws of physics, if they should choose to do so. Still, I find the events at UCLA appalling. A university should be a place where we encourage careful, dispassionate reasoning. Shouting slogans and shaking fists in the air do not lend themselves to the cultivation of rational analysis. While Professor Sander does not appear to be intimidated by outraged crowds, this kind of emotional display does make it more unpleasant to express unpopular views and therefore undermines the openness to intellectual diversity that should be the essence of university life.

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The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.