By KC Johnson
As the most important higher-education case in a decade makes its way to the Supreme Court--the Fisher case on racial preferences--UCLA law professor Richard Sander had an excellent series of posts at the Volokh Conspiracy summarizing one critical argument that his research has helped to highlight: that even the ostensible beneficiaries often are harmed (or at the very least, not helped) by racial preferences in admissions. I strongly recommend Sander's three-part series, and thought it would be useful to summarize its main points.
Sander's scholarly contributions to the issue of racial preferences came through his work on the mismatch effect in law schools--that is, the situation of "students receiving large preferences (for whatever reason) were likely to find themselves in academic environments where they had to struggle just to keep up; professor instruction would typically be aimed at the 'median' student, so students with weaker academic preparation would tend to fall behind, and, even if they did not become discouraged and give up, would tend to learn less than they would have learned in an environment where their level of academic preparation was closer to the class median."
Sander notes that while his initial article attracted a good deal of criticism--even though most of the critics didn't challenge his data--eventually law school administrators and faculty defenders of racial preferences fell back on a two-track strategy: "to (a) ignore the issue and (b) use their best efforts to prevent the further release of data" that provided the substance for his original article. This response, in retrospect, shouldn't have come as much of a surprise--"diversity" advocates on campus rarely want prolonged debate about or exposure to their underlying assumptions.
Despite this ignore-and-obstruct approach, scholarship on the mismatch effect continued (Sander provides a helpful link to some of the more fruitful research), with an increasing focus not on law school but instead on undergraduate education, especially science, math, and engineering. The "science mismatch" theory, he correctly observes, is somewhat intuitive: "If you are a high school senior interested in becoming, for example, a chemist, you may seriously harm your chances of success by attending a school where most of the other would-be chemists have stronger academic preparation than you do. Professors will tend to pitch their class at the median student, not you; and if you struggle or fall behind in the first semester of inorganic chemistry, you will be in even worse shape in the second semester, and in very serious trouble when you hit organic chemistry. You are likely to get bad grades and to either transfer out of chemistry or fail to graduate altogether." In other words, elite universities using admissions preferences to bring in more minority students interested in science might, perversely, yield a society with fewer minority science graduates.
Sander's initial article about the mismatch effect and law schools provoked some sharp response from defenders of the status quo before they retreated to the ignore-and-obstruct approach, but he observes that the science mismatch thesis "has been the subject of little media attention and hardly any academic dispute." Yet even though there's a consensus "on the existence of a mismatch problem among all those who have actually studied the interaction of affirmative action and degrees in STEM fields," Sander is aware of "no university that has either acknowledged the problem or taken direct steps to address it." When facts challenge preconceived academic biases--at least on matters related to "diversity"--the normal response is to ignore the facts.
Sander does examine the one recent high-profile case in which defenders of the status quo, up to and including the university administration, did not ignore research into the science mismatch thesis--the fiasco at Richard Brodhead's Duke. A study by two Duke professors found that among students who initially expressed an interest in majoring in economics, engineering and the natural sciences, 54 percent of black men and 51 percent of black women ended up switching to the humanities or another social science. The campus Black Student Alliance (BSA) took offense, and in response, Brodhead accused the professors of attempting to "disparage" black students at Duke and he placated the BSA by nearly tripling its budget.
Brodhead's handling of the controversy, of course, was indefensible. The president devoted his March 22 Faculty Address to an ill-informed attack on the study, an attack that he capped off by deeming it an "insult" that the study was cited in a brief presented to the Supreme Court. But, Sander observes, Brodhead's behavior is important for what it says more generally about how higher education approaches research about admissions preferences.
"Colleges and universities," he notes, "are committed to the mythology that diversity happens merely because they want it and put resources into it, and that all admitted students arrive with all the prerequisites necessary to flourish in any way they choose. Administrators work hard to conceal the actual differences in academic preparation that almost invariably accompany the aggressive use of preferences. Any research that documents the operation and effects of affirmative action therefore violates this "color-blind" mythology and accompanying norms; minority students are upset, correctly realizing that either the research is wrong or that administrators have misled them. In this scenario, administrators invariably resort to the same strategy: dismiss the research without actually lying about it; reassure the students that the researchers are misguided, but that the university can't actually punish the researchers because of "academic freedom"--with the invocation of "academic freedom" becoming "a device to protect the administration."
The failure of this strategy may very well backfire when the Supreme Court considers the Fisher case. The justices will be presented with several years' worth of well-researched, richly-documented studies explicating the mismatch effect--with little or nothing from the other side of the matter beyond thinly-concealed allegations of racism. Will this approach be enough to persuade Justice Kennedy to uphold the continuing use of racial preferences?