For a half century I've vehemently opposed racial preferences in higher education. Opposition was partially ideological--I believe in merit--and partly based on sorrowful firsthand experience with affirmative action students and faculty. Though my principles remain unchanged I am now ready to concede defeat, throw in the towel and raise the white flag. Abolishing racial preferences is the academic equivalent of trying to win a land war in Asia: the enemy is just too strong, too tenacious and willing to use whatever means necessary. Our side may win a few battles, e.g., California's Proposition 209, Hopwood, but at the end of the day, hoards of faceless bureaucrats and left-wing faculty soldier on. If it takes a village to uncover special abilities that justify admitting the academically marginal, rest assured, the village will be recruited, trained and then celebrated as champions of social justice. Our side just lacks the stomach to outlast zealots who shamelessly use every ruse imaginable.
The Articles of Surrender will proclaim (1) universities, whether state or private, religious or secular, can admit any student according to any criteria whatsoever; (2) schools are now permitted to bestow degrees according to whatever standards that suit them. That's it: zero restrictions, a total, complete and unconditional surrender.
What possible benefits derive from surrender? Most plainly, it will end the barefaced lying that now permeates university life. Absent any academic standards for admission, university presidents will no longer be obligated to insist that every single enrollee satisfies rigorous academic standards. Freed of the usual lying, universities might restore its credibility though, to be sure, a 100-point average SAT decline in the incoming freshman class might raise questions about the university's academic mission.
This newfound freedom to ignore merit is hardly revolutionary. It restores the long standing (and uncontroversial) tradition of admission offices indulging their unfettered proclivities. Let's not forget quotas limiting Eastern European Jews in favor of less smart but "well-rounded" WASPS (the cream of American society--thick and rich). Is the once venerated but fuzzy trait of "leadership" really much different than putting a thumb on the scales for those suffering racial discrimination? Let's be frank: American universities have never enjoyed a Golden Age of merit even at today's elite schools; provisions exist for athletes, members of the marching band, legacies and who knows what else.
Relieved of the need to lie, truth-tellers now have a fair shot to advance up the university's career ladder. The Darwinian dividend, so to speak. Gone will be the humiliating public performances in which candidates for school president insist that they can create near-perfect diversity without resorting to illegal quotas. At last, shameless liars will be deprived of their competitive advantage.
Second, with mendacious cover stories gone ("we don't use race but it just so happens...."), the public will now see how the university really operates, for better or worse. Freedom to admit anyone for any reason brings accountability. No need to hide behind complex formulas to obscure ideologically motivated deviousness. Faced with the rejection of countless Asians with perfect SAT scores and 4.0 GPA's, the Berkeley Dean of Admissions cannot claim that the school is just super sensitive to unique talents ignored by paper-and-pencil tests. The Dean can only say that Berkeley just didn't want all those bright Asians, an admission identical to what the Ivy League openly acknowledged prior to the late 1950s--who wants all those smart pushy Jews when well-rounded rich legacy kids from Exeter will do just fine?
Clearly, given the ideological inclination of today's admissions officers, this freedom will dilute the value of diplomas from ideological elite institutions. But, does this dilution undermine academic excellence? Reality is a bit more complicated and matters may improve in the long run.
Yes, employers will now face higher sorting costs, but this burden is easily surmounted. Employers can just check majors, SAT scores, and other indicators of intellectual quality apart from owning a piece of paper. Companies like Brainbench provide multiple tests, many taking only a few hours, to measure cognitive skills, personality, and knowledge of potential employees, and with the diploma reduced in value, such firms and their tests will proliferate. Think of the eras when paper bank notes circulated alongside gold and silver--regardless of face value, gold and silver were preferred and prices were adjusted accordingly. Flooding the market with inflated degrees thanks to soft admissions standards is only a nuisance and hardly the end of the world.
As Richard Epstein argues in his Forbidden Grounds, the marketplace usually stamps out wasteful foolishness. While Epstein focused on employment law, the same argument holds for university admissions policy: let universities suffer from their "social justice" dream. I cannot recall a single law suit from the 1950s in which a Jewish student sued to gain entrance into an Ivy League school. Admission officers there just realized that the old quota policy would now mean their school's demise.
The costly consequences of letting admission apparatchiki redefine merit into race and ethnic quotas are predictable. Various college guides will quickly sound the alarm. Parents of brainy kids will seek alternatives to declining elite schools and rest assured, fewer applications from smart kids (many of who can afford full tuition) will create panic. Egalitarian professors will now see the wages of sin as they confront an upsurge of unprepared students ("I knew that these kids didn't know much but I had no idea..."). And just wait until these Ivory Tower diversity ideologues see their research budgets redirected to expensive search for hard-to-find Native American physicists, yet more administrators to oversee identity programs and the newly allocated millions to mentor and role model iffy students into "graduates." Better yet, these champions of inclusion will lose academic prestige as their school slides toward community college status (many, I suspect, will also abandon undergraduate teaching rather than face this new world order). Let's not also forget the public officials obligated to raise taxes to cover the loss of tuition plus the fallout from dumbing down a university that once attracted tax-paying industry.
Meanwhile the schools that withstood the siren song of replacing merit with inclusiveness will prosper. Just let market forces perform their invisible tasks and far more cheaply (and more efficient) than seemingly endless expensive litigation. If Berkeley goes all quotas 24/7, decent but hardly top-tier schools like Claremont-Mckenna will see better undergraduate applicants plus faculty who want to teach bright students who are anxious to learn. They'll be dancing in the streets in Palo Alto.
Hypothetical disaster scenarios of higher education by quota do not penetrate deeply. The pain must be real. I can personally remember the unheeded warnings about CCNY's impending doom when it embraced the open admissions experiment that began in 1970. The vision of a city filled with diverse, multicultural scholars once consigned to humble community colleges was intoxicating. Reality, however, refused to cooperate. The poor person's Harvard virtually overnight collapsed into disaster. Graduation rates were dreadful, remedial courses proliferated, majors were created that lacked students, graduates struggled with professional certification exams and senior faculty often fled to the university's more selective Graduate School. It took nearly three decades to end the fantasy, but the lesson has left an indelible mark, at least among those who can recall the disaster.
As the old adage says, be careful what you wish for, and since those enamored to the quota fantasy are currently incorrigible, an example must be set and since California is already in deep trouble killing off Berkeley and UCLA will scarcely be noticed and, as we suggest, the corresponding benefits elsewhere will mitigate costs. So, a teachable moment is at hand--let the ideological fantasy begin.
Robert Weissberg is professor of political science emeritus at the University of Illinois-Urbana and occasionally teaches in the NYU politics department MA program.