George Will: Tangled web of college diversity |
George F. Will, Columnist

George Will: Tangled web of college diversity

George Will

The judge took 130 pages to explain that Harvard’s “holistic review” admissions policies — which include ascribing particular attributes to certain ethnicities, such as Asian Americans, and assessing the value to Harvard of those attributes — are, considering 41 years of Supreme Court precedents, permissibly race-conscious. She said the policies do not discriminate against Asian Americans.

However, the suit some Asian Americans filed against Harvard correctly cited evidence from Harvard that more objective admissions policies than Harvard’s would admit many more Asian Americans. What a tangled web we weave when we deceive ourselves into thinking that we can favor some groups without disfavoring others, or disfavor some without acting on the basis of stereotypes. But before disparaging Harvard’s attempts to shape its student body, and before judging the judge’s opinion, consider three facts:

First, Harvard admitted just 4.5% of the 43,330 applicants to this year’s freshman class of 1,650, so it needs some sorting metrics (to serve the institution as a whole and many subconstituencies, from the athletic department to alumni relations). Second, if Harvard were to admit every applicant with a perfect grade-point average, it would increase the size of its entering class 400% . Third, a Harvard document presented in the trial estimated that relying exclusively on objective academic measurements — secondary school transcripts and SAT scores — would produce a Harvard student body 43% Asian American and 1% African American. (Caltech, which relies much more heavily on those than other highly selective institutions, enrolled a 2018 freshman class that was 40% Asian.)

Now, three questions. Would you be comfortable with a legal requirement that only such objective metrics be used in college admissions? If that were required, would Harvard have to choose by lottery the 25% of the “perfect GPAs” to admit? Would you be comfortable with the nation’s most elite institutions — very few schools are selective enough to be able to curate their student bodies for whatever diversity is desired — looking so little like the nation?

Before the discomforting reality of racial preferences was blurred by the anodyne phrase “affirmative action,” the 1976 Democratic platform spoke of “compensatory opportunity,” thereby presenting race-conscious policies as remediation for past social injuries. But the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision, the first concerning higher education admissions, authorized schools to consider race as a small “plus” factor in admissions in order to achieve “diversity.” So, “race-conscious remedies” were not to be remedial. Or of finite duration. They would be forever, for the benefit of the privileged — those admitted to, and who administer, colleges and universities.

In this fifth decade of judicial tinkering, with the Harvard case probably heading to the Supreme Court, it is clear that the admissions departments of highly selective universities will devise metrics compatible with porous judicial language in order to shape student bodies to serve what they consider institutional needs. Courts can try to confine admissions departments with porous terms like minor “plus-factors” that are “narrowly tailored” to achieve a “critical mass” of this or that minority without “unduly” harming any group. But those departments will resort to cynical evasions.

Taking race “into account” could just as well be called taking into account cultures (of communities or ethnic cohorts). Some attributes, including those conducive to academic excellence, are disproportionately prevalent among various groups (e.g., Asian Americans, Jews at various times).

The uninhibited District Court judge in the Harvard case, who suggested Harvard admissions officers be trained against “implicit bias,” asserted that student-body diversity fosters “tolerance, acceptance and understanding.” So, consider a final question: Is it a mere coincidence that academia’s obsession with diversity has coincided with a tsunami of campus intolerance and hysteria?

George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.