The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘The Dismantling of Race-Conscious Admissions Would Deal Another Blow to Equity in Science’

Posted on | February 6, 2022 | Comments Off on ‘The Dismantling of Race-Conscious Admissions Would Deal Another Blow to Equity in Science’

Former UNC Chancellor H. Holden Thorp

Professor Reynolds linked this with the flippant dismissal, “White guy says there are too many Asians.” And perhaps that’s sufficient rebuttal, considering the actual stakes involved in the current situation (see, “Supreme Court can end racial preferences with Harvard and UNC admissions cases,” Mike Gonzalez, Fox News, Jan. 31). It is in fact the case that “affirmative action” (or, as it is now called in academic codespeak, “diversity”) has the effect of discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions to elite universities, in order to enable those institutions to fulfill their self-imposed quotas of so-called “underrepresented minorities.” In other words, despite the actual discrimination that Asians have experienced historically (and even to this day), because of their extraordinary scholastic success, they are treated unfairly in the admissions process in comparison to black and Hispanic students. Exactly how is this justifiable? “Diversity” is the all-purpose explanation, but it is self-evident that numerical quotas as being used in this process — why else would black students be exactly 14% of the Harvard freshman class, year after year after year? — and that such a racial quota system makes a mockery of the meritocratic ideal that these institutions claim to represent. As much as I would like to ignore this, especially because I’m not awed by the prestige of Harvard, the argument made by H. Holden Thorp deserves close scrutiny.

Who exactly is H. Holden Thorp, you ask? Since August 2019, he has been editor-in-chief of Science magazine. A North Carolina native and chemist by profession, he was something of a youthful prodigy. In his 20s, he was awarded a $500,000 grant from the Packard Foundation, and subsequently made fortune by establishing biotech and pharmaceutical companies. As a member of the faculty of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he advanced to the top of that institution:

He became the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 2007, after a nationwide search. One year later, he was named chancellor of the University after being nominated by Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina System, and unanimously chosen by the Board of Governors.
In 2013, Thorp resigned the position of Chancellor amid allegations of widespread academic fraud, which were later outlined in Wainstein Report. The Wainstein Report describes the findings of an independent investigation conducted by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein. It describes abuses spanning over 18 years, which included “no-show” classes that had little to no faculty oversight. Approximately half of the enrollees in these classes were athletes.

I’m not sure how much personal responsibility Thorp bore for the “widespread academic fraud” at UNC, since the “abuses” predated his chancellorship by several years, but he did resign as a result, so there’s that. So now let’s see his opinions on affirmative action:

As science struggles to correct systemic racism in the laboratory and throughout academia . . .

(How did “science” get roped into these “struggles”? But never mind . . .)

. . . in the United States, external forces press on, making it even more difficult to achieve equity on all fronts — including among scientists. . . .

(What is “equity,” and why must it be achieved “on all fronts”? Or are these just slogans tossed around for the sake of virtue-signalling?)

The latest example is the decision by the US Supreme Court to hear cases brought against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill challenging their right to use race as a factor in undergraduate admissions. . . .

(If we consult the previous sentence, we see that this decision by the court is being categorized as one of those “external forces” which allegedly make it “difficult to achieve equity.” In other words, merely by agreeing to hear the case, the court has impeded “equity.” The logic of this assertion escapes me, but I’m not a scandal-tainted former UNC chancellor, so perhaps it’s just over my head.)

It is sometimes easy for scientists to let colleagues in other disciplines engage in a debate like this, but the dismantling of race-conscious admissions would deal another blow to equity in science.

(I’m at loss to explain why “equity in science” is so doggone vital as to require “race-conscious admissions” to achieve it.)

The Supreme Court has protected affirmative action in the past, but the Court’s current majority of conservative justices could mean the end of the program. This is no time for the scientific community to stay silent. It is a crucial moment for science to mobilize against this latest assault on diversity.

(OMG! An “assault on diversity”! We must “mobilize”!)

For more than 50 years in the United States, colleges and universities have been using multiple criteria to select undergraduates, recognizing that a diverse student body is essential for the university to achieve its mission.

(Why? Historically black universities don’t have “diverse” student bodies; does Thorp mean to imply that, e.g., Howard fails to achieve the mission of a university?)

I asked Peter Henry, the WR Berkley Professor of Economics and Finance at New York University, about the economic data on the matter. “Affirmative action corrects a market failure,” he said. “Talent is broadly distributed across the US population, but opportunity is not.”

(If any population group is underrepresented in a university’s student body, this is a “market failure”? Why? Where is it enshrined in law — much less in the principles of economics — that everything in life, including university attendance, must be equally distributed among every group, so that the freshman class at Harvard or UNC is a demographic mirror of the population? By the way, how many heterosexual males are in the theater program at Harvard? If straight guys are “underrepresented” in student theater — as is generally the case, based on my personal observation — would they qualify for affirmative action? But never mind, back to “science” . . .)

The process [i.e., “race-conscious admissions”] gives deserving students a chance that they might not otherwise have, adding excellence to the higher education system.

(The key word here is “deserving.” What Thorp is saying is that, merely by being black or Hispanic, some students deserve this “chance” more than others, but the logic of this assertion evades me. Exactly how is it that admitting students with lower scores, simply because they check the correct racial box, is “adding excellence”? If there were no measurable differences in academic performance, these racial quotas would not be necessary. What the students suing Harvard and UNC claim is that, despite their superior qualifications, they were denied admission simply because they’re Asian, and Asian students are “overrepresented.” Thorp does not explain why a Korean-American student is less capable of “adding excellence” than a Puerto Rican student, and I’d like to see someone back him into a corner to demand such an explanation, but I’m not going to hold my breath.)

It also acknowledges that not all students have an equal opportunity to excel at objective measures like standardized tests and grades, and it levels the playing field by giving students and universities the chance to spotlight other important attributes and factors in the admissions process. . . .

(What does that even mean? Why don’t “all students have an equal opportunity to excel at objective measures like standardized tests and grades”? It’s not a difference in opportunity, but rather a difference in ability, that “objective measures” are intended to determine. You can talk all you want about “root causes,” nature-vs.-nuture and all that — very interesting as a research project — but at the point where an elite university is deciding which 17-year-olds qualify for acceptance, the “objective measures” must trump everything else, if the process is to be both fair and meritocratic.)

I know something about this struggle because I was one of the chancellors of UNC who oversaw the admissions policies in question. When the Supreme Court took up the case of Abigail Fisher versus the University of Texas at Austin, I submitted an amicus brief prepared by UNC’s law dean and general counsel. Fisher, a white student, challenged the university’s consideration of race in its undergraduate admission process. Denied admission in 2008, she argued that the use of race in this manner violated her constitutional right to equal protection. In the brief, it was shown convincingly that students chosen for admission based on a range of criteria, including race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, fared better than those chosen solely on the basis of standardized test scores and high school grades.

(Oh? This amicus brief was conclusive proof that the “range of criteria” approach to admissions produced better results than reliance on test scores and grades? I’m not familiar with that document, but I’m suspicious of Thorp’s assertion that UNC’s law dean so conclusively settled the argument in favor of a racial quota system.)

This commitment to providing access to higher education has now landed UNC in the courts.
All of this is bad for science. Failure to enroll a diverse undergraduate population has already excluded outstanding people from science, and limiting affirmative action will only make matters worse.

(Who are these “outstanding people” who have been “excluded . . . from science”? Does Thorp have a list of their names or is this just a theoretical assumption about the effects of allegedly inadequate efforts “to enroll a diverse undergraduate population”?)

But much more insidious are the messages these fights continue to send. It’s bad enough that science faculty haven’t continually updated their methods of teaching to ones known to be more inclusive. Likewise for universities and their processes for faculty hiring, promotion, and tenure that sustain inequity. Now, on top of all that, the highest court in the United States is going to engage in a highly public debate over whether many of the country’s potential future students of science can enter the scientific community, continuing the perpetual message of exclusion.

(How “insidious” that the Supreme Court will “engage in a highly public debate” about — checks notes — the claim that Asian students are victims of systemic discrimination in the admissions process at elite universities.)

The cases currently before the court involve claims that Asian Americans are penalized for their race in admissions decisions at Harvard and UNC. As Jennifer Lee, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, points out in the Editor’s Blog this week, this misrepresents Asian American sentiment: 70% of Asian Americans support affirmative action, and fewer than 10% have reported being passed over for college admissions. As Lee notes, the cases before the court will not address real anti-Asian bias on college campuses.

(He’s citing a sociology professor who in turn is citing a poll, because that’s how arguments about civil rights should be settled — science!)

What can scientists do to counteract all of this? Study the data showing that talent is broadly distributed and then use this evidence to help fight exclusive practices. It’s also important to emphasize that grades and standardized test scores alone are insufficient selection criteria. But more importantly, show up this go-round. Students deserve to see science faculty rise up alongside colleagues in the humanities to support affirmative action. That will be a powerful message of welcome.

Also, be sure that your varsity athletes get credit for no-show classes, because that’s how H. Holden Thorp did it, back at good ol’ UNC.



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