Yesterday the University of Michigan unveiled their new undergraduate
admissions policy, attempting to conform to this summer’s Supreme Court
decision that their previous policy, which gave "points" to minority
applicants, was unconstitutional.
The ruling was somewhat confusing, in that it allows race to be taken
into account, but not used as a mathematical factor in any fixed formula
to determine admissions. The new plan attempts to incorporate race as
a vague and unassailable factor in "holistic" evaluations of essays and
short answers to specific questions.
This is tricky stuff. At the same time that school districts and
states across the country are instituting mandatory objective testing
for all levels of public education and as a graduation requirement for
high school students, the Supreme Court seems to be forcing schools to
go to a subjective system for making admissions decisions.
The new University of Michigan policy tries to justify and rationalize
the methodology by first establishing the institutional desirability
of diversity. ”We continue to believe in gathering a group of
students that are very bright but different from one another — students
from all walks of life and backgrounds,” provost Paul Courant said.
How to evaluate and achieve diversity becomes the problem. The keyword
in the new U Mich policy is "holistic". In
principle, this is an admirable and necessary technique to evaluate the
entire panorama of what each applicant brings to the table, as a whole
person and life and not as an accumulation of discrete scores or measurements. It
derives from cognitive psychology and the idea of a "gestalt", or a
pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated
as to constitute a functional unit with properties not
derivable by summation of its parts.
This change cuts to the core of the continuing divisions between "hard
science" and "soft science" and the main reason I changed my professional
focus from cultural anthropology to physical anthropology 25 years
ago. I was disgusted with the amount of research in the "soft"
area of anthropology which I considered bullshit. There was some
worthwhile work out there, I concluded, but no objective way to separate
from the chaff, and not enough time to wade through 800 page ethnographies
to decide. Of course, I grew disillusioned with physical anthropology
as well once I figured out that it was just as easy (and usually more
effective) to bullshit with numbers as with words.
The problem, obviously, is that these holistic
gestalts are completely subjunctive
and open to
in the press
if adopted as the benchmark for university admissions would free
officials from having to back up their decisions with numbers. The
methods favored in the new UMich plan?
Take into account Socioeconomic factors: This is the currently favored
method to remedy racial imbalances without mentioning race, based on
the reality that most members of the lower socioeconomic strata are
Ask a "short-answer" (not multiple choice) question asking each applicant
their opinion on diversity: And what, applicants aren’t going to
learn to write that they think diversity is hunky-dory? Can they deny
admission to a student that writes, eloquently, that they believe diversity
is a cancerous communist plot foisted in an unsuspecting public by sleeper
cells in the Eastern media?
An optional essay will allow students to tell more
about their background and expected contributions to campus: Here is the
real free ride of admissions officials. They can give whatever
weight and importance to the content of this essay, as evidence of a
students ability to contribute to an amorphous "campus diversity"
In short, I see trouble ahead as the University of Michigan tries to
apply this policy in real-life admissions decisions. I foresee an endless
duel of expert witnesses.
”If race continues to trump most other admissions factors, the new
system will be just as illegal as the system the court struck down,”
said Terry Pell, president of Center for Individual Rights, which represented
the white applicants who sued after being rejected from the undergraduate
and law schools.
article from the Boston Globe