Toward Sensible Affirmative Action Policies

          King Hall (UC Davis) Law School Advocate
                       November 1994

  		   Norman Matloff 
               UCD Dept. of Computer Science 
  Former Chair, Academic Senate Committee on Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action makes an easy target for critics. Conservatives dismiss it as "social engineering," while even liberals wince at the horror stories of middle-class job applicants with 1/16 Portuguese blood qualifying as "Hispanic."

Yet in spite of the existence of some abominable implementations, Affirmative Action remains a solidly valid concept. Sensibly designed, it can be both equitable and a genuine plus for society as a whole.

Even Affirmative Action's worst critics agree that all of us, not just the poor or disfranchised, lose when society's underclass grows and becomes increasingly distant from the rest of the population. Affirmative Action helps to remedy (though certainly is far from a full solution to) this problem. For example, Affirmative Action can provide a second chance at success to the high school kid who, say due to family problems has less than stellar grades but is otherwise energetic, sharp-witted and creative. There have been numerous cases in which Affirmative Action made a tremendous difference in the lives of students in such settings.

But even more important is the concept, trite as it sounds, of role models. A Hispanic campus janitor once put this quite succinctly. He noted that in the little village in which he grew up, the two most respected people were the priest and the doctor. Yet it never occurred to him or his boyhood friends that they too might pursue such careers. His attitude may have been different had some of his older relatives, say, entered one of these professions and thus served as role models. Affirmative Action helps to foster this. There is also what I call a "reverse role model." I remember seeing two computer science students on campus, one black and the other Asian. The black student was explaining some technical point which had mystified the Asian. If the latter had grown up with little exposure to blacks, this experience would help counter any negative stereotypes he had harbored.

But what about the issue of fairness? Shouldn't the best qualified applicants be given priority? The answers to such questions require a critical examination of just what is meant by "best qualified."

For concreteness, let us consider the question of admissions policy for a famous university, with many more applicants than open slots. Let us ask whether, say applicants with higher SAT scores should get automatic priority in admissions over those with lower scores.

It goes without saying that test scores are not perfect measurement tools, and thus should not be overapplied. Yet for most students, test scores will at least reliably predict whether the student's academic skills are "in the same league with" those of typical students at the given school.

Thus, some threshhold values should be established for numerics such as SAT scores, below which there is little expectation of success at this school. But, after having set such threshhold values, there is, except for very special cases, really no defensible reason for further comparison of test scores among applicants. The university admissions process is, after all, not like a track meet, where even differences of tenths of a second are of momentous significance. I have talked to many students who complain about Affirmative Action in university admissions policies. They somehow feel that higher SAT scores give one an inherent "right" to admission to a famous school. But when I ask whether they take advantage of the special points of such a school---do they attend the public lectures by world figures who visit, do they make use of the extensive library facilities, do they make it a point to take courses from Nobel laureates---the answer is almost invariably no. On the contrary, these students usually admit that they simply want to acquire the prestigious name that the school offers. With such a confession, they clearly lose any right to the moral high ground they claim on the basis of something like SAT scores.

Once the applicant pool has been narrowed by setting reasonable threshholds as described above, the university has every right to use other factors as selection criteria, such as racial/ethnic/gender diversity, disadvantaged background (including for impoverished Anglos), and so on. In fact, use of a lottery in this pool is probably as good a diversity-producing mechanism as any, and has the virtue of being less subject to arbitrary decisions.