January 20, 2003 in Politics

Different Kind of ‘Bias’ Benefitted President Bush

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Here is another interesting article about Michigan’s affirmative action plan by Chicago Sun-Times Columnist Debra Pickett. Check out link or read article below. Nothing really new here, but I’m glad to see others share my opinion on this matter. According to latest Newsweek poll, two-thirds of Americans are against affirmative action. No surprise there. But I’m wondering, how are universities/colleges suppose to achieve racial diversity if they don’t consider race on some level? Or better yet, should racial diversity still be a goal?

Different kind of ‘bias’ benefitted president
January 17, 2003
I’ve been counting and, so far, have come up with exactly one thing I have in common with President Bush: We both went to Ivy League schools, the same ones our fathers did. Which makes us beneficiaries of one of the coziest little affirmative action programs this fine country has to offer.
Bush stopped short of actually uttering the words “affirmative action” when he got us all talking about this Wednesday. Instead, he kept to the specifics of the University of Michigan admissions formulas that are the subject of a case now before the Supreme Court, calling them “divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution.”
He didn’t mention anything about the whole deal with Ivy League alumni kids.
Bush was a C student. His SAT score, 1206 out of a possible 1600, while above the national average, was well below average for Yale’s class of 1968. He got in primarily because he was a “legacy,” the son of an alumnus. This might sound divisive and unfair, especially if you are, let’s say, a very smart kid whose parents didn’t go to Yale, but it does square with the Constitution, because Yale, like the University of Pennsylvania, where I went to school, is a private institution.
The University of Michigan is a state school, publicly funded and, as far as the law is concerned, an “agency of the government.” It doesn’t have the kind of legal leeway the Ivy League schools do.
Michigan, which receives about 25,000 applications every year for its undergraduate classes of 5,000 students, devised a 150-point scale for ranking its applicants. Twenty points–about one-fifth of what it takes to get in–are given for applicants whose presence on campus would help the university meet its diversity goals. African-American and Hispanic students get the points, as do recruited athletes and those from poor families. And Michigan’s law school sets aside a certain number of seats each year for African-American and Hispanic applicants.
When some Michigan state legislators heard about the university’s admissions policies, they put out a call for white students who believed they’d been rejected because less-qualified African-American and Hispanic students were accepted instead. The Center for Individual Rights, a Washington legal foundation, came forward to underwrite a lawsuit. And plenty of pissed-off white kids stepped up to volunteer. Interestingly, they didn’t seem to be pissed off about the football players and basketball players and impoverished kids. And, lucky for the president and me, they weren’t at all upset about the legacy kids, who, under the Michigan system, get four extra points. It was the blacks and Hispanics who really got to them.
And, of course, it was the presence of race as a factor that gave them some legal ground to stand on. Because, while there are no laws against discriminating against people who don’t have the good fortune to have parents who went to Yale, there are plenty of laws against discriminating on the basis of race. The Michigan plaintiffs say they were discriminated against because they are white.
Jennifer Gratz, a now-25-year-old white woman from Southgate, Mich., was among the first in line to sign on to the lawsuit. She told reporters that her reaction immediately after receiving her rejection letter in 1995 was, “Can we sue them?”
Though she was a B student with mediocre test scores, she was sure that some underqualified minority had taken her “spot” at Michigan. She says her life is now forever changed, that she’s given up her dream of being a doctor and that she’ll never know what kind of doors might have opened for her if she’d attended the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, instead of the less-prestigious one in Dearborn, where she ended up.
Bush announced Wednesday that his administration will file a brief in support of Gratz’s suit. But he doesn’t seem to be putting any effort into finding the person whose “spot” he took at Yale.
It’s too bad the statute of limitations is up because it would make an interesting case: “It was 1964. I had great grades and perfect SATs, but George Bush was ahead of me in line. He spent his four years at Yale partying and drinking beer, while I would have started researching a cure for cancer.”
To be fair, I haven’t tracked down anyone who got rejected by Penn so I could apologize to them, either. I’m sure there were lots of very worthy students who didn’t get accepted because of legacy kids like me. I got lucky. They didn’t.
No matter how mathematical anybody tries to make it, the college admissions process will always be somewhat arbitrary and subjective. Because schools aren’t just looking for kids who do really well on tests. They’re looking for kids who play sports and study dead languages and, in the case of “legacies,” whose parents might be inclined to donate money.
They are also looking for kids from lots of different places. For high-profile schools, it’s really important to be able to emphasize their national reputations by saying they have students from all 50 states. In my class at Penn, we covered only 49. You could tell it really bothered the dean, who always had to correct himself when he said, “We have students from 32 countries and from all 50 states. Except Wyoming.”
We used to joke that if anyone–anyone at all–from Wyoming had applied, they would have gotten in.
I can’t tell you what to think about affirmative action.
But I can tell you not to trust the opinion of an administration run by George W. Bush, a legacy kid, and Dick Cheney, a guy from Wyoming.
Debra Pickett’s “Sunday Lunch With. . .” appears in the Sunday Sun-Times.
E-mail: dpickett@suntimes.com


  1. January 21, 2003 at 10:09 pm

    Andrew Olmsted

    I’m sure there are a multitude of reasons why minority students fail to complete college, as a sizeable percentage of all students fail to get a degree. I think part of the problem here is that the focus is almost entirely on admissions, rather than splitting our attention between admission and completion, both of which are important. If we paid more attention to the rates at which students graduate, it would highlight both the question of taking in students who weren’t properly prepared for the academics and students who drop because of the reasons you cited. I think the current focus on admissions leaves us ignoring many of the real problems that minority students can face.
    Here’s the big problem I see with affirmative action: it seems increasingly clear that the vast majority of American colleges and universities desperately want to increase their minority enrollment. Doesn’t that suggest the rationale for affirmative action, to overcome current discrimination and to recompense for past discrimination, no longer holds?

  2. January 21, 2003 at 8:33 pm


    Andrew, you raise a valid point. Education at the K-12 level needs to drastically improve. Classroom size needs to decrease, teachers need to become more innovative, and the expectation about the amount of work a student does in class and at home needs to increase. Many urban school systems are trying to make the necessary improvements. Unfortunately, competing visions/plans that do not have the students best interest at hard derail this progress. And let’s not even talk about how the teachers unions have derailed the progress.
    With that in mind, any college or university who offers acceptance to a minority student who does not meet a minimum academic standard is doing that student a disservice. But do know, most minority students fail to complete their degree for reasons that have little to do with academic ability. The reasons include but are not limited to: lack of adequate financial aid, social isolation, racial”>racial”>http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/race/steele.htm”>racial stigma, low self-esteem, etc. Claude Steele among other psychologist/sociologist has made this argument quite well. I know these might seems like excuses, but these issues are real for many black students.

  3. January 20, 2003 at 9:40 pm

    Andrew Olmsted

    I think it’s important for colleges to attempt to build a diverse student body (although they tend to undermine those benefits by then encouraging everyone to join the Black Student Union/Latin American Student Organization/etc.), both ethnically and ideologially. But as I’ve noted several times on my site, I think the best way to help colleges build a diverse student body is to improve education at the lower levels. It’s almost too late to help people get into college when their prior education has been subpar, and that’s too often the case. Sure, with remedial classes and extra attention, the most highly motivated can make it, but too many end up dropping out. We need to fix our primary education system, so that students are properly prepared for college, and then universities should have no trouble at all building an ethnically diverse student body that, btw, will actually graduate. The current system, on the other hand, creates an initial diversity that wanes quickly and ends with too many students dropping out because they’re attending schools they’re not academically prepared for. Affirmative action, from what I see, encourages us to ignore the real problem–the dreadful schools too many of our children must attend.

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