In September, the Center for Equal Opportunity's reports documenting "severe discrimination" favoring blacks and Hispanics in UW-Madison undergraduate and law school admissions came as no surprise. This discrimination has been well known to a few of us and long suspected by many students and the general public.
How did the UW-Madison react to the CEO reports? Rather than ignoring them, two senior campus officials portrayed these reports as threats to diversity. They apparently encouraged a group of students to protest at the Sept. 13 press conference scheduled to announce the results of these reports. There the protesters occupied the Doubletree Hotel's lobby, disrupted its business, and ultimately closed down the press conference.
More recently, the legislature's College and Universities Committee held a hearing that featured testimony from the Center for Equal Opportunity. It also gave Provost Paul DeLuca and Admissions Director Adele Brumfield an opportunity to explain how the admissions process works. There they defended the use of race and ethnicity to promote a more diverse student body.
Let me demonstrate how UW-Madison does give targeted minority applicants preferential treatment in admissions decisions. The data used here came from former Chancellor John Wiley. At the request of a legislative committee in January 2006, he provided data I was then able to access on freshmen admissions by race and ethnicity for 2005-06 applicants who were identified by high school class rank and ACT scores. In summer 2008 he provided me with similarly classified data on enrollees who graduated within six-years.
Two important findings emerge. First, approximately two-thirds to three-fourths of targeted minority applicants would have been admitted under the "competitive" standard, meaning they were as well prepared academically as virtually all non-minority applicants who were admitted. In other words, these students gained admission based on their academic records and had no need for any preferential treatment.
Yet, by being designated as "targeted minorities," these students carry the stigma associated with the "selective" admission standard whose sole purpose is to increase diversity.
Second, the preferential admission policy inherent in the "selective" standard used to promote diversity depresses the overall six-year graduation rate for targeted minority students. It does so by enrolling considerable numbers of less academically prepared targeted minority applicants whose likelihood of graduating is lower than that for many rejected non-minority applicants.
If the "competitive" standard was applied to all applicants, the six-year graduation rate for the somewhat reduced population of targeted minority students would rise, thus narrowing the longstanding gap in graduation rates. Even now, the average time it takes to graduate for those who do graduate does not differ by much between targeted minorities and non-minorities, and that would not change.
What can be done? The most obvious solution is to admit targeted minority applicants based on the "competitive" standard. Doing so would not destroy diversity or affirmative action. Rather it would help ensure that targeted minorities who are enrolled will be more likely to succeed and graduate.
Eliminating preferential treatment for targeted minorities, though controversial, would produce other benefits. It would conform to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by no longer discriminating in favor of applicants based on their race, ethnicity, or national origin. It would no longer allow the campus to hide behind the vagueness of its "selective" admission policy for targeted minority students and the "holistic" process used in deciding whether to admit them. Finally, it would bring greater transparency to the admissions process and how it works.
This shift to a single "competitive" standard could be phased in over several years. Doing so would emphasize the importance of improving the academic preparation of targeted minority students well before they reach college age. It would remind targeted minority high school students, their parents and their schools that minority students must meet the same "competitive' standard as all other applicants.
Finally, it would reduce if not eliminate the stigmatization felt by many targeted minority students who were admitted without the help of affirmative action. The rest of the student body would know that these students are as academically qualified as they are, and there would be no reason to assume they were admitted based on their race, ethnicity or national origin. What a refreshing development this would be at an academic institution that emphasizes academic achievement.
What about the fear this change would eliminate diversity? It would not. Instead, it would herald a new form of diversity that emphasizes the academic achievement of minority students. It would consign the racist term "targeted minority student" to the trash bin. Doing so would help improve the climate for learning, which is the real purpose of a university education.
Four decades of campus diversity have failed to achieve their lofty goals. Hasn't the time come to try a new approach, one that treats all applicants in the same way? Yes, but do campus administrators, faculty and staff, students, and the general public have the courage to discuss and debate such a change, to engage in that "continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found"? I certainly hope so.
W. Lee Hansen, UW professor emeritus in economics, has been writing on diversity issues for the past 15 years.