Friday, February 24, 2012

Duke Study to Aid Fisher v. University of Texas Attack on Affirmative Action


I am disturbed, but not surprised, that the Supreme Court will hear yet another challenge to affirmative action in higher education admissions. The Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that may allow the Court to revisit the constitutionality of affirmative action in higher education. Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from the case. Fisher will give the Roberts-led Court a chance to prove whether it has a new center of gravity in the post-O’Connor era. Already hanging by a thread, affirmative action will again be tested to see whether it meets constitutional muster. Preferences for football players, opera stars, women, children of alumni and the socio-economically disadvantaged are okay. Preferences for blacks may no longer be.
Gratz and Grutter, the pair of University of Michigan cases (ironically decided on the date that Maynard Jackson died) left affirmative action in limbo. The particularized review of student achievement undertaken by the law school was okay – the more systematic admission of high-achieving blacks to the undergraduate school was struck down. Race-conscious admission policies must be justified by a compelling state interest. Justice Blackmun’s dissent in the Bakke case called “diversity” compelling and spawned not only a legal rationale, but an industry. But the compelling interest in diversity is to some degree a legal fiction. College opens doors. Grades and SAT scores only imprecisely measure the qualities needed for leadership or accomplishment. If we are to maximize our potential as an increasingly colorful society, we must practice valuing and respecting each other in a way that only integration can achieve.

Unfortunately, a study by scholars at Duke University will be used to bolster the appellant’s anti-affirmative action argument. The study concludes that the reason black students and white students at Duke graduate with similar GPA’s is due to blacks choosing easier majors instead of science, math or economics. Lisa Cooper, Trudie Bolles and I met privately with Duke President Brodhead when he visited the Carter Center in Atlanta last week. It was important to me for him to hear directly from Duke alumni. I think I hoped that my alma mater might, in the words of Elizabeth Anderson, professor of philosophy and women's studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, “…rise to the challenge of forcefully articulating a clear case for their policies.” He assured us that Duke’s commitment to a diverse student body was firm and would not be diminished. I am more concerned about the legal environment in which admissions decisions will be made, not only at Duke, but at hundreds of universities across the nation. He also gently, but firmly refused to issue his own statement in response to the study out of respect for the academic freedom of his faculty, reminding me that today’s weapon could turn into tomorrow’s shield. He also suggested that the only way to expose any flaws in the study would be countervailing research.

I started out an English major and switched to Economics when the Carter-era recession made me think seriously about a career. To me, at that time, English and Economics were equally challenging. I made my worst grades on science drive during my first year at Duke. The longer I was there, the better my grades got. After scoring an A on the first test in a chemistry class, I refused to return because the class was large, impersonal and uninteresting. I made a C in a computer science class after being refused help from a professor, who looked at me coldly and asked, “what do you want me to do?” I struggled with statistics, but eventually did okay with some encouragement from the head of the economics department. Were the social sciences easier for me? Undoubtedly. The question the Duke study misses is why. Were the sciences intrinsically more demanding? Based on my experience, not necessarily. Why do 30% of women at Duke leave the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors for other disciplines? Is there something wrong with us, or something cold and unwelcoming or uninteresting about the way the material is presented? We should not jump to conclusions. We must search for high quality data.

The Duke study has not been published and may not have been peer-reviewed. The Supreme Court should require that professors Peter Arcidiacono and Kenneth Spenner, and graduate student Esteban Aucejo release their data for examination by their peers before it makes “What Happens After Admission” the basis of a momentous decision that may affect paths to leadership for decades to come.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

States Settle Robo-Signing Claims Against Big Banks

At last, big mortgage lending banks agreed to pay $26 billion to settle claims that mortgage documents were “robo-signed” rather than handled individually on a case-by-case basis.
While the size of the settlement is unprecedented, and many provisions will benefit a segment of homeowners, the deal does not provide a comprehensive, systematic solution for residential mortgage foreclosure. Many experts agree that the best solution for homeowners, lenders and investors would be an overhaul of the nation’s bankruptcy laws permitting modification of mortgage loans based on current fair market value of homes. But lenders have adamantly opposed bankruptcy reform and politicians have been squeamish in forcing the issue.

The settlement requires banks to:
1. Reduce principal mortgage balances on 1,000,000 underwater homes
2. Provide homeowners a “single point of contact” with the bank when negotiating foreclosure relief
3. Pay $2,000 to each of 750,000 persons who lost their homes to foreclosure
4. Refinance some underwater mortgages at lower interest rates
5. Make foreclosure the last resort and delay foreclosure while negotiating foreclosure relief
The settlement does not:
1. Affect mortgages owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
2. Affect 10 million homeowners who owe more than their homes are worth

It is not clear how, or by whom the terms of the settlement will be enforced.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Duke Study Wrong About Affirmative Action

Dear President Brodhead:

I am excited that you will be in Atlanta on February 15 with Senator and President Carter and I plan to attend the event at the Carter Center. It would be extremely helpful (if your schedule permits) if you took a few minutes to visit privately with a group of African American alumni who are alarmed at the recent anti-affirmative action study conducted by Duke faculty. I freely admit that I benefitted from affirmative action and received a superior education at Duke. I jokingly tell people that I may have gotten in on affirmative action, but there was only one way out. I do not consider my Public Policy and Economics majors to be any less demanding or worthwhile than the courses offered on Science Drive. And I certainly don’t think you want the public to believe that there are two tiers of study offered at Duke – the rigorous sciences and the less worthwhile humanities. In Atlanta, there are judges, physicians, elected officials, scientists, nurses among a host of black Duke alums who have worked hard to build this city and this nation. We want to be reassured that Duke is not pulling away from its commitment to affirmative action. With all the problems that plague urban communities, it is not surprising that African American graduates choose majors that will prepare them to address the lingering economic, social and political disparities that plague our nation. A physician who majors in social science as a undergraduate may actually be better prepared to practice medicine than one who focuses on science alone. My schoolmates and I regret that Duke’s name will appear among the opponents of affirmative action at the Supreme Court – a posture at odds with Duke’s history and our national interests.
Best regards
Janice L. Mathis