Friday, February 24, 2012

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

STATEMENT OF JANICE L. MATHIS ON TEXAS CHALLENGE TO AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN THE SUPREME COURT

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.

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