Minority Students and Research Universities:

The March 27, 2009 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education contained an article entitled “Minority Students and Research Universities: How to Overcome the ‘Mismatch'” by Rice University math professor Richard Tapia. (For subscribers, here is the link to the article.)

I read Professor Tapia’s article and was not persuaded by his argument in favor of preferential admission policies for students deemed to be “underrepresented minorities.” Here is the letter I sent to The Chronicle in response.

To the Editor:

Professor Richard Tapia makes an impassioned case for university programs to overcome the “mismatch” problem that often arises when academically weaker students are admitted in the quest for more “diversity.” I find his argument unpersuasive.

According to Professor Tapia, who teaches mathematics at Rice University, it is necessary for top universities to admit and then work to help students from “underrepresented minority” groups so that there will be more such students earning their Ph.D.s from elite schools. That, in turn, is important because the nation’s elite universities only hire new faculty members from the ranks of those who have earned their doctorates from that elite group, and unless there are more “underrepresented minority” faculty members at the elite universities, the nation will suffer from the lack of “equitable representation.” And that would be bad, Tapia contends, because it leaves America with a “two-tiered society.”

Therefore, he advocates having top universities admit students who can be characterized as “underrepresented minorities” with somewhat lower SAT scores than other applicants. He claims that there really isn’t very much difference in intellectual capability between students with 1300 scores and 1500 scores, so little or nothing is lost if schools like Rice turn aside higher scoring students who do not merit the appellation “underrepresented minority” because of their ancestry.

I have doubts about Tapia’s statement that 1300 students are really just as capable as 1500 students. That’s a whole standard deviation of difference. Tapia isn’t saying that SAT scores are meaningless since he states that he’s never seen a student with a score of 900 succeed in math, science, or engineering. He just wants universities to overlook what he regards as fairly small SAT differences in order to get more “minority” students into the Ph.D. pipeline.

But for the sake of argument’s let’s assume Tapia is right on that point and focus on the keystone of his position, namely that the United States needs to promote more “equitable representation” among the faculties of elite universities. He does not explain precisely what this means, but from years of reading what “diversity” advocates have to say, I think it means something like this. There is a social inequity if important callings (such as university professor) do not have percentages of people in them that mirror the percentages of relevant groups in the population. For example, if ten percent of the population is black, then there is something wrong if less than ten percent of the faculty at top universities is black. A smaller percentage means that blacks are not “equitably represented.”

My first question is what “representation” has to do with this. In what way does an individual represent others who happen to share his ancestry when he becomes a professor, a doctor, a musician, an officer in the military, or anything else? I doubt very much that other people of Mexican ancestry would think that Professor Tapia “represents” them in the teaching profession, even if they knew of his position and accomplishments. Hardly any do. I certainly don’t feel that other Americans who have mostly Scandinavian ancestry “represent” me in any way.

“Diversity” advocates focus obsessively on the group identities they impose on people, but very few Americans think about individuals in those terms. In fact, I doubt that even the diversity advocates ordinarily concern themselves with race, ethnicity, or other ways of classifying people in their daily lives. Among those who watched last summer’s Olympic Games, how many gave any concern to the racial and ethnic composition of the swimming or gymnastics teams?

Even if we regard “groupness” as important, why should we look only to such broad racial and ethnic categories as “white,” “black,” “Hispanic,” and so on? There are many other ways to put people into groups. Consider musical preferences—are classical music lovers equitably represented among the professoriate? Or religion—is there an appropriate number of Methodists in the accounting profession? Enough agnostic airline pilots? Enough near-sighted, left-handed dentists?

If we must group people, there is an almost unlimited number of ways to do that. Why single out only a few racial and ethnic categories? What’s so important about the happenstance of ancestry?

Second, what does “equity” have to do with this? Equity involves just or unjust treatment and you can be just or unjust towards individuals, but how can you be just or unjust toward a group? Individuals have rights, but not groups, which are just abstractions. Tapia evidently thinks that there is some problem of equity if a relatively small number of professors at top universities are people denominated as “underrepresented minorities.” Why? Would it have mattered at all to other “Hispanics” (an extremely varied category of people) if Tapia were teaching math not at Rice but at, oh, North Texas State University? Or at a high school in Houston? I submit that it would not.

My contention is that the United States is no more equitable because Professor Tapia holds a faculty appointment at Rice than if someone named Johansen, Chang, or Silverstein held it instead. Nor is it any less equitable. It just has nothing to do with equity at all.

Tapia writes that it is “not healthful” for the nation to have “a two-tiered society.” I do not see how it can sensibly be claimed that we have such a society. Individuals can and do succeed on their own in every walk of life. There are no official barriers telling people, “This is off-limits to your kind.”

What is really not healthful, however, is the fixation on group identification and the supposed need for getting the right percentages of “representatives” here and there. A person’s ancestry (or religion, or musical tastes, or eye condition, etc.) ought to be neither a help nor a hindrance; he ought not be judged on such traits where they aren’t relevant to his performance.

Besides the fact that preferential policies of the sort Tapia advocates lead to resentment and gamesmanship to don the “underrepresented minority” cloak, they entail an opportunity cost. Although he wants us to believe that 1300 students make just as good mathematicians as 1500 students provided that a lot of attention is lavished on them, lavishing that same attention on the sharper students is likely to give us a stronger corps of mathematicians.

To draw an analogy, suppose that the Juilliard School of Music’s administrators noticed that in the fields of music for which it trains students, there are “underrepresented” groups as well as “overrepresented” groups. If the school were to change its policy to include “affirmative action” for applicants from the former, admitting some students who are good but not exceptionally talented musicians so it could be more “diverse,” would that make America more just? I cannot see how the composition of the student body at Juilliard (and, perhaps, eventually the composition of orchestras) matters in the slightest. What does matter, however, is the quality of the playing and it’s reasonable to believe that if Juilliard had admitted only on the basis of perceived musical talent, we would enjoy somewhat better musical performances.

Advocates of “affirmative action” usually scoff at the idea of a color-blind, meritocratic society, saying that it’s an impossibility. A perfectly color-blind, meritocratic society may be impossible, but there is a strong natural tendency toward it. In my view, there is nothing to be gained and quite a bit to be lost if we follow preferential policies that deliberately trump merit with a fixation on vague and irrelevant group classifications.