Sunday, January 19, 2003

Minority Matters 

The Dean of St. Mark�s Episcopal Cathedral in Minneapolis today spoke of a broadcast produced seven years ago by his elder son at the University of Georgia�s campus radio station. The show�s title, �Minority Matters,� was an intentional double entendre. While probably not heard by most in attendance as a seasonally timely epiphany, the Dean�s sermon did cause many to think more deeply - especially on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day - about many issues, including the University of Michigan�s affirmative-action admission policy.

Members of the Bush Administration - including Condolezza Rice - have charged that the current Michigan admission policy amounts to a de facto adoption of quotas and reverse discrimination. Democratic talking heads counter that the University�s affirmative action policy in no way reflects a quota system. With both parties so determined to eschew the use of quotas and discriminatory admission policies, one is tempted to ask, �What is wrong with quotas and discrimination?�

As one who worked for 15 years in the life insurance industry, I know that we used quotas and practiced discrimination every day. What was wrong with our setting underwriting standards so that we could accept 90% of voluntary applicants for life insurance at our standard rates? What was wrong with accepting another 6% of applicants at sub-standard rates? What was wrong with rejecting the applications of the least qualified 4%? Were we not setting quotas?

We also discriminated against smokers in our underwriting practices. In my insurance classes I often ask students if they think it is acceptable for an insurance company to query an applicant, �Have you smoked cigarettes in the last year?� Then I ask them if they think that it is acceptable for insurers to pose the question, �Have you practiced unprotected homosexual sex in the last year?� Understanding that both practices are hazardous, most students are temporarily at a loss when I then ask, �What�s the difference?� After a minute or so, some brave student invariably ventures the opinion, �Well, one is controllable, and one is not� . . . which, of course begs the question: �Which one is controllable?� Is not the distinction simply that questions about smoking are politically acceptable, while interrogations about unprotected homosexual behavior are politically incorrect?

In contrast to King�s previous posting, I hereby submit the radical proposition that quotas and discriminatory admission policies, if administered carefully, are not only constitutional, but even effective and desirable tools that may be used to achieve a campus-illuminating objective of being able to work with a diverse and vibrant student body. Must we discard all use of quotas, including those employed to admit a minimum percentage of students who represent a given gender . . . or who possess an exceptionally advanced ability to hit a baseball or volleyball? Must Title IX be ruled unconstitutional?

The Supreme Court may likely decide that the University of Michigan�s peculiar admission policy is indeed unconstitutionally drafted and administered. However, how many would assert that the majority of the Court would also find unconstitutional the following hypothetical admissions policy adopted by a state-supported university?

1) No student will be admitted who has not achieved a minimally acceptable academic record of a GPA of x.xx or a class ranking in the top yy% of his/her high school/undergraduate classes . . . and who has not achieved a minimally acceptable score of zzz on the ACT/SAT/TOEFL/GRE/GMAT and/or LSAT standardized tests.

2) We will set our �discriminatory� advanced academic admission standards high enough to expect that no more than roughly 80% (an arbitrary figure chosen for purposes of illustration only) of our probable new matriculants will represent students whose standardized test scores . . . and past records of academic success . . . reflect those advanced academic levels of achievement that are significantly higher than our minimally acceptable admission standards.

3) We will reserve roughly 20% (an arbitrary figure chosen for purposes of illustration only) of the slots open to our newly matriculating class for those students with minimally acceptable academic records who most eloquently answer the essay question: �In what way(s) might others view you as a �minority,� and what unique perspectives and/or talents would you bring to our campus because of your being so perceived?�

All applicants would be required to answer this same essay question. But each would be free to define his or her unique minority status in personally chosen terms. Age, race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, geographic residence, physical disability, sexual orientation, economic status, family composition, political persuasion, relationships to alumni, and/or even a unique ability to play the flute masterfully are but examples of the minority criteria that applicants, themselves, might select. Setting aside some percentage (20% in this example) of probable matriculants admitted under these minority standards could achieve constitutionally the valid goal of working with a diverse student body. At the same time, no student should feel stigmatized by knowing on what basis he or she was admitted, and resentment for this kind of affirmative action should be minimized. Finally, without government intervention, institutions of higher learning would be free to choose . . . and compete . . . on the basis of the criteria they would use to evaluate �minority� essays.

Minority matters on our campus. We should care about diversity, even to the extent that we value those few of us faculty members who are Republican.