IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
Volume 95, Issue 3
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GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueFrom the President
Greater than zero is what justice demands
When it comes to quotas, President Don M. Randel writes, we still have a long way to go before worrying that we have gone too far.

The birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. this year coincided with President Bush’s declarations on affirmative action in higher education. What might King have thought about the president’s remarks, and what ought we to think about the matter? The president carefully criticized only the University of Michigan’s methods of achieving diversity and equally carefully left open the door to other methods without specifying what they might be. It remains a door through which we must stride purposefully.

Several incantatory words and phrases drive the discussion that has ensued: quota, race, discrimination, and better qualified are central here. Each is loaded. But the reality with which we must contend is at least messy and sometimes simply ugly, and we will not make it better by carrying on the discussion in polarizing terms.

A quota in the abstract is repugnant to more or less everyone, appearing to trample on the individual rights that we so prize. But individual rights are also trampled on when it happens to turn out that whole groups of people fail to gain access to the opportunities that American life is supposed to afford. To that end we might begin by recognizing that however much we may object to establishing the upper limits to a quota, we ought to insist that there is some quota greater than zero that justice and individual rights demand. If we can get over that hump, then we can stop arguing about numbers and recognize that we still have a long way to go before worrying that we have gone too far.

Then there is the question of quotas of what kind. Here race is the magic word—whatever race is. This itself is a much more complicated question than the current debate seems to admit. But what about quotas for poor people? Surely they would be every bit as repugnant as any other kind of quota. Yet the wish to eliminate anything that sounds like a racial quota turns out in many respects to be the substitution of a quota that favors the rich over the poor.

This leads us to discrimination. Why is it that discrimination on the basis of family income doesn’t seem to bother many people nearly as much as discrimination on the basis of race, even when the two are so highly correlated? Unfortunately, there has long been a view about in the land that race is something one is born with, whereas poor people are, in the main, poor because they haven’t done what it takes to overcome poverty, i.e., they deserve to be poor. The sad fact is that kids who are born poor are not at fault for that, and most rich people have not done what it takes to overcome poverty either. If discrimination means something like denying things to people for reasons over which they have no control, then there is much more at stake than the popular view of race.

This leads in turn to better qualified. We do not know nearly as much about what better qualified means as the current debate would suggest. Better qualified for what and on what criterion? Test scores and grades are manifestly insufficient. Both are highly correlated with family income, and presumably no one would argue for getting down to basics and admitting applicants to colleges and universities on the basis of family income. The first thing to recognize, at least in the case of elite institutions, is that they admit only a small fraction of the applicants who would be qualified to do the work and earn a degree. Given a pool of applicants qualified to do the work, the important and much more difficult goal is to admit a group of students who can contribute to the quality of the education that they will all receive. Enter diversity—and not just racial or ethnic diversity. The modern world requires that people of fundamentally different intellectual and cultural perspectives be capable of engaging one another productively. A university education that does not take account of this is a dismal failure. Thus, given a set of relatively crude, often merely quantitative measures about who is qualified to do the work, our best institutions focus carefully on the variety of qualities that individuals bring and to the sum of the qualities that the group will bring. To make an athletic analogy, the better qualified argument is as if to say that, on average, a baseball team should have people with high batting averages and lots of RBIs and that it is to discriminate against these better qualified people if we insist on having one-ninth of the people on the field at any given time be someone who can really pitch, even though most pitchers can’t hit very well.

What is said to be a non-race-based method for achieving racial diversity, namely accepting the top N percent of every high-school class, merely substitutes a different kind of discrimination having to do with the continuing segregation of American schools, and it makes an absolute mockery of any notion of better qualified on conventional measures. That truly is a quota system.

Awarding points for race is, by itself, surely too crude. Not facing up to the facts of race in America, on the other hand, is surely too cruel and too shortsighted. What would Martin Luther King Jr. think?

President Don M. Randel



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