IMAGE:  February 2003 GRAPHIC:  University of Chicago Magazine
APRIL 2003
Volume 95, Issue 4
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…getting pleasure from reading the obituaries…

Congratulations on President Randel’s superb essay, “Greater Than Zero Is What Justice Demands” (“From the President,” February/03). In one concisely written and tightly analyzed page, he lays out the parameters of the whole race problem in America without avoiding his own judgment as to ultimately virtuous arrangements.

He does not, of course, nor need he in this essay, recite the encyclopedia of facts collected by other scholars concerning the myriad ways in which America has tried (and often succeeded, despite some conspicuous failures) to cope with ethnic, religious, color, and/or racial differences among our millions of citizens over several centuries. Every reader should be aware of (and, one hopes, familiar with) Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York, 1944).

One impetus for this Carnegie-sponsored major study was a brilliant gentleman (Negro) who earned his Ph.D. at Chicago in the 1930s: E. Franklin Frazier. His dissertation, “The Negro Family in Chicago,” led to his classic book, The Negro Family in the United States (University of Chicago Press, 1939). In an editor’s preface Ernest W. Burgess, PhB’13, praises the work as “the most valuable contribution to the literature on the family since the publication, 20 years ago, of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by Thomas & Znaniecki.” In his author’s preface Frazier makes a point with which any Chicago alumnus can agree: that sound social analysis probes into the fundamentals of human relationships that extend beyond the limits of race, gender, social class, religion, ethnicity, and other individual characteristics.

I had the good fortune to take a beginning course in race relations from Mr. Frazier in 1944, when I was stationed across the river from Washington and he was a professor of sociology at Howard University. Along with a profound understanding of white-black relationships in America, I learned also a few personal facts about Mr. Frazier. Upon earning his Ph.D. he was invited to join the Chicago faculty but chose instead to take a much less prestigious appointment at Fisk University; subsequently, his outstanding intellectual qualities led to his appointment at Howard, then America’s outstanding “black” university. (A bitter joke: Howard University’s medical school, like those at most other American institutions, “discriminated”; each freshman class offered two positions to white students, who typically turned out to be Jews from New York.)

While his intellectual prowess found ample expression from Howard, one must wonder whether he would have been more influential had he accepted the Chicago invitation at the start of his career. One must also wonder if Chicago—a pioneer in the study of race relationships—might not have retained that eminence had Frazier been able to lay its foundation more than 50 years ago. We have seen in recent years how some East Coast universities have “bought” black scholars of “black studies” only to fall into the trap of emphasizing “blackness” over the rigor of scholarly analysis reflected in Frazier’s work.

Leonard S. Stein, AM’49, PhD’62
Evanston, Illinois

How sad it was as an alumnus of a university known for its intellectual disciplines to read a column by the president of that university that was so devoid of the discipline of logic. Where to begin, where to begin?

The purpose of a great university is to provide a high quality of education to those who can benefit from it and, as a related activity, to do research. To attend such a university as a student is not a civil right to which all have equal access, like voting, for instance. We go to a university to train our minds, and to some degree to acquire a certification that our minds have been trained. Not everyone brings equal intellectual aptitude to this opportunity.

President Randel touches on the subject of discrimination, a red-flag word but a laudable intellectual activity. Wise and intelligent people are responsible to discriminate as part of their decision-making process between one thing and another. Not to do so is irresponsible. Economic discrimination (presumably expressed as, “You can’t come here if you can’t afford it”) is readily and generously responded to by various forms of financial aid. The more complex manifestation (“You can’t come here because your economic background has left you unable to do the intellectual work”) is more challenging but more effectively dealt with by steps taken before college age than by the quota step of admitting the intellectually underqualified, for reasons I will address later.

Randel says that selection based on qualifications is insufficient because such qualifications are highly correlated with family wealth. This is irrelevant as guidance to admissions policies (I speak as a student from an economically unprivileged background). The question for admissions policy is: are these test scores and grades reliable predictors of success in the proposed academic environment? The correlation to family wealth may be useful in directing other social policy, such as funding models for lower education. But it is not useful in determining admissions policy.

A quota system that achieves diversity by seeking to establish a cultural distribution from among intellectually qualified candidates is not in question here. There is some value in having a great university populated by intellectually qualified students from a variety of cultures, ethic groups, and foreign countries.

What is pernicious to all concerned is the deliberate admission of students who are underqualified in order to reach such a profile. We have the tools to reliably predict academic success. Having administered them, such a quota system provides a bonus, the effect of which is to admit less intellectually qualified students over more qualified (that is, less likely to successfully benefit from the experience over more likely to benefit from the experience). This process harms the very people it sets out to help.

What happens to students admitted to an academic environment for which they are intellectually unprepared or unqualified? They fail in higher numbers than they would in other institutions, or they artificially succeed by being given a certificate of achievement that they have not truly earned.

This failure is not good for the students who fail. Failure breeds failure. Students who successfully complete a less prestigious course of study are more likely to succeed in the rest of life than those who fail in an environment for which they are not prepared.

More insidious, the genuine success of those of the same boosted ethic groups who genuinely achieve is brought into question by the existence of the quota system. Would a black patient go to a black physician if it were widely known that some such physicians did not earn their degrees in the same rigorous way as other physicians? This is not speculation. There is evidence that black physicians (and other professionals) are experiencing this form of prejudice, and the University’s own experience (which I witnessed in the 1970s) is that such artificial admissions policies produce a higher rate of failures among these students and extra burdens on minority faculty, who are called upon to carry the struggling students.

The baseball analogy is totally inappropriate. The pitcher is on the team because he can pitch really well. That is his legitimate defensive contribution, even if his offensive contribution is weak. The more appropriate comparison to this quota debate would be to insist that a certain number of players be near-sighted or slow of foot, and therefore not well qualified to play the game at all.

What would Martin Luther King Jr. think? We don’t have to speculate; he told us. “I have a dream, that one day my children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Lew Flagg, MBA’71
Milford, Massachusetts

Regarding President Randel’s comment on President Bush’s affirmative-action policy, what’s most consistent with Martin Luther King’s philosophy is that no minority should be underrepresented at any college or university. When that happens, students and faculty should be recruited to correct the deficiency, without excluding anyone for that purpose.

It follows as a corollary that the government should give financial grants to educational institutions for solving any problems that this might cause. Economists might complain that this could cause inflation, but that’s the lesser evil compared to discrimination. The only way to resolve the dilemma is to take the bull by the horns, again consistent with King’s philosophy.

Thus the girl who filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court against the University of Michigan should be admitted to the university with a financial grant to solve whatever problems that might cause.

If such a policy is implemented generally, then, instead of minority underrepresentation being a perennial problem, overcrowding might be a perennial problem, but again that is the lesser evil, and is therefore the way to go.

Kenneth J. Epstein, SM’52


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