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Does the Greek letter chi stand for Chicago?

Embarrassing elitism
M. G. “Brandy” Brandon, MBA’77, describes his son’s failure to gain admission to the University of Michigan as the result of “a combination of suboptimal resource allocation and barefaced dishonesty” (“Letters,” April/04). As a fellow U of C alum, I found this tired indictment of affirmative action elitist, illogical, and embarrassing.

While I sympathize with Brandon’s disappointment as a parent, he is wildly off base in attacking the affirmative action system and Maureen Mahoney, JD’78, (“C. vitae,” February/04) in particular. Much of Brandon’s disgust apparently stems from reading about a Detroit-area public-school student who was admitted with lower SAT scores than his son’s. I must point out an obvious fact: Brandon (and presumably his son, described as “one of the top 100 mathematics students in Massachusetts”) lives in Acton, Mass. A quick perusal of Michigan’s admissions Web site finds that “[a]s a public institution, the University also gives consideration to in-state applicants.” Public institutions have a mandate and an obligation to serve their own constituents, and the last time I checked, the great states of Michigan and Massachusetts had not merged.

More insidiously, Brandon’s letter reveals an undertone of classism. In delineating his son’s accomplishments, he gives not-so-subtle hints about his family’s socioeconomic status: “a New England Conservatory–trained violinist,” “a three-season sports captain,” “an SAT score in the 1500s,” “advanced-placement and college credits,” etc. While there may be underprivileged, public-school students with similar résumés, these accomplishments tend to be hallmarks of the privileged. Urban public schools often do not have funds to support three seasons of varsity athletics or to offer advanced-placement courses.

Even more to the point, underprivileged high-schoolers rarely have time or money for (or even access to) conservatory training, SAT coaching, college classes, and all the other things that beef up contemporary college applicants’ curricula vitae. Michigan’s guidelines also state, “Consideration will be given to applicants with particular indicators such as parents’ occupations and education level, single-parent upbringing, a deceased parent, necessary and excessive work hours while attending school, and overcoming extraordinary obstacles.” Does a slightly lower SAT score or fewer extracurriculars really mean that a student from inner-city Detroit is less deserving of admission to her own state’s flagship institution than a privileged child from suburban Boston?

Get real. I am sick and tired of hearing about how children of the privileged—and without knowing anything else about Brandon’s family, I’d say having a parent with an MBA from Chicago confers “privilege”—are entitled to the world while our nation’s public schools crumble. Having no particular animus toward Brandon’s son, I hope—and am confident—that he will find another school. I have no such confidence for the thousands of underserved, bright, and deserving public-school students in the cities of Michigan, Massachusetts, Illinois, and elsewhere.

David Sepkoski, AM’96
Oberlin, Ohio

While M. G. “Brandy” Brandon’s son seems to be a very qualified prospective college student, Brandon’s letter does not acknowledge the merits of race as a factor in admissions.

First, slavery and long-standing segregationist policies based on race (in violation of the Constitution) created a power structure that perpetuates and accelerates a significant inequality (e.g., through informal affirmative action for students, employees, and politicians with connections like George W. Bush, or through testing standards that are more likely satisfied by students, such as Brandon’s son, in the upper class with greater access to educational resources and positive role models). As reported in the April 22 New York Times, “[m]ore members of this year’s freshman class at the University of Michigan have parents making at least $200,000 a year than have parents making less than the national median of about $53,000, according to a survey of Michigan students.” Affirmative action tries to counter the “head start” in socioeconomic dominance created by segregationist policies by promoting certain minorities who meet threshold qualifications (a subjective evaluation as it is).

Second, Brandon implies that test scores and extracurricular activities are the sole criteria in assessing a person’s ability to excel and to contribute. Many successful work professionals did not have high test scores; knowledge and maturity are not only acquired from texts and schooling, but also by interacting with and understanding people from different backgrounds and races. An “optimal resource allocation” for a student body will include people from diverse backgrounds, not only students with the resources to have multiple extracurricular activities. It is important for Brandon’s son to know people who have been harassed because of their skin color or who have a unique cultural perspective on an issue.

Third, lower scores do not necessarily reflect a less powerful intellect or committed work ethic. They may be the result of external circumstances that correlate to race, such as family finances, peer influence, or a lack of cultural context for understanding certain test questions.

Fourth, it is very difficult to apply affirmative action to the workplace, where people are hired for having specialized skill sets, whereas academic institutions can help equalize the advantages students like Brandon’s son have by training students with the same potential.

While I can understand Brandon’s frustration (and understand opposing viewpoints on affirmative action), I imagine his son was accepted at a number of prestigious universities and will do just fine. And maybe his rejection will serve as a reminder, as minorities often experience simply by virtue of their race, that life’s not always fair and that in the working world, success does not solely hinge on scores and activities.

Sunil Hariani, JD’94
New York

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