- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

The legality of racial preferences in university admissions was a muddy issue even before last week, when a court in Detroit took its turn at roiling the waters. A federal district judge struck down an affirmative action system used by the University of Michigan's law school. That makes a nice bookend to the same court's ruling last year upholding the affirmative action system used for undergraduate admissions by — what else? — the University of Michigan.

If you're not bewildered about how to square the U.S. Constitution and federal law with racial preferences in higher education, you haven't been paying attention. Ask two judges and you'll get three opinions. But on one point, there is no confusion: At schools like the one located in Ann Arbor, administrators have gone to extraordinary lengths to get the racial numbers they want and to justify what they're doing.

Michigan used to admit undergraduates in a two-track competition: one for specified minorities and one for everyone else. When it became clear that no court was about to tolerate that approach, it switched to giving a large number of bonus points to applicants with the right ancestry, a shrewd way to get the same results. The law school, on the other hand, aims at accepting enough minorities to achieve what it regards as the “diversity” required “to enrich everyone's education” — which, it turns out, means at least 10 percent of every class.

Diversity may sound like an irreproachable goal for a university community. Michigan says it strives to get “students with distinctive perspectives and experiences” to create a class “stronger than the sum of its parts,” which no one could possibly oppose.

But it turns out that there is less to diversity than meets the eye. At the law school, African Americans are favored, but not Africans. Puerto Ricans born on the American mainland enrich the school's diversity, but not Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico. Mexican-Americans are more desirable than Arab-Americans. Diversity is a concept elastic enough to fit whatever a university administrator wants it to cover.

Asian-Americans encompass a variety of backgrounds and cultures, arising from places as different as Japan and Bangladesh, but none of them, it appears, contributes to diversity. Just the opposite. One of the little-noticed facts about racial preferences in university admissions is that applicants of Asian ancestry are penalized, not helped.

Why? Not because they've suffered less discrimination on average than, say, Latinos. But because, as a group, they've been too successful — particularly when it comes to college grades and law school test scores.

The diversity Michigan seeks is an oddly one-dimensional kind. Race overrides everything else. You might think the law school would gain a valuable perspective by including Barbara Grutter, a middle-aged mother of two who had worked as a corporate manager and consultant before deciding to return to school 18 years after getting her undergraduate degree. But Grutter is white, and though her grades and test scores would have virtually assured admission for a black applicant, they were not enough to get a Caucasian through the gate. So she sued the university, and won, on the grounds that she had been the victim of racial discrimination.

Using race as a tie-breaker when two candidates are otherwise comparable might be a tolerable approach. But Michigan, like other schools, goes way beyond that. As Shikha Dalmia reports in The Weekly Standard magazine, University of Minnesota statistics professor Kinley Larntz testified in court that at the law school, a black applicant is 234 times more likely to be admitted than a white with the same grades and test scores. Blacks and Hispanics are routinely accepted with credentials that would doom any white or Asian-American candidate.

The school says its double standard serves to enrich each student's educational experience, because as one professor testifying in favor of racial preferences explained, “The quality of the education received is largely a function of the diversity of viewpoints and experiences in the class.”

That's a plausible assertion — but one Michigan has yet to prove. Economists Harry Holzer and David Neumark published a study last year in the Journal of Economic Literature concluding, “There is no evidence of the positive (or negative) effects of a diverse student body on education.”

Nor has the university gone to any trouble to learn exactly what percentage of preferred minorities is needed to get the benefits it claims. Is 10 percent a magic number? Or would 8 percent do? How about 5 percent? Or 4?

No one in Ann Arbor is really determined to establish the necessary figure, or, in fact, to examine their own assumptions too closely. The school administrators know diversity is good, they know sufficient diversity when they see it, and we should leave them alone to achieve it. No matter what it takes.

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