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Affirmative Action: An Exchange

In response to:

Affirmative Action: The New Look from the October 12, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

As someone who has long admired Andrew Hacker’s pungent and wide-ranging essays on American society, it was with great interest and anticipation that I began reading his article on “Affirmative Action: The New Look” [NYR, October 12]. Some of the characteristic strengths of Hacker’s work—the telling observation, the capacity to draw upon data from a broad variety of sources, and the willingness to speak bluntly about issues of great political and social sensitivity—are abundantly visible in his essay. Unfortunately, however, the review at times does not meet his customary standards of precision and accuracy, and in fact contains some serious errors. As the former chairman of the faculty committee which produced the report on Berkeley admissions under review, I will limit my remarks to Professor Hacker’s rather lengthy comments on the admissions process at Berkeley, though the issues I raise pose broader questions about his treatment of affirmative action.

According to Professor Hacker, the only way to raise the representation of blacks and Hispanics at Berkeley was “to waive the admission rules, and this was done. In the 1988 entering class, Hispanics and blacks were given 31 percent of the places…more than two thirds of those entrants had not met the old academic requirements.” The fact of the matter, however, is that the vast majority of the black and Hispanic students accepted in recent years have met Berkeley’s admissions rules which, like the other campuses of the University of California (UC), require that eligible students be in the top twelve and one-half percent of the state’s high school graduates (given the high school dropout rate, roughly the top nine percent of the state’s youth)—a standard which is among the most rigorous of the nation’s public universities. The number of black and Hispanic students has increased in recent years not because the eligibility rules were waived for them, but rather because increasing numbers of eligible minority students applied to the Berkeley campus.

Moreover, Professor Hacker’s assertion that fewer than one-third of the black and Hispanic students met the old academic requirements is based on a misunderstanding of the statistics presented in the report and is simply wrong; in 1988, over four-fifths of them met the requirements. The remainder of them were admitted via a “special action” category that enables UC campuses to admit a limited number of students from the seven-eighths of California’s high school graduates who do not meet the University’s eligibility requirements, but who suffer from racial or socioeconomic disadvantage or who have special talents (e.g., athletic) valued by the University. A significant proportion of the students admitted through “special action” are white.

Having exaggerated the number of black and Hispanic students at Berkeley who do not meet the University’s normal admissions requirements, Professor Hacker proceeds to compound his error by asserting—with no documentation whatsoever—that the relatively low five-year graduation rates for blacks and Hispanics in the class of 1987 reported in his article were based on “admissions standards for the groups [which] were rather higher than they are now.” Perhaps Professor Hacker’s assertion is based on the logic that if Berkeley is now taking more minority students than in the early 1980s, then it must follow that it is doing so by lowering its standards. Yet the reality is quite the opposite, with black and Hispanic students having increased their median high school GPAs from 3.31 in 1982 to 3.41 in 1988, and their median SATs from 963 to 1,012 during the same period. No doubt unintentionally, Professor Hacker’s errors all have the same unfortunate effect: to denigrate the academic accomplishments of Berkeley’s black and Hispanic students and in so doing, to reinforce prevailing racial stereotypes.

None of this is to deny that there are differences in the average grades and test scores of students from groups that receive preference in the admissions process and those that do not—indeed, that is one of the meanings of having a vigorous affirmative action program (such differences, it is worth noting, will also be apparent in comparisons between athletes and non-athletes and, at private colleges, between alumni children and non-alumni children). Yet it is a quantum leap from the observation of such intergroup differences—differences which, as Professor Hacker’s essay properly notes, are rooted in the reality of an enduring history of racial division—to the conclusion that the majority of Berkeley’s black and Hispanic students are unqualified. As our report notes, through 1973, Berkeley admitted virtually all of the University of California—eligible students who applied, whatever their racial or ethnic origin. To the best of my knowledge, no one suggested that the UC—eligible students who applied to Berkeley—a group which was, at that time, overwhelmingly white—were less than fully qualified. Nor did anyone make a major public issue of Berkeley’s dropout rate when caucasians dominated the student body; of those who entered Berkeley as freshmen in 1955, only, for example, 51 percent had graduated ten years later.

Like other universities that have struggled with the vexing problems raised by persistent racial inequalities, Berkeley has, of course, not been immune from error. What is perhaps most distinctive, however, about Berkeley is its decision to be open and public about its admissions practices and its commitment to extensive faculty and student participation in the formulation of new policies. The report, “Freshman Admissions at Berkeley: A Policy for the 1990s and Beyond,” is a product of this openness and commitment.

Yet one could read Professor Hacker’s review of this report without realizing that its recommendations, recently approved by Berkeley’s Academic Senate, propose important modifications in Berkeley’s admissions policy, including the introduction of special consideration for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, regardless of race. The major theme of the report, which enumerates a set of general principles to guide Berkeley’s admissions practices in the future, is that a wise and judicious policy that builds upon the past while modifying it to reflect current conditions (which include both a remarkable demographic shift in California’s population from 83 percent white in 1960 to a projected non-white majority in 2003, and an increase in the number of applications from 9,175 in 1982 to 22,439 in 1988) “should now make it possible to attract a student body that is academically stronger than ever before at the same time that it extends the process of diversification which began a quarter of a century ago.” This is surely not the place to describe the new policy in detail; suffice it to say that those who wish to understand Berkeley’s complex affirmative action policy, both past and present, might do better to read the report itself rather than Professor Hacker’s account of it.

Jerome Karabel
Department of Sociology
University of California, Berkeley

Andrew Hacker replies:

I appreciate the amplifications contained in Professor Karabel’s letter. Since my review dealt with eight books and documents, I was not able to give the Berkeley report as much space as its authors might have desired. That report cites (page 22) an analysis by Berkeley’s own Office of Budget and Planning, which found that “a class admitted exclusively on the basis of the academic index” would be less than 4 percent black and Hispanic. Yet the report also notes (page 20) that Berkeley’s 1988 freshman class was 29.4 percent black and Hispanic. This discrepancy led me to conclude that academic requirements had been waived for as many as two thirds of these students. However, Professor Karabel says that over four fifths of 1988’s black and Hispanic freshmen “met the requirements.” What I gather has happened, and I am relying on the report bearing his name, is that “requirements” for admission are now less stringently academic. Indeed, his report notes (page 24) that between 1986 and 1988, the proportion of freshmen to be admitted on their “academic index score alone” was dropped from 47.4 percent to 39.0 percent. I concluded that at least some black and Hispanic students were among those admitted on other than strictly academic grounds.

Like Professor Karabel, I am made uneasy by placing so much emphasis on black and Hispanic students, since this can foment stereotyping. As it happens, I teach at an urban college, which is not nearly as selective as Berkeley, and where 40 percent of our entrants are other than white. Much of what I said in my review was based on my experience with this group of students.

Leaving ethnicity aside, we can simply say that some students are better prepared for college than others. Indeed, quite a gulf can separate those ready for demanding college work and those who will have difficulty grasping much of what is going on. In fact, many in the latter group can adapt to college. But for that to happen, they would be better advised to start in a setting where they will not be overwhelmed by better-prepared classmates. Nor is it clear that remedial courses can equip less-prepared students for the level of performance expected by professors at a university like Berkeley. Hence my fears that all too many students may feel so frustrated that they will drop out. And that would be an awful loss, since I am sure most of them could have made it on a less intense campus.

Professor Karabel and several other correspondents caught a computational error in Table A in my review. Ethnic over- and underrepresentation in Berkeley’s 1988 freshman class, based on high school graduates “academically eligible” for the University of California, should have read as follows: Hispanics, 2.80; blacks, 4.38; whites, 0.56; and Asians, 1.33. Yet even with their group’s overrepresentation, a number of rejected Asian applicants have appealed that decision, charging that they ranked higher within the “eligible” pool than some admitted whites.

To the Editors:

Andrew Hacker’s excellent review on ethnicity in college enrollment [NYR, October 12] applies a “telephone test” to determine the adaptation of Asian immigrants, presumably to American values. Clearly, he has a mainland-centric bias. In Hawaii a remarkable number of local- as well as foreign-born Asians have retained accents while being thoroughly Americanized in concepts, practices, and values. The accents of most public schoolteachers and our three-term governor, George Ariyoshi, attest to the fact that retaining an accent is no impediment whatsoever. Mainland-accented students do no better at the University of Hawaii than local students. In the Fragante v Honolulu case, however, the City and County of Honolulu refused to hire a Philippine-accented person due to his accent, and the Federal court thus far has maintained a Hackerite bias, as judges sent to Hawaii are unaccustomed to accents prevailing in Hawaii that pose no problem of communication to anyone here. Michael Haas
Department of Political Science
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Honolulu, Hawaii

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