Cheating on Race Admissions

by Spencer Case
Skewing admissions criteria is illegal, but many academics believe it’s a good thing.

In theory, academics are devoted the truth. In practice, economics professor Tim Groseclose discovered, many are willing to engage in deceit to advance political goals.

Groseclose, who served on the UCLA admissions committee during the spring semester in 2008, found evidence that the university continued to use racially skewed admissions criteria on the sly. His experiences are the subject of his new book, Cheating: An Insider’s Guide to the Use of Race in Admissions at UCLA.

“It’s really shameful how dishonest professors have been, what a low regard they have for the truth,” Groseclose told National Review Online. “Even though their jobs are supposed to deal with finding the truth, when it comes to certain things — and race and admissions is one of them — they just all kind of understand, ‘No, you just have to lie about this.’”

In 1996, Proposition 209 amended the California state constitution to ban government institutions from considering race, sex, and ethnicity for hiring, contracting, and education. This resulted in a diminished African-American presence at the top state universities in California — though not in California universities overall — and an increased presence of Asian students. UCLA viewed these demographic trends with disfavor.

Near the end of the summer of 2006, the chancellor called an unprecedented special meeting of the admissions committee and announced that UCLA would henceforth pursue a “holistic” admissions policy. Given the political pressure to increase racial “diversity,” Groseclose couldn’t help wondering if “holistic admissions” was a smokescreen for an illegal racial preference system.

Shortly after his appointment to the committee, Groseclose asked the director of admissions for a random sampling of 1,000 application files. The director and other faculty members knew what he was up to, and were quick to offer excuses for withholding the information. Privacy was said to be the issue, even though Groseclose would not be reading the students’ personal essays and had asked that names be redacted. 

“I was really shocked when this didn’t happen,” Groseclose said. “I was very suspicious that they were hiding something, and that was the reason they weren’t giving me the data. I thought it was my duty to expose what was going on.”

Groseclose wrote an 89-page report alleging that UCLA was engaged in a cover-up of illegal admissions policies. He hired a friend, a small-time actor named Byrne Offutt, as an ad hoc publicist to promote his story. As an act of protest, he publicly resigned from the admissions committee at 5 p.m. on August 28, 2008, although the story was overshadowed when John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running-mate the following day.

After his resignation from the committee, Groseclose joined forces with his colleague Richard Sander, who with Stuart Taylor Jr. co-authored Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students it’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit it. Groseclose and Sander submitted a Public Records Request – California’s equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request — to acquire data on student applications.

The university dragged its heels, but finally provided Groseclose and Sander with information on 160,000 applications considered under the holistic policy and another 65,000 which had been considered under the previous policy. The data — available here – led Groseclose and Sander to conclude that UCLA favored African Americans at the expense of Asians and Latinos.

After the implementation of the holistic policy, African-American admissions went up from 13.1 to 16.9 percent of the total, while Southeast Asian admissions declined from 23.6 to 21.2 percent and Chicano/Latino admissions declined from 21.2 to 18.3 percent. In addition, Groseclose and Sander found, African Americans were not on average the most economically disadvantaged: The parents of Latino and Southeast Asian applicants tended to be poorer than those of African-American applicants.

UCLA admissions took place in two rounds. In the first round, about 160 part-time workers evaluated the applications. In the second round, a group of about ten senior faculty, who were permitted to disregard the first-round evaluations, looked at the applications. Groseclose hypothesizes that the faculty implemented racial preferences in the second round under administrative pressure.

His and Sander’s conclusions were confirmed by UCLA’s 2012 independent study by sociology professor Robert Mare, whose investigation showed that rich African Americans were admitted at almost double the rate of poor Asians. Moreover, when senior faculty stepped in to resolve split decisions among first-round rankers, they admitted 46 percent of African Americans compared with only 17 percent of North Asians (people from China, Japan, and Korea).

Despite the evidence of bias, the university promptly issued a press release which declared “Mare’s report found no evidence of bias in UCLA’s admissions process.”

In principle the discrepancies could be accounted for by some hidden variable, Groseclose said, but the evidence presents a strong cumulative case that UCLA engaged in an illegal racial-preferences policy.

This summer, Groseclose has relocated to the Mercatus Center for Public Policy at George Mason University, known for its free-market leanings, where he will hold the Adam Smith chair in economics. He wasn’t forced to leave UCLA, but he was passed over for a promotion, and he notes that “It is unpleasant to be a conservative at UCLA.” The result is that UCLA has lost a token conservative to one of the few departments not in need of more conservative voices.

“I don’t think there’s one professor at UCLA who is completely out of the closet on being a conservative, and I would challenge — and if the deans don’t agree with me I would challenge them — to name one conservative professor at UCLA,” he said. “And I think that universities should suffer the consequences if they’re not going to treat conservative professors well.”

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

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