Today’s universities are beset with problems, but two of the most intractable are budgetary shortfalls and navigating the affirmative-action quagmire. First impressions aside, these two problems are related — affirmative action is a financial drain, and unlike, say, the men’s wrestling program, cannot be easily phased out. Recruiting minority students requires an entire bureaucracy, remedial classes and tutors, and even ethnic-theme cultural centers and lawyers to defend all the politically unpopular (and illegal) measures. And it is doubtful that many affirmative-action graduates will become rich and donate to their alma mater.
Wouldn’t it be nice if affirmative-action programs could pay their own way and thereby end a financial liability? This quandary has long perplexed me, but while recently soaking in the bathtub I recalled an idea once broached by the “controversial” Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield (1916–1999) about solving Harvard’s budgetary problems. He proposed auctioning off 100 slots in the freshman class. This, he insisted, would affect only a small fraction of Harvard’s incoming class and thereby leave Harvard’s stellar academic reputation intact. But, the auction would generate millions. Eureka!
Since sensibilities have changed from Banfield’s day, a few cosmetic adjustments are necessary. First, funds are not an obstacle. Numerous fantastically rich corporations and foundations, e. g., the Gates Foundation, Goldman Sachs, and the Broad Foundation, regularly spend tens of millions — collectively billions — trying to help academically troubled minorities.
The “auction” would work as follows. Schools would announce a limited number of sponsored undergraduate fellows that could be “endowed” by super-rich do-gooders. Given the prestige (and favorable publicity) of sponsoring a university fellow, the rush would be on, especially at elite schools. The opening bid would be set equal to the total four-year cost for a minority student, and this would include full tuition, student-activity fees, room and board, some spending money, all necessary remediation, the per-student cost of the cultural center, and everything else imaginable. Moreover, to cover administrative costs, “overhead” would be tacked on (in research contracts, this can be as high as 80 percent of a grant). I’d guess that $100,000 per year per fellow would suffice as the minimum opening bid for direct expenses, plus, say, another $50,000 for overhead. If, for example, Harvard opened the bidding at $150,000 for 30 fellows, the guaranteed yearly haul would be $4.5 million (the actual net would be substantially higher, since this outside contribution cancels the cost of internally funding affirmative action). For a four-year (probably five-year) program, this works out to at least $18 million per year in fresh revenue.
But, given today’s philanthropic madness, these figures are far too low. Imagine an auction at a lavish New York Plaza Hotel banquet, complete with New York Times coverage and glamorous celebrities with Bill Clinton as the emcee. The event would be a feeding frenzy for well-heeled, social-status-seeking do-gooders. Billionaire hedge-fund operators would vie for the honor of the most extravagant bidder. Auctions in the hinterland would be more subdued, and at the local Holiday Inn, but the cost of education here is much lower, and so $25,000 a year might “buy” a fellow. In a nutshell, achieving diversity becomes a profit center.
Now, the winning bidders would get to choose their recipients according to their own standards. Actually, they would probably outsource this task to others, just as members of Congress farm out military academy appointments. In any case, it would be unlikely that any fellows would remain unsponsored, and, in an instant, revenue soars and expenses drop sharply. The million-dollar tuition/expense/overhead checks would arrive promptly and no discounts would be given. Proud sponsors would take out full-page Wall Street Journal advertisements to showcase their latest fellows. And with some legal finagling to avoid laws banning reverse discrimination, these fellows would not be classified as regular students, though in practice they would be indistinguishable.
Privately paid fellowships also avoid certain commonplace political problems — no public money goes toward admitting and then retaining students who fail to meet academic standards. No parent complains that their super-smart offspring was pushed aside by an unqualified minority student. Indeed, the private largess may reduce tuition, so diversity would more than pay for itself. Financially hard-pressed parents may even demand greater revenue-generating diversity at State U.
Over and above this financial windfall, however, is a benefit close to my heart: Schools would be freed from lying when admitting unqualified students. Free at last! Gone would be the likes of Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, insisting that banning affirmative action would undermine the university’s intellectual excellence. No more convoluted, expensive “holistic” admission criteria that always seem to favor certain minorities. School administrators would merely say that the Gates Foundation annually selects five fellows, and we are told that foundation officials carefully scrutinize all academic records given their desire to ensure that all Gates fellows graduate. And if these fellows wash out, just blame somebody else, but still collect all the money.
It’s just as they say: “Diversity is our strength.”