Politics & Policy

Ducking Colorblindness

A UCLA professor blows the whistle on the persistence of racial preferences.

University of Los Angeles political science professor Tim Groseclose publishes studies that get noticed, and even participated on the school’s faculty admissions committee, which oversees the staff that chooses each year’s new undergrads.

Still, he’s lucky he has tenure. Last Thursday, Groseclose resigned from the admissions committee, in protest of the school’s behavior when it comes to racial preferences.

Such preferences ought not to be an issue at UCLA — according to California’s Proposition 209, “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of . . . public education.” Prop 209 was passed in 1996, but it’s no secret that campuses in the left-leaning state — Berkeley and UCLA in particular — have been defying the will of California’s electorate.

Heather Mac Donald detailed as much in City Journal last year; and now, Groseclose has made public an 89-page report blowing the whistle, complete with closed-door conversations, private e-mails, and a chronicle of his school’s sketchy handling of data that could prove or disprove his suspicions. Basically, Groseclose alleges that changes to the scoring system improved the likelihood that a personal essay — in which applicants often mention their race — would get a student admitted.

Groseclose’s documentation makes clear that the committee — despite Prop 209’s clear injunction against public institutions using race-based preferences — soldiered on in its drive to engineer each class’s racial makeup. Without the individual-level data Groseclose seeks, it’s impossible to tell how much the racial bean-counters were able to distort the school’s admissions process, but the available numbers strongly suggest that race played a significant role in shaping the school’s 2007 freshman class.

Groseclose joined the admissions committee in September of 2005. “At least 75 percent of what we discussed related to race and improving diversity,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s pressure on the admissions staff [to let in more minorities]. They’re constrained by Prop 209. So it’s a very tough situation for those staff, and I kind of feel sorry for them.”

In June 2006, the Los Angeles Times ratcheted up the intensity with “A Startling Statistic at UCLA,” a front-page story revealing that of the 4,853 freshmen expected to enroll at the school, only 96, or 2 percent, were black. (Eventually, four more blacks enrolled than were expected to, for a total of 100.)

“At the end-of-summer meeting of my committee, the chancellor [Norm Abrams] shows up, which never happens,” Groseclose says. “He said the number of African-Americans was too low. He said, ‘I don’t want to pressure you, but here’s what I want you to do.’”

The chancellor suggested the committee adopt a “holistic” system, which Berkeley was using at the time. The New York Times would later describe the change thus:

In the past, the admissions office divided every application between two readers: one evaluated a student’s academic record, the other looked at extracurricular activities and “life challenges.” Berkeley, by contrast, had taken a more holistic approach, with a single reader judging an entire application, and Berkeley was attracting more black students than U.C.L.A. Why? Maybe the holistic approach takes better account of the subtle obstacles that black students face — or maybe the readers, when looking at a full application, ended up practicing a little under-the-table affirmative action.

The Times reporter interviewed two application readers — about a quarter of readers were black, and Groseclose writes that some were selected under explicit direction to “hire underrepresented minorities” — who had been told not to consider race and claimed they hadn’t. But one reader noticed that more students mentioned race in their essays.

Some weird things happened statistically the following year. The 100 black students who enrolled in 2006 came from an applicant pool of 2,173 and an acceptance pool of 249, meaning that 11.5 percent of black students who applied got in but only about 40 percent of those chose to attend. But in 2007, 2,460 blacks applied, 407 were admitted, and 204 enrolled — an outsize 16.5 percent of applicants got in, 50 percent of whom matriculated.

One might argue that the school’s recruiting efforts simply paid off — it is not illegal to target minority areas in recruiting. Perhaps recruiters not only got more blacks to apply, but got enough high-achieving blacks to apply to significantly and legitimately boost blacks’ admission rate. But then, why would admitted blacks’ average SAT score drop 45 points?

Alternately, one could say the university just considered disadvantage in general more than it had in the past — this would let in more poor, lower-scoring students, raising the acceptance rates but lowering the average scores of disproportionately poor groups. But acceptance rates for American Indians, Hispanics, and other minorities actually fell.

“If you take a random Vietnamese applicant, the probability of acceptance went down significantly, from 28.6 to 21.4 percent,” Groseclose says. “And when you look at these applications, the ones who have faced documented, verifiable family hardships are very often Vietnamese.”

A detailed statistical analysis is the only way to know for sure what role race played in the admissions process. So in April of this year, Groseclose made waves by requesting a random sample of 1,000 applications, 500 each from 2006 and 2007. This would let him compare, within each year and between years, how similarly situated individuals of different races fared in the admissions process.

“The reaction was immediate — within 18 hours, the chair suggested we have the whole committee do the study. I said I’d be happy to participate, but I’d like to do my own as well,” Groseclose recalls. He didn’t get data for his own study, “and it turned out the committee would not get the data, either. We’d hire an outside expert to do the study — despite the fact that nearly all of us have the statistical ability needed.”

Groseclose tried other methods. He made a motion to get all committee members a sample of random applications, which failed on a 3-3 vote (three other non-voting members wrote letters supporting Groseclose). He appealed to higher authorities at the university, who denied him access, purportedly for privacy reasons.

Four member of the admissions committee — Groseclose, and the three who voted against his motion to give all members the data — formed a work group to choose an outside academic and devise research questions. They chose sociologist Robert Mare, but directed Mare not to look at the 2006 or 2007 data — just the 2008 applications. Thus, Mare will be unable to determine how the “holistic” approach changed admissions, and to detect any illegal behavior that occurred in 2007 but not 2008.

Groseclose doubts the staff stopped using preferences in 2008; all the admissions decisions were probably made before he came forward with his objections. But 2007 might have been a particularly egregious year: “We had [pro-affirmative action] protests at the chancellor’s office, and we had an acting chancellor at the time — he was the one who showed up at our meeting. He was a lot more likely to put pressure on people.”

In the report, Groseclose provides a transcription of a meeting where one committee member slipped up while discussing the 2007 applications: “The readers in the first year, given the change, were not doing exactly what they were supposed to do. They were motivated by other concerns. . . . maybe the training wasn’t as rigorous.” Another replied, “All those T-shirts that said, ‘Got black students?’”

Mare’s data collection won’t begin until spring of 2009. In the meantime, the conversations and statistics in Groseclose’s report should be more than enough to make California voters suspicious about their public universities’ commitment to adhering to colorblind admissions. They deserve better than the evasion they’re getting.

Robert VerBruggen edits NRO’s Phi Beta Cons blog.

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