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Education

If Amy Wax Is Wrong, Let’s See the Data

Professor Amy Wax (image via AEI/YouTube)

Regarding the kerfuffle Jason Richwine addressed here earlier, the economist Glenn Loury has posted an impassioned plea to his Facebook page. Loury, you may recall, hosts the video blog where Wax made her controversial claim that black students at Penn Law School rarely graduate in the top half of the class.

Loury writes:

Note well: there is an Orwellian aspect to this whole brouhaha — namely, that Wax’s generalizations are said not only to be offensive, but to be dead wrong, slanderous and ignorant. Yet, by Dean Ruger’s own backhanded admission (“this response is restrained out of respect for student privacy . . .”, or words to that effect) the data (e.g., administrative records of the classroom performances at Penn Law broken down by race) are said either to be impossible to obtain, or to be unavailable for public review due to privacy concerns. “Trust us: she’s dead wrong. Unfortunately, we can’t show you just how wrong . . .”

This is completely unconvincing! For, Penn Law surely knows the race of its applicants at the time of admission — otherwise they would not be able to maintain the numbers of black students at current levels since — given what we do, in fact, know about the racial disparities in LSAT scores and college GPA’s among applicants to elite law schools — a race-blind admissions policy could never produce such numbers. So, Penn Law knows its students’ racial identities at the point of admission, but somehow quickly “forgets” this information when taking note of their grades?

. . .

Finally, for my money, here’s the most tragic part of it, and mark my words: those, like the Penn chapter of the National Lawyers Guild — who have demanded Wax’s removal on the grounds that what she said was a racist slander — are going to lose this argument over the longer run. They’re playing an incredibly weak hand, it seems to me. No one who is concerned about the well-being of black students, in the legal academy or elsewhere, should welcome public scrutiny of the relative academic performance of those black students who are benefiting from the practice of affirmative action at elite universities! And yet, this is what the pillorying of Amy Wax will surely lead to. I promise you, as someone who knows a thing or two about what’s going on at the most selective academic institutions in this country, no good can come of that.

Unlike Loury, I have no knowledge of the internal workings of academia, but this comports with what I do know from what little research is available: Elite schools practice affirmative action aggressively, admitting blacks with lower academic qualifications than their white peers, and as a result black students underperform whites in terms of class rank. This doesn’t end the affirmative-action debate — the school you graduate from usually matters a lot more than your class rank or GPA, after all — but it does no one any good to pretend it’s not happening.

This paper has detailed data on students admitted to University of Michigan Law in 2002; it finds that blacks and whites hardly overlapped in their academic qualifications (measured by their undergrad GPAs and LSAT scores). The authors write that “the median black admit had an academic index at the second percentile of the white distribution, and the seventy-fifth percentile of the black admit distribution was at the eighth percentile of the white distribution.” They add:

The University of Michigan is by no means an outlier either. The data show that the extent of preferential admissions for black students is even more pronounced at other elite public law schools, such as the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin. In both of these cases, the median black admit had an academic index that would place him below the first percentile of the white admit at the same school.

As for what happens once students come to campus, in a much-discussed paper Richard Sander of UCLA Law reported that “the black average [class rank] at the most elite law schools was at the twenty-first percentile,” though his data are old as well. Among elite schools, fewer than 10 percent of black students ranked in the top half in terms of first-year grades; at all schools, fewer than 15 percent of blacks made the top half of third-year cumulative grades. (And “the grades of black law students actually go down a little from the first to the third year.”)

If Penn Law is different, or if things have changed in recent years, let’s see some numbers.

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