Thursday, October 24, 2013

George Washington (the University, not the President)

Legend has it that George Washington (the President, not the University) could not tell a lie.  That legend dates back to his reputedly owning up to chopping down a cherry tree with a hatchet. 

I learned at an early age not to question that “truth.”  In elementary school I wrote a poem, intended to be humorous, about George Washington (the President, not the University) and the aforementioned cherry tree.  I wrote it from the point of view of a boyhood chum of George Washington (the President, not the University) who was an eyewitness to the demise of the cherry tree.  In the final stanza of the poem the future President is asked about chopping down the tree and responds by pointing at the narrator, “He did it.”

The poem was selected for the school literary magazine, perhaps my first ever published piece.  When the magazine came out, I was shocked to see that the final line of the poem now read, “I did it,” which not only removed any hint of whimsy and irony, but changed the entire meaning of the poem.  Upon further investigation, it turned out that I was a victim of censorship.  In typing the copy for the literary magazine, the school secretary took it upon herself to change the line so as not to sully the reputation of the father of our country.  For all I know I may have an FBI file based on having written that poem.

On Monday we learned that George Washington (the University, not the President) doesn’t have that much in common with George Washington (the President, not the University).  GW (the University) is not only capable of telling a lie, but has apparently been lying for years about being need-blind in admission.

That revelation came in a story in the ironically-named independent student newspaper The Hatchet.  In the article, Laurie Koehler, the university’s new Senior Associate Provost for Enrollment Management, described the University’s policy as need-aware and acknowledged that was not a change in policy.  That raised eyebrows, because for years (and in fact up until Saturday night) GW had claimed to be need-blind.

There is an old saying in higher education that any publicity is good publicity.  George Washington (the university, not the President) may be about to find out how true that is. This is the second time in the past year that GW had gotten negative admissions-related publicity.  Last November, U.S. News and World Report moved GW into the “Unranked” category (in essence a class by itself) after learning that GW had misreported class rank data for entering students.  That story resulted in Koehler’s predecessor retiring last December.

I have written about the ethics of need-blind admission previously.  Nearly twenty years ago my first article for the Journal of College Admission was on that topic, and one of my first blog posts last year dealt with need-blind admission.  Here are a couple of quick thoughts about George Washington (the University, not the President) and about need-blind/need-aware.

The positive outcome of this story is that GW is now being transparent about its practices.  When the NACAC Assembly first debated the need-blind issue twenty years ago in Pittsburgh, I argued that transparency was the most important and relevant ethical principle, and I continue to believe that.  The cynical part of my being (which friends and colleagues would say is a pretty big part) says that it is easy to come clean when you can place the blame for misrepresentation on your predecessor, and I also wonder about the fact that until sometime this weekend the GW website apparently was still using language indicating that it was need-blind.  Be that as it may, what’s important is that GW is now accurately reflecting what it does.

It is important to stipulate that there is nothing inherently wrong with need-aware admission, especially when practiced at the margin.  Need-blind admission is an ideal that very few institutions can realistically achieve.  Good ethical principles and policies should balance ideals and reality, and the reality is that higher education is at some level a business (I hope it’s more than that), with revenue and expenses a concern.

That doesn’t mean that all need-aware admission practices are equally defensible.  Giving an opportunity to a student with low or no need is more defensible (assuming the student is reasonably capable of being successful) than denying opportunity to a student because they have financial need.      

Twenty-five years ago need-blind admission was understood to incorporate two different principles.  One was that admission decisions should be made without regard to financial need.  The other was that institutions should meet the full need of every student.  I see an ethical difference between the two.  In ethics there is a distinction between acts that are obligatory/ethical duties and those that go beyond the call of duty.  I consider making admission decisions based on qualifications an ethical obligation, while providing funding morally praiseworthy but beyond the call of duty.  I appreciate the argument that says that providing opportunity without adequate financial resources is cruel, but denying opportunity altogether is worse.  One is unpleasant, the other unethical.  What is worse than either of those is denying opportunity to protect stats like admit rate and yield.

What is wrong in the GW case is not being need-aware, but pretending to be need-blind.  I can only guess that’s because need-blind is seen as being prestigious.  Doing things for prestige reasons is usually a bad idea.  I remember a college adding an essay to its application years ago and admitting that it had no intention of reading the essays, but thought that having an essay would make it appear more prestigious.  Just recounting that makes my blood all over again.  A good rule of thumb is that if you’re embarrassed or hesitant to “preach what you practice,” that might be telling you something.

Finally, the need-blind issue is a great example of the changing admissions landscape.  Usually the term “changing admissions landscape” implies an erosion of ethical standards, but I don’t think that’s the case here.  The financial realities of higher education require us to rethink what is important and why.  The enduring values here are honesty and transparency, and whenever any of us fail to live those values, it hurts all of us.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

First Monday in October

Last Monday was the first Monday in October, the day each fall that the United States Supreme Court begins its term.  Last year at this time there was great anticipation in the college admissions world as the Court had on its docket a major affirmative action case, Fisher v. Texas. 

This year the Court will hear another case related to affirmative action, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.  Unlike Fisher, though, that case doesn’t have to do with affirmative action itself, but rather the constitutionality of a state (in this case Michigan) amending its constitution to prohibit race- or sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public university admissions when other forms of preferential treatment (such as legacy status) aren’t prohibited.  The oral arguments for that case are today, and I’ll post later in the week if I see any interesting admissions issues arising from the discussion before the Court.      

In admissions parlance, the Supreme Court put affirmative action on a Wait List in the Fisher decision. The Court declined to rule on the merits of the affirmative action program employed by the University of Texas and remanded the case back to a lower court.  What does that mean for the future of affirmative action?  It depends on whom you ask.  As is so often the case these days in American politics, both sides claimed victory.

Several weeks ago, Jocelyn Samuels from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and Catherine Lhamon from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education sent a joint letter to college and university presidents.  The letter stated that the Fisher decision preserved the legal precedent that colleges have a compelling interest in a diverse student body and can advance that interest through their admissions programs.  The letter also affirmed that a 2011 Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity in Postsecondary Education statement from the two offices remains in effect, and included a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the Fisher case.

They may be alone in being that optimistic about the future of affirmative action in its present form.  Just yesterday I talked with the Dean of Admissions at a flagship public university who said that he is spending a lot of his time with university lawyers preparing a defense of the institution’s affirmative action program in anticipation that there will be new legal challenges in the wake of Fisher, and an article by Eric Hoover in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that a number of colleges and universities are thinking about and preparing for a “race neutral” future.

With all due respect, I found the optimism in the letter unwarranted.  The Obama administration (I think it is fair to assume that the letter represents the administration view) is technically correct that the Fisher decision did not overturn affirmative action in its current form, but several justices made it clear in their opinions that they would have done so if asked.  In no way could Fisher have been interpreted as upholding the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, as the letter seems to suggest.  As Richard Kahlenberg points out in an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, four justices (Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, Ginsberg) voted on different sides of the two cases.

At the very least, the Fisher decision places the burden of proof on those who want to use race-conscious approaches to achieve diversity.  Fisher was remanded back to the lower court because it had failed to exercise strict scrutiny, taking at face value the University of Texas’s claim that diversity was a compelling interest and that its affirmative action program (which operated to supplement the diversity produced by the state’s top 10% program) was necessary. Fisher will put the onus on institutions to demonstrate that diversity is a compelling goal, that any affirmative action program is narrowly tailored to achieve the goal, and that no race-neutral solution would be effective.  That’s a subtle, but significant, change.

I also wonder if Fisher will lead to a much-needed conversation about diversity.  I am not suggesting that we need to back away from a commitment to diversity but rather to clarify how and why diversity is important.  Is all diversity equally valuable?  One of the odd arguments made by counsel for the University of Texas during Fisher was that it needed to admit more underachieving middle class and wealthy students of color for the sake of diversity.   

Diversity in higher education has been so worshipped as a virtue that it wouldn’t be surprising to see some university rebrand itself as a 21st century “Diversity”—think the Diversity of California or Brown Diversity.  But is diversity an intrinsic value, good for its own sake, or an instrumental value, good because it provides and supports a richer educational experience?  I would argue the latter. 

Fisher v. Texas  was the fourth major Supreme Court case dealing with affirmative action in college admissions, and odds are that it won’t be the last.  The issue defies easy solution because it brings into conflict two important fundamental principles. 

One is equality of opportunity.  In August we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  I have watched it multiple times, and I am always struck by two things.  One is how different the world was in 1963, from voting rights issues to segregated lodging facilities and even separate drinking fountains in the South.  The other is King’s genius in alerting the nation to the cognitive dissonance between the promises made in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the reality of racial discrimination.  We have made great strides, but do we have equality of opportunity today, and can we provide opportunity to higher education in a meaningful way without using racial preferences in admissions?

The other issue is fairness.  If giving preferences on account of race is wrong, isn’t it wrong even when done with noble intentions?  Does the end justify the means?  Is there any alternative?

I am much better at asking questions than I am at providing answers, but two things are clear to me.  It would be a mistake to keep affirmative action in its present form, and it would be a mistake to abolish affirmative action altogether.  By comparison, the current “discussion” between Republicans and Democrats over the debt ceiling and the government shutdown is a walk in the park (but not a National Park).