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Bush's Academic (Double) Standards

The President decries giving minorities any edge in college admissions, but a table tilted his way got him into Yale

By Brian Hindo

To hear President George W. Bush tell it, African Americans are about the only people who ever catch a break when it comes to getting into college. The President feels so strongly about the issue that on Jan. 16 the White House filed twin briefs in support of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger -- suits by white students who had been denied admission to the University of Michigan's Law School.

Those complaints allege that Michigan's policy of formally awarding 20 extra points to minority candidates when deciding whom to admit amounts to discrimination -- and the President agrees. In fact, Bush has gone so far as to call Michigan's approach "plainly unconstitutional" -- even before the Supreme Court rules definitively on that issue sometime this spring.

The Bush briefs have rekindled the smoldering debate over what role race should play in deciding who gets accepted at America's universities. Yet what seems to have been lost amid all the controversy is a broader point that makes the President's position, shall we say, intellectually inconsistent.

OLD BOYS NETWORK.

  Favoritism of one kind or another has been a staple of college admissions for decades, perhaps centuries, based on many factors other than race (though the historical record of many schools that excluded minorities is undeniable). So instead of singling out just one group, maybe the President should make a list of everyone who gets an edge when schools make their decisions.

He could start with the residents of Michigan's Upper Peninsula (a predominantly white part of the country), who receive 16 "points" in Michigan's admissions process just for living where they do. Or perhaps the "socio-economically disadvantaged," however Michigan defines them, who also get 20 points apiece. Or the men who apply to the school's nursing program, who Michigan says receive "special consideration."

Another place the President could look, of course, is in the mirror. It has become almost a cliche to point out that George W., who evidently earned more than a few "Cs" in high school, might never have gotten into Yale had his last name not been Bush. Back then, it appears, the President was the beneficiary of that most time-honored discriminatory distinction -- legacy status. That's a fancy way of saying Yale took him in part because his dad was a Yale alum. And by the way, there's no record of anyone suing over that perk.

BRAWN POWER.

  Had anyone complained, in fact, the future President could rightly have pointed to other groups who enjoyed similar privileges. One high-profile example would be athletes. Coaches may no longer muscle admissions officers into pretending that the ability to run, jump, shoot, or pass is a decent substitute for an "A" in high-school English. But don't believe for a minute that a way can't be found to get the next Heisman Trophy winner enrolled and academically eligible, even if it means sending the kid to junior college for a while to buff up his grades, then tutoring him for 40 hours a week to maintain his C average at State U. Even in the Ivy League, which doesn't award athletic scholarships, coaches routinely intercede on behalf of athletic recruits in "early decision" admission rounds.

This pro-athlete tradition is even more firmly established today than it was in the President's college days, now that the number of athletes who get favorable treatment far exceeds the beefy few on the football field. That's because Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has required colleges to discriminate in favor of women athletes to the same degree they do for men. Some men are aghast -- several have filed suit -- but so far the courts haven't been swayed. The situation is in flux, though, and the Bush Administration's Commission on Opportunity in Athletics voted on Jan. 30 to recommend modest changes to Title IX.

In a few cases, celebrity may even give some applicants an edge over the unremittingly bookish. It's implausible to imagine that Yale somehow overlooked Claire Danes's movie credits when she applied there. Or that Harvard University ignored the Olympic gold medal of incoming freshman Sarah Hughes.

FOCUS ON DIVERSITY.

  More than implausible, it's impossible to expect college admissions officers to ignore the qualities or achievements that make various applicants stand out. Their job is to create "a student body that reflects the world students are going to live in," says Don Hahneman, admissions director at the University of Vermont. That means admitting a diverse group of people -- even though sometimes those who seem well qualified academically will be left out. Though Vermont doesn't use a formal points system such as Michigan Law School's, Hahneman's staff does "ask the question -- is there anything about this student that could contribute to the academic community?" Race is counted as one of those factors.

Plenty of admissions officers privately disagree with the President's position, but they're also looking forward to the Supreme Court's decision. That, they say, will provide them with clarity -- one way or the other.

In its briefs, the White House argues that Michigan's policy "operates as a disguised racial quota" -- seeking to reserve a set number of seats for minorities -- a practice outlawed by the landmark 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision. Michigan denies the charge, saying that instead it views race in its point-based rankings system as a "plus" -- a concept deemed allowable in the Bakke decision.

"CHILLING EFFECT."

  Not much might change in practice should Michigan prevail. It's doubtful that many schools would rush out and implement points-based admissions policies -- not even for sons and daughters of the privileged. Should Michigan lose, however, the psychological impact could be severe.

"If the Supreme Court decides Michigan has gone too far, it would have a chilling effect" on the efforts of colleges to promote racial diversity, says Michael Goldberger, admissions director at Brown University. Apparently, plenty of the President's peers in corporate boardrooms agree: More than 30 companies are planning to file briefs in support of Michigan (see BW, 1/17/2003, "Why Diversity Is Good Business").

In a system such as college admissions, which is built on multiple layers of favoritism, it's hard to criticize one without implicitly endorsing the others. That's the conundrum the White House has created: Is it against favoritism for all, or just for some?

Hindo is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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