Sunday, April 27, 2014

Affirmative action is doomed. Here's what progressives should do about it

Instead of cobbling minority preferences onto a broken system, liberals should attack the racial injustices at the root of the problem

This week's Supreme Court ruling in the Michigan affirmative action case tried to strike a Solomonic middle ground, neither demanding nor forbidding states from using racial preferences in university admissions, while endorsing the right of each state's voters to decide such matters themselves.

In practice, however, the decision marks the beginning of the end of the era of affirmative action as we know it. Progressives would be foolish to resist this inevitable outcome. Instead, they should shift their fight to eradicating the remaining relics of white privilege that still distort the playing field against minorities.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who authored the 6–2 plurality ruling (Elena Kagan was recused), wrote that the court cannot overturn Proposition 2 — Michigan's 2006 ban on racial preferences, which was backed by 58 percent of voters — anymore than it could ban Texas' use of preferences in Fisher vs. University of Texas last year. Kennedy reserved the right to remedy "invidious acts of discrimination." But other than that, it's up to the states. "The Constitution," Kennedy's liberal colleague Justice Breyer noted in his concurring opinion, "foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving the merits of these (affirmative action) programs."

On the surface, this ought to give both sides something to celebrate. The states that have banned racial preferences can keep their bans — and other states that don't want a ban won't be forced to impose one.

But this happy co-existence of diametrically opposed policies cannot last forever. Over the long run, "the ballot box" is not on the side of the proponents of racial preference. Public opinion is trending against them.

A Gallup poll last July found that 67 percent adults support race-neutral, merit-based admission standards, even if that means fewer minorities on campuses. Support for using "government in improving the social and economic position of minorities" had declined since 2004 among not just whites, but also blacks and Latinos. Likewise, an NBC-WSJ poll found that support for affirmative action was at a "historic low," dropping from 61 percent in 1991 to 45 percent last June. (The one exception is a recent Pew poll that found majority support for affirmative action.)

An unfavorable opinion trend is not the only problem for progressives on affirmative action. The support they enjoy is shallow as well. Americans no longer care about this issue as much as they used to. And to the extent that they do, it is to end racial preferences. This is why ballot initiatives to ban racial preferences have typically won and are likely to gain renewed traction after Tuesday's ruling.

(The next battleground might be Ohio, according to Jennifer Gratz, who was one of the two plaintiffs in the twin 2003 lawsuits against University of Michigan's race-based policies.)

This shifting public opinion has implications beyond the ballot box.

So far, when states have banned racial preferences, universities have reinvented them under a race-neutral guise. Texas, for example, implemented the so-called 10 percent solution, in which it admits the top 10 percent of graduating seniors from all high schools, regardless of their caliber, effectively giving a leg up to inner-city minorities. U of M invented Descriptor Plus, a complicated algorithm that sorts out ZIP codes by socioeconomic, educational, and racial characteristics, and targets preferences where minorities reside.

But as Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent in the Michigan ruling, such efforts have failed to boost minority numbers to desirable levels. Getting them to work would require redoubled commitment.

This, however, is going to be difficult after several university presidents — such as U of M's 69-year-old Mary Sue Coleman, who authorized Descriptor Plus — retire. They grew up in the heyday of the civil rights era, when the country was consumed with issues of racial justice. Their successors, however, will come of age around the presidency of Barack Obama, a president who is the fruit of that struggle. They might not share their predecessors' zeal for boosting diversity, especially since they'll confront a far more splintered minority community.

Asian-Americans, diversity's big losers, are turning against affirmative action. Last month, they stopped California Democrats, who hold a legislative supermajority, from reinstating racial preferences. Justice Sotomayor's plaintive diversity defense obviously wasn't written with their interest at heart.

What's more, all these trends — grassroots apathy, decline of a committed university vanguard, and minority opposition — will be gathering steam just around the 2028 expiration date for racial preferences that Justice Sandra Day O' Connor set in her 2003 Grutter vs. Bollinger ruling. Even a more liberal Supreme Court may not be able to extend such policies in these circumstances — which is why Justice Scalia's concurring opinion quipped that "Grutter's bell may soon toll."

So what should progressives do?

Go with the current rather than against it. Seek racial justice not by louder calls for minority preferences — but by scrapping systemic preferences enjoyed by the white majority.

Elite schools — both public and private — routinely hand preferences to athletes, children of faculty, celebrities, and politicians; "development cases" whose wealthy parents offer hefty donations; and, above all, offspring of alumni. Princeton sociologist Tom Espenshade found that nearly two thirds of all these non-race-based preferences at elite universities benefited whites in 1997, even though whites made up less than half of all applicants. In some Ivies, no more than 40 percent of seats are open to candidates competing on pure merit.

Liberals should argue that scrapping racial preferences while keeping all the other preferences produces a double injustice: It makes minority seats available to white candidates, but keeps white seats off-limits to minority candidates. This is a message that will unite minorities. Meanwhile, whites, who have largely been opposing affirmative action because it runs afoul of merit-based admissions, will be in no position to resist.

Liberals can salvage the defensible parts of their racial justice crusade by shifting tactics. Business as usual won't help minorities.


The Next Massive Bailout: Student Loans

A few years ago, I began interviewing adults at least 10 years out of college and who had never managed to pay off their student debt. Some were past the age of 50 and headed slowly but surely for personal bankruptcy. Sadly, their stories were as common as they were upsetting.

Not much has changed. Outstanding student loans continue to balloon, and they now total $1.2 trillion nationally, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Among students graduating in 2012, 71% had student loans averaging $29,400, according to a report from the Project on Student Debt. So while today’s grads may be part of the most educated generation in history they are also the most indebted twentysomethings the world has ever seen.

This isn’t good. Young people should be buying cars and setting up households—not boomeranging home to Mom and Dad and dedicating their income to loan repayment. Household formation is half the rate it was seven years ago, and most of that is due to the drag of student debt, the CFPB has concluded.

Government is trying to address the problem. There has been talk of refinancing student debt at lower rates. But that discussion has largely stalled. President Obama is pushing for a new funding model, where the amount of student financial aid available to universities is tied to things like their graduation rate and the initial salaries of their graduates. But the rating system, which might eventually hold tuition hikes in check, is at least a year away.

Another new initiative may be backfiring–at least at it relates to keeping college costs contained. Since 2011, student borrowers have been able to choose a plan that limits their amount due to 10% of discretionary income, which is defined as 150% above the poverty level—now at $15,730 a year for a two-member household. That means such a household would owe based on income beyond $23,595. If this household earned, say, $35,000 a year, it would make payments of about $100 a month.

For public employees and those working for a nonprofit, so long as they made regular payments the debt would be considered settled after 10 years regardless of how much was owed or paid back. For private sector employees the debt would be settled after 20 years. This payment plan, which is really more of a debt forgiveness plan, has proved so popular that enrollment is up 40% in six months and now includes 1.3 million Americans owing $72 billion.

Yet there is no free lunch, and we now have what looks like a high stakes game of Whac-A-Mole. Every time we bat down one source of escalating tuition and student debt, another source rises up. Because of the forgiveness feature, students appear more willing to borrow; universities are advertising the forgiveness plan and seem poised to raise tuition to soak up the funds. Just like that we are back where we started—a lot of borrowing and little incentive for colleges to keep tuition hikes down.

And it gets worse. In this popular new arrangement, taxpayers get stuck with the tab. Already the future cost of the forgiveness feature is pegged at $14 billion. To keep students and colleges from running up too big a bill, President Obama is pushing to add a lifetime forgiveness cap of $57,500. That would help. But make no mistake: the next bailout is happening now. It may be more palatable than bailing out banks and car companies. But the costs are mounting.


Toss out abusive college administrators

Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Like most professors, I hate doing administrative work. And since somebody has to do it, universities have increasingly built up a corps of full-time administrators. That's fine, but lately, the administrative class has grown too numerous and too heavy-handed. As colleges and universities increasingly face financial pressures, it's time to rethink.

Full-time administrators now outnumber full-time faculty. And when times get tough, schools have a disturbing tendency to shrink faculty numbers while keeping administrators on the payroll. Teaching gets done by low-paid, nontenured adjuncts, but nobody ever heard of an "adjunct administrator."

But it's not just the fat that is worrisome. It's administrators' obsession with -- and all too often, abuse of -- security that raises serious concerns. At the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, Clyde W. Barrow, a leading professor, has just quit, complaining of an administration that isolates itself from students and faculty behind keypads and security doors.

Isolation is bad. But worse still is the growing tendency of administrators to stifle critics by shamelessly interpreting even obviously harmless statements as "threats." A recent example took place at Bergen Community College, where Professor Francis Schmidt was suspended, and ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination over a "threat" that consisted of posting a picture of his 9-year old daughter wearing a Game Of Thrones T-shirt. The shirt bore a quote from the show, reading: "I will take what is mine with fire & blood." Bergen administrator Jim Miller apparently thought the picture, which was posted to Schmidt's Google Plus account, was somehow intended as a threat to him. (Schmidt had filed a labor grievance a couple of months earlier.)

What kind of person claims that a picture of a 9-year-old girl wearing an HBO T-shirt is a threat? The kind of person who runs America's colleges, apparently. And Miller, alas, is not alone in his cluelessness and, apparently, paranoia.

Last year at the University of Wisconsin at Stout, theater professor James Miller had a poster from the television series Firefly on his door. It included a picture of Captain Mal Reynolds, a character played by Nathan Fillion, and a quote from the show: "You don't know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you'll be awake. You'll be facing me. And you'll be armed."

Campus police chief Lisa Walter removed the poster, regarding it as a "threat." After Stout complained to no avail, he replaced the poster with one reading: "Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets."

This poster, too, was interpreted as a threat, which led to a visit from the campus "threat assessment team." After nationwide mockery (Fillion, and fellow Firefly cast member Adam Baldwin, joined in, as did many of the show's fans), the university retreated, and promised to change its approach in the future. Presumably, Chief Lisa Walter carries a gun, and I wonder if that's a good idea in someone so skittish that she sees a movie poster as a "threat."

Meanwhile, at the University of Colorado, the American Association of University Professors has produced a report on the university's running "roughshod" over academic freedom as part of an anti-sexual-harassment campaign in its philosophy department and -- again -- using campus police to strongarm a faculty member over an obviously bogus threat. As Inside Higher Ed reports:

Dan Kaufman, an associate professor, in March was escorted by four police officers to the dean's office. According to the report, he was told he was being banned from campus indefinitely for making a comment to [department chair] Cowell about killing him. The report finds that the comment was far from a threat, but rather a 'philosopher's joke' and standard fare for any philosophy textbook: that they wouldn't kill each other, "unless Cowell were truly evil, like Adolf Hitler."

Events like these call into question both the judgment of academic administrators and the existence of campus police forces as a separate institution. In his book, The Fall of the Faculty, Johns Hopkins Professor Benjamin Ginsberg talks about the profusion of "deanlets" that has overtaken higher education. But it's even worse when those deanlets not only eat up the substance of institutions, but also command armed force. It's extremely doubtful that any outside law enforcement agency would have responded to any of the "threats" listed above, but campus police, called in by insecure deanlets, have little choice.

This sort of behavior, though, is unfair, bad for morale, and likely to spur expensive and embarrassing litigation. (Note that some of these cases were resolved when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an academic civil liberties group, intervened and posed a threat of legal action.)

With college enrollment falling and budgets under pressure, legislatures, donors and alumni will be looking at ways to restructure schools in the future. The profusion of self-important deanlets and the abuse of campus police forces ought to be looked at as part of this process. It's just another symptom of the now-imploding higher education bubble.


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