A New Affirmative Action

Baltimore Sun

A new affirmative action | GUEST COMMENTARY

April 26, 2024 at 6:00 a.m.

A few years ago, prior to the Supreme Court affirmative action litigation, a major newspaper published charts showing flat enrollment of Black students at major universities, under the assumption that, since Harvard Ph.D.s do well, African Americans would be aided if more of them were Harvard Ph.D.s.
This approach has failed.
Decades of affirmative action burdened colleges with remedial programs and other related offices, which consumed funds at the expense of core subjects. Administrators grew to outnumber professors; grade inflation ensued.
Unfashionable disadvantaged groups have not benefited. Appalachian high schools, Catholic schools in the Rust Belt, and Christian schools in the South have not been favored by Ivy League admissions officers.

Interest-group liberalism does not provide an impulse to academic excellence. As observed by former U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Learned Hand, who died in 1961, “The herd is regaining its ancient and evil primacy; civilization is being reversed, for it has consisted of exactly the opposite process of individualization.” Hand made himself unpopular by declaring that the only tenable basis for the desegregation decisions was a ban on racial classifications. After 65 years of travail, the Supreme Court has taken his point.

Administrators of the vanishing dispensation have overlooked the admonitions of historian George Kennan that schools exist to serve intellectual and not social purposes, those of legal scholar Edward Levi that universities cannot become microcosms of society, and those of philosopher Bertrand Russell that society as a whole benefits from academic elitism.

Recent admissions policies focus on too many things outside of the knowledge that ought to be possessed by high school graduates. This has absolved colleges from taking a significant interest in the curricula of high schools or the qualifications of teachers in them.

Nevertheless, there are certainly underprivileged people in our society — some of them are minorities, others are not — who could benefit from policies to elevate their educational attainment without abandoning merit. What would an action program embracing individualistic liberalism look like?

First, like the National Merit Scholarship program and New York State Regents’ Scholarships, it would reward achievement. The British and French A-Level and Baccalaureate examinations do this. Few colleges now require submission of subject matter tests, and a reduced number require SAT tests, recently resumed by Dartmouth and Yale. As the recent controversy over class subjects in Florida indicates, even Advanced Placement tests have been politicized. Any serious college should use these as the principal criterion for admission.

Second, it would provide paths to residential higher education for those performing well in distance learning programs, like MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) programs offered by MIT, and the courses offered by the University of Maryland-University College once limited to Americans abroad. The Open University in Britain was regarded by Prime Minister Harold Wilson as his most notable achievement in office; the University of South Africa (UNISA) educated the Robben Island prisoners who made up Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet.

Third, substantial parts of upper classes should be reserved for students doing well at community colleges and the military. These have been neglected by admissions officers, an exception being a program for the military instituted by the late Dartmouth President James Wright.

Fourth, universities should provide child-care facilities for undergraduates who are apt to be highly motivated. Forty percent of all births and 70% of births among Black people are to unmarried women. What was once an exceptional circumstance involving 4% of births is now a more usual one, yet colleges have done little to assist those damaged by the new dispensation, who are not members of a fashionable social class.

Finally, a merit-based plan should encourage mid-career enrollment for persons without a college background who have proven themselves, like the Nieman Fellowships for journalists at Harvard and the Pew and Press Fellowships in England. Even the military “war colleges” have withered; the Foreign Service Institute offers only short-term language programs. Senator Robert Taft’s proposal for an Intelligence Reserve Corps based on something like the World War II Navy School for Oriental Languages has not found favor. In consequence, American businesses are disadvantaged in competing for new markets.

These opportunities reward the deserving rather than the undeserving, the mature rather than the immature, and aspire not to a perfectly equal society, but to an open one.

George Liebmann (george.liebmann2@verizon.net) is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar and author of various books on law and history, most recently “The Tafts” (Twelve Tables Press, 2013).

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