Thursday, December 10, 2015

Speaking facts rather than spinning

An unintentionally interesting opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, No, Scalia's comment about 'less-advanced' schools wasn't racist by Michael McGough reprimanding Mother Jones and other news outlets for misrepresentative "gotcha" journalism.

The background is the current Supreme Court case as to whether the University of Texas, as a government institution, is allowed to discriminate among its students based on race. Scalia made a statement alluding to the well known argument referred to academic mismatch. McGough writes"
This is the “mismatch” theory, which holds that some minority students admitted to highly competitive universities fare worse there academically than they would have at less selective institutions. The argument is propounded in a book titled “Mismatch” by Richard H. Sander, a UCLA law professor, and the journalist Stuart Taylor Jr. (Their view is summarized here.) Sander also submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the Texas case.

To put it mildly, the mismatch theory is controversial. In his excellent book “For Discrimination” (a defense of affirmative action), Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy approvingly cites academics who say that the theory underestimates the advantages minority applicants receive from attending highly competitive schools even if they earn lower grades than their classmates. (Michael Kinsley made the same point in a characteristically pithy op-ed column.)
Note that Randall does not dispute the empirical data gathered by Sander and Taylor. Instead he argues that the data is counterbalanced by unspecified and unmeasured advantages. This simply shifting the argument from the empirical to the normative. It is an assertion that what I wish to believe is more important than what can be objectively demonstrated. That is not an argument at all, it is an assertion of authority.

Sander and Taylor show empirically, based on the University of California system, that by lowering the SAT/ACT score requirements (and grades) for African Americans, the UC system is able to achieve a much more diverse entering class. What they also show is that the graduating class is not nearly as diverse. African Americans (or anyone who is the "beneficiary" of such lowered admission standards) drop out at much higher rates, take longer to graduate, and are far more likely to change majors from rigorous programs such as STEM to much easier programs of study. These facts are not inconsequential, particularly in the context of wasted time and money. If you drop out, you have incurred the costs (and loans) associated with study but do not have nearly the benefits that accrue to a completed major. What they also find is that in schools where there is less use of affirmative action, African American students have higher graduation rates, are more likely to remain in rigorous programs, and are more likely to graduate within four years.

The Sander/Taylor research was conducted a few years ago. They attempted to gather data to see if the same phenomenon was true outside of the University of California system but once the mismatch theory was out in the open, universities clammed up and refused to share their data. This suggests to me that the phenomenon is real given that most universities want to continue using affirmative action and mismatch theory is a powerful argument against it.

McGough's argument is that Mother Jones and others are being either deliberately dense (professing not to know and understand the mismatch theory) or are deliberately misrepresenting Scalia. McGough is right and other left leaning media are beginning to call out Mother Jones on their advocacy journalism.

What was interesting to me was this statement. The argument is about what happens if universities are not allowed to discriminate based on race.
In an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal timed to coincide with Wednesday’s argument, Gregory Fenves, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, made the point explicitly: “Experience shows what will happen if the Supreme Court rules against us. Student diversity will plummet, especially among African Americans.”

The L.A. Times made the same point in our editorial urging the court to rule for the university: “For the foreseeable future, especially at highly competitive universities, meaningful racial diversity will require some consideration of race in the admissions process.”
Interesting because that is not what experience shows.
When University of California was forced through the ballot box to drop the most obvious forms of racial discrimination, diversity did not plunge at the most competitive universities (UCLA and Berkeley). It changed. Asian American enrollment climbed.

This is the problem with the critical race theory crowd. They want to paint the US as institutionally discriminatory against people of color. It should go without saying that across 4,000 universities, there are going to be discriminatory actions on the part of individuals and systems of one sort or another - color, ethnicity, religion, region of origin, etc. But systematic discrimination (other than affirmative action) is illegal and there are occasional lawsuits that help keep this to a minimum. There is virtually no evidence of systematic discrimination. That is likely why so many race/religion/gender incidents end up being revealed as hoaxes perpetrated by advocates.

In the case of California, it is obvious, based on the performance of Asian Americans, that the issue is not color, it is academic performance. Diversity did not plunge, it changed. African American representation at UCLA and Berkeley plunged but diversity increased. It is not race, it is performance.

What goes unstated is the positive outcomes by forcing the University system to quit discriminating based on race. Yes, black representation at UCLA and Berkeley fell, but surged everywhere else in the UC system (as predicted by the mismatch theory). More than that, graduation rates went up 50%. That is a huge beneficial win for individual black students and for society at large.

Owing to the stalling efforts of state university systems, it is not clear how pervasive academic mismatch might be, and indeed how real. The reluctance to share the data speaks for itself. And if academic mismatch is real, then we are faced with a choice. Continue violating the 14th amendment to allow discrimination on race in order to increase matriculation diversity with higher dropout rates or abandon state race discrimination and enjoy greater graduation diversity.

Affirmative action appears, subject to broader testing of the mismatch theory, to be one more example where people can, through their support, signal their virtue without caring about the negative consequences. We should expect better.

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