Monday, July 18, 2022

America's Love Affair with Affirmative Action

If everyone now agrees that America’s race problems can only be solved by more diversity, equity and inclusion, we may reasonably conclude that America’s current race problems have been caused by diversity, equity and inclusion.

Better yet, they have been caused by a university system that tried to make affirmative action programs work. When they did not work, when the students admitted to fulfill quotas produced failing work, they were passed anyway. So, we end up with a cohort of blacks who have been granted admissions, degrees, credentials, jobs and promotions-- because of their race. 

And if they can’t pass the courses or do the job, you need to shut up. If you do not say that they are incompetent they are not incompetent.

So, Robert Weissberg, who has taught political science at Cornell and the University of Illinois at Urbana offers up an important mea culpa. When affirmative action programs descended on the academy, professors went along. In particular, they did their best to pretend that these students were as good as those who had been admitted based on their merit. So, they systematically lied to students and have created a significant number of incompetents, people who insist that no one ever call them out on the simple fact that they did not earn what they have. It was granted them, as the wages of white guilt.

Weissberg explains that he went along with it all, for the past five decades, because he had the best of intentions. He believed that affirmative action programs would cure the ills produced by systemic racism. In that he was wrong. Even the best of intentions cannot mitigate the mess that he and his fellow academics foisted on the nation.

He opens thusly:

The adage “no good deed goes unpunished” captures this culpability. In a nutshell—and here I will speak only for myself and those I knew personally from the late 1960s onward—I am referring to lowering academic standards for black students and faculty in order to promote racial progress, a Weltanschauung in which the path to racial equality lay through education and, ultimately, the act of recruiting as many black students as possible and ensuring that they graduated.

How did affirmative action programs change universities? Certainly, they did not bring any real benefits:

Much of what changed in my department of political science was obvious: more bureaucratic paperwork, additional departmental offerings on race and ethnicity, a neglecting of traditional political science subjects, and untold meetings that accomplished nothing. Less obvious was the extra time spent by faculty personally tutoring struggling minority students and recruiting affirmative-action candidates at professional meetings. It’s hard to estimate all the hours taken away from our teaching and research responsibilities as a result.

Almost nobody challenged the underlying logic of this make-the-numbers pathway. Everyone just knew that this was the route to equality and justice.

Even today, it’s difficult to accept that our good intentions helped undermine the university’s commitment to intellectual excellence. 

Nevertheless, our fingerprints are all over the crime scene.

The cost was that universities no longer cared much about intellectual excellence. With the exception perhaps of STEM subjects, most university standards were systematically lowered. Because black students, students who did not meet the university’s standards, could not be allowed to fail. Thus, they received passing grades, because the alternative was too painful to consider. And this even applied to students who were obviously cheating or plagiarizing. 

Subverting intellectual standards was most pervasive in the classroom, where many minority students were ill-prepared for rigorous college courses. Undeserved grades (“B-minuses” vs. “C-minuses”) were commonplace, as were overlooked breaches of the academic code.

One of my students, a troubled junior-college transfer, submitted a dreadful paper, an unambiguous “F,” but he also accidentally included the $25 invoice from an Internet site (“My Professor Sucks”). I did not fail him or begin proceedings to have him expelled. Instead, I consulted our department’s undergraduate advisor on how he could drop the course despite the official drop-date having passed. This was arranged, and he continued his college career.

Even blatant plagiarism was ignored, since it was apparent that culprits would never be prosecuted, and even filing charges put one’s career at risk.

But then, having granted degrees that had not been earned, universities recruited affirmative action candidates as graduate students. Thus did the programs produce a new cohort of teachers, people who would normally have failed, but who were pushed ahead-- and who now are teaching young students how to be social justice warriors. Because that is all they know:

A walking-on-eggshells policy applied equally to graduate students, though here the stakes were more consequential, since Ph.D. recipients might one day teach thousands of students. 

Again, progress toward the degree was paramount, and foolish ideas were seldom challenged. Simultaneously, standards were lowered for passing comprehensive exams and for dissertation proposals.

Everyone knew that the academy had been corrupted. Everyone knew that the degrees had not been earned. Whether because they actually believed in affirmative action or because they were afraid, most professors went along with the ruse:

In some instances, faculty virtually wrote dissertations for struggling students. These students were also discouraged from enrolling in demanding courses, such as Statistics, that might prove essential for future research. To repeat, it seemed axiomatic that the advanced degree itself was the goal, not providing the best possible education.

But then, these graduate students received their doctorates and began teaching. They were highly valued, not for their minds, but for their skin color. Given that they knew very little, no one could bring up complex and difficult questions in their presence. It would threaten their self-esteem and expose the fraudulence of their credentials:

Drinking the Kool-Aid hardly stopped at initial recruitment. Minority candidates were hired and continued past multiple reviews, including tenure and promotion to full professor. As was the case with students, serious discussions involving hot-button issues were off limits. We were there to help make the numbers, and we gladly acquiesced.

From freshmen to senior faculty, blacks on campus enjoyed intellectual diplomatic immunity.

Can the situation be improved? Probably not, Weissberg says, because it has simply gone too far:

Can this academic erosion be reversed? It seems unlikely. Most of today’s minority students (and faculty) have seldom—if ever—been required to defend their views on race. The skills necessary for this task have thus long atrophied.

Imagine if a young black applicant for a sociology department position were asked if it were possible to falsify propositions about the impact of white racism. And whether the lack of falsifiability rendered propositions unscientific. These would be regarded as hostile questions, an attack on the True Faith, and the response would be to silence and then punish those asking the questions.

We are led to the conclusion that today’s national effort to shut down debate over racial matters is a way to cover up the negative consequences of America’s love affair with affirmative action. 


IamDevo said...

If the question is, "How do you get a Ta-Nehisi Coates?", the answer can be found in the referenced article. If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then I think we may have reached our destination. Unfortunately, it appears this is a one-way street. Could be we have reached our Hotel California status, where checking in is easy but leaving is out of the question. Or perhaps the "Roach Motel" analogy is more apt; where we check in but never check out. I hope room service remains available.

smlTx said...

All of this was obvious - completely obvious - from the beginning. This guy and professors like him supported it because they were willing to trade disastrous results for the minorities admitted in return for feeling good about themselves.