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Liberal Study: Affirmative Action Hurts Blacks By: Robin Wilson
Chronicle of Higher Education | Thursday, January 30, 2003


Discrimination plays little part in limiting the number of minority professors in academe. So says a new book that is so controversial -- even before it's on bookshelves -- that one of the prime sponsors of its research, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, already is trying to distance itself from the findings.

The book, Increasing Faculty Diversity: The Occupational Choices of High-Achieving Minority Students, is to be published next month by Harvard University Press. The book comes at a time when affirmative action in higher education is on the minds of students, professors, and administrators across the country as they wait for the Supreme Court to decide two cases involving the University of Michigan.

Many universities are trying hard to recruit black, Hispanic, and American Indian professors, says the book. But they end up fighting over the same insufficient pool of minority Ph.D.'s. That group is small primarily because most minority undergraduates don't earn grades good enough to get into graduate school or even to convince themselves that they are academically suited for careers in the professoriate. The crux of the problem, according to the book: Affirmative action has steered many minority undergraduates to selective colleges where they do poorly.

Increasing Faculty Diversity was written primarily by Stephen Cole, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. It reads more like a paper put out by a conservative think tank than a book sponsored by the Council of Ivy Group Presidents and the Mellon foundation -- two groups known for their strong support of affirmative action.

Claude M. Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, is worried that the book could influence the Supreme Court. "I think Sandra Day O'Connor's law clerks are going to read it and they'll say: 'Look at this. Here's a real thorough study, and it is arguing that affirmative action is harming these kids.'"

And while the book acknowledges that contact with faculty members is important in encouraging minority students to pursue the professoriate, it says that whether those mentors are black or white makes little difference.

The findings of the five-year study, whose purpose was to learn why so few minority undergraduates pursue Ph.D.'s and become professors, run contrary to a highly touted study that the Mellon foundation's president, along with a former Harvard president, completed five years ago.

"Researchers report the findings as they see them, and they may not be consistent with what we'd like to see or what we think are there," says Harriet Zuckerman, senior vice president of the foundation. "The Mellon imprimatur is not on this, just as it is not on other research we support." She says people should be "cautious about putting much weight on certain findings."

None of the four Ivy League presidents contacted by The Chronicle would comment on the book. Jeffrey H. Orleans, executive director of the presidents' council, says, "There are a whole lot of data in here, and if one started out with an ideological position -- whatever it was - you could find a whole lot to support that."

Academics who study the question of why there are so few minority professors are attacking the book. "It flies in the face of so much other research," says Cathy Ann Trower, a researcher at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. "It just totally goes against everything we've heard from minorities in general."

And young black professors say the book's findings do not ring true. "None of this was the case in my experience," says Jennifer A. Richeson, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College. She earned A's and B's as an undergraduate at Brown University, but it wasn't on the strength of her grades that she decided to enroll in the Ph.D. program in psychology at Harvard, she says.

"Even if students do really well in course work, if they don't get additional training in faculty labs, then who is going to write their letters, who is going to support them and navigate their interests in graduate school?" asks Ms. Richeson, who says she was turned on to research after working in the laboratory of a white professor at Brown. But "the light-bulb moment" that made her think she could be a professor, she adds, came after she took a course taught by a black woman. Ms. Richeson earned her Ph.D. in 2000.

Mr. Cole says he "wouldn't get up and make a blanket statement that I'm opposed to affirmative action. But if you're looking at this issue, affirmative action is contributing to the number of minority students getting lower grades, which seems to contribute to them selecting non-high-achievement careers."

He realizes that the book's conclusions won't be popular. "I was trained at a time before social science became so politicized," says Mr. Cole, who has been at Stony Brook since 1968. "I believe that social science should be objective and value-free, and you should design a study to answer a question and whatever the answer is, that's what it is."

He figures that there is "no chance" he'll receive money again from the Mellon foundation. "And I don't care."

Looking for Answers

Mr. Cole started work on the book in 1994 with Elinor Barber, a research associate at Columbia University who died suddenly in 1999, just as they were beginning to write about their findings. They based their work on a wide range of existing studies, as well as on questionnaires completed by 7,612 undergraduates at 34 selective public and private institutions, including those in the Ivy League, elite liberal-arts colleges, large state universities, and historically black institutions. The two researchers also interviewed more than 100 students individually. They limited their study to students who had a grade-point average of 2.8 or better because good grades, they determined, are one of the biggest indicators of whether a student goes on to pursue a Ph.D. and an academic career.

It was Ms. Barber who had initially approached Neil Rudenstine, then president of Harvard, about conducting a study of why more high-achieving minority students don't make their way through doctoral programs and into the professoriate. She was not alone in her concern.

The proportion of minority students on individual campuses is typically much higher than that of minority professors, and students regularly protest the lack of minority faculty members, calling on administrators to try harder to recruit them. Several universities have staged high-profile recruitment efforts, with mixed results. Duke University, for example, after failing in the late 1980s to achieve its goal of substantially increasing the number of minority professors, has just announced that it has doubled the number of black faculty members in the past 10 years. (It now has 88, compared with 44 in 1993.)

Still, even Duke officials acknowledge that their gains are other institutions' losses. Nationwide, the proportion of people from minority groups who receive Ph.D.'s and go on to jobs in the professoriate is strikingly low compared with the corresponding proportion of white Americans. And no one seems to have come up with a way to fix the problem. "There has been every effort I can imagine that smart people can think of that's been tried," says Glenn C. Loury, a black economist at Boston University. "The results have been very, very modest."

In 2001, according to the National Science Foundation, black Americans earned only 6 percent of the 40,744 doctorates nationwide; Hispanic Americans earned 4.4 percent, and American Indians just 0.5 percent. Within the ranks of full-time faculty members, the minority proportion is even lower. African-Americans represent 5 percent of all full-time faculty members, and half of them work at historically black institutions. The proportion of black faculty members at predominantly white institutions is 2.3 percent, the same as 20 years ago. Meanwhile, Hispanic Americans represent less than 3 percent of all full-time professors, and American Indians only 0.4 percent.

With figures like those, Mr. Cole and Ms. Barber didn't have any trouble getting support for their study. Each of the eight members of the Council of Ivy Group Presidents kicked in $10,000, Mellon put up $400,000, and the Ford Foundation $75,000.

One of the study's most surprising findings is that high-achieving minority students are just as likely as high-achieving white students to be interested in the professoriate. About 10 percent of college seniors in the sample from each racial group identified "university professor" as the profession they were most likely to pursue.

But the researchers found that, for minority students, undergraduate grades got in the way of those aspirations. Only 19 percent of African-American students had GPA's of A or Añ, leaving just 65 black students with top grades in the sample of 1,518 who selected academe as their most likely career. Forty-three percent of white students, 40 percent of Asian students, and 27 percent of Hispanic students earned GPA's of A or Añ.

"Students with higher grades are more likely to want to become college professors and physicians," the authors write. "Students with lower grades are more likely to want to become businesspeople and teachers . . . Our data show that if African-Americans and Latinos had the same grade distribution of white students, there would be a meaningful increase in the proportion selecting academia as a first-choice career."

Grades Get in the Way

The study considers a range of reasons that black and Hispanic students might earn lower grades than white and Asian students. It did find that because of negative stereotypes about their ability, minority students performed more poorly in the classroom than might have been expected, given their scores on standardized tests. "Negative racial stereotyping increases test anxiety and thus performance for those minority students who care most about school," the book says.

It also considers the possibility that discrimination affects students' performance. But because undergraduates in the survey who reported being discriminated against received grades no lower than those who reported no discrimination, the authors quickly conclude that there is no evidence of bias: "We found no evidence to support the hypothesis that professors discriminate against African-American or Latino students in their grading."

More important, says the book, affirmative action directs minority students to elite institutions where they are underqualified and likely to earn lower grades than white students. "Because of affirmative action, these African-Americans ... are admitted to schools where, on average, white students' [SAT] scores are substantially higher," the authors write. "Not surprisingly, in this kind of competitive situation, African-Americans get relatively low grades."

For example, among African-American students in the sample who scored 1300 or higher on the SAT, only 12 percent of those attending liberal-arts colleges and 28 percent of those in the Ivy League had GPA's of Añ or better, compared with 44 percent of those at state universities and 55 percent at historically black institutions. The obvious conclusion is that, without affirmative action, black and other minority students would go to less-prestigious colleges -- where they would earn better grades and be more likely to pursue graduate degrees.

Mr. Cole concludes that the shortage of minority-group professors is a problem of supply, not demand. There simply are not enough minority Ph.D.'s to satisfy faculty-recruitment efforts, the book says. It even posits that colleges and universities can, at best, "make only a small dent in these problems."

And it notes that a chief argument for diversifying the professoriate -- to provide more role models for minority students -- doesn't hold up. In his study, Mr. Cole found that role models in general have relatively small influence on students' interest in becoming professors. What's more, he found, a role model's race and gender made virtually no difference to students. "Apparently African-American male students are no more influenced to select academia as a career by having an African-American role model than by having a white role model," says the book. "These data cast serious doubt on the validity of one of the arguments used to support racial preferences in the hiring of college and university faculty."

Mr. Cole's book does offer several recommendations: Elite colleges should try harder to interest minority undergraduates in academic careers and should give preference in admissions to those who say they are more interested in becoming professors than in becoming physicians. And high-school guidance counselors should encourage minority students to attend not "the most prestigious school they can get into," but "a school where he or she is likely to do well academically."

Those conclusions sound good to many opponents of affirmative action, who are taking the book as confirmation of what they've maintained all along. "It sounds like this book is concluding that much of the conservative critique of racial and ethnic preferences is accurate," says Roger B. Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has published studies on the gap in achievement between minority students and white students who are admitted to certain colleges. "It stands to reason that if you let in one group according to lower academic standards than another, you would expect the group admitted under the lesser bar not to perform as well."

Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, agrees: "If admitting people preferentially means, as they are suggesting, that they [minorities] don't get as good an education, then this is clearly a major failing of preferential admissions." He calls the book a "devastating critique of racial preferences."

A Study With Different Results

Mr. Cole's conclusions directly contradict those of a widely heralded 1998 book by Derek Bok, a former Harvard president, and William G. Bowen, president of the Mellon foundation, that strongly endorse affirmative action. That book, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press), was based on a study of 45,184 students. It says black undergraduates who attend elite institutions get better jobs after graduation and earn more money than do black students with similar standardized-test scores who attend less prestigious universities.

Although it is possible that affirmative action may reduce the likelihood that minority students will become professors, Mr. Bok says that should not be the only consideration in evaluating it. "We are getting a lot of very clear benefits out of the affirmative-action program," he says. "Graduates are earning more money, they are very happy with their college experience, and on the whole they're doing better, even though we may not have solved the particular problem yet of insufficient numbers of minorities earning Ph.D.'s." Some black academics themselves say guiding minority students to less-elite institutions would have dire consequences.

"Telling people they shouldn't go to such a prestigious school is ending their opportunities," says Bridget Terry Long, an assistant professor of economics in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. She earned a bachelor's degree from Princeton in 1995 and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard five years later. "Going to Princeton and having certain mentors there who had directly worked with professors at Harvard immensely helped my application," Ms. Long says. "Had I been a top student at a less-prestigious institution, I never would have gotten into" Harvard's graduate program.

By contending that minority students' poor grades are what keeps them out of academic careers, Mr. Cole's book unfairly blames the students themselves for the lack of diversity in the professoriate, say some academics. After all, why should minority students be blamed for their poor performance when equally poor performance doesn't necessarily harm white students? "Even if you get a 2.0 at Yale, you, too, can be president of the United States," says Walter R. Allen, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Mr. Allen, who read an early draft of the book, says it lets universities off the hook -- both in terms of discrimination and in terms of their efforts to diversify the faculty. "It is blatantly indefensible to suggest that black and Latino students never experience discrimination in grading," he says. "There are stereotypes about their abilities and subterranean animosity towards these kids by professors.”

He also believes that universities are fooling themselves if they think they're doing everything they can to recruit black professors. "Everyone wants to hire William Julius Wilson, who outranks the people who are trying to hire him," Mr. Allen says in reference to the Harvard sociologist. "But if they can't get Wilson, then all of a sudden there's not a qualified black person in sociology."

Carol M. Swain is one black academic who relates to some of the new book's findings. A professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University, she believes that affirmative action can hurt not just young minority students but also minority professors.

As an undergraduate, Ms. Swain started out at a community college, then earned her bachelor's degree from Roanoke College before moving to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her doctorate. "I believe the success I enjoyed that built my confidence as a student wouldn't have been there had I been misplaced early on," she says.

But her meteoric rise after graduate school -- she was hired as an assistant professor at Princeton -- nearly doomed her academic career, she says. She felt like an "outsider" who was there because of her race, not her qualifications, and she nearly dropped out of academe altogether. "It's not discrimination so much as an environment where you feel like you'll never fit. I felt like when I won the same awards and prizes as white scholars, they were suddenly devalued."

Ms. Swain moved to Vanderbilt in 2000 in part, she says, because "it's a place where I don't think people will say, She's only in her job because of affirmative action."




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