Affirmative Spoils

Peter Wood

Affirmative Spoils

The National Association of Scholars supports affirmative action as it was originally conceived. The term was first popularized by President John F. Kennedy, whose Executive Order 10925 in 1961 was meant to establish equal employment opportunity: “The contractor will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” The words without regard to are the key.

Four years after JFK issued his order, however, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided that equal opportunity was “not enough.” Actually he said it twice, “not enough, not enough,” puffing away like the Little Engine That Couldn’t: “We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result...To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough, not enough.”

“Equality as a result,” proved to be a mischievous phrase with a durable life. It was one thing to knock down racial barriers, but how do we go about achieving “equality as a result?” How do we even know what “equality as a result” would look like? Therein lay the potential for the body of tortuous law, academic hair-splitting, racial spoils, and psychological intimidation that became the more familiar meaning of “affirmative action.” 

From Johnson’s equality-of-results speech to the 2003 decision of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in Grutter v. Bollinger (the Supreme Court case where diversity was deemed to be a “compelling interest” in education), affirmative action has been taken as having the opposite of its original meaning. NAS believes that the original “affirmative action” mandating non-discrimination is the right way to approach higher education because it offers the only path to real equal opportunity. The problems that naturally arise from racial preferences hurt academia as a whole and more and more people are now finally realizing this.



Scott Jaschik’s article in Inside Higher Ed today follows four Duke University scholars (three economists and one sociologist) who are concerned about the mismatch theory—the theory that a minority student admitted on the basis of race will falter academically at an elite university. Mismatch between the institution’s level of rigor and the student’s aptitude seems inevitable at universities that use racial preferences to admit those who may be less academically prepared.

The Duke scholars have released a paper, “Does Affirmative Action Lead to Mismatch? A New Test and Evidence,” that offers a way to determine whether or not mismatch is occurring at a given university. The test they recommend is to ask students who were admitted on the basis of race to predict their GPA for their first year, then to show them how current students in their racial/ethnic group actually fared. The researchers include a chart showing that in fact, Duke students of all races expected higher grades than they actually make.

But the evidence they gathered at Duke, say the researchers, is not enough to tell whether there is a mismatch problem there. They said, “We take a very nuanced view about what ‘mismatch’ should mean: We think it should be measured by whether the minority students are made worse off, in utility terms, by attending elite universities. Since utility cannot and is not captured by any single outcomes, in our formulation mismatch should not be judged from any single outcomes.” Indeed, their test seems a flimsy one. Students in general tend to have over-lofty grade expectations; their forecasts for themselves are probably not a meaningful measure of the grades they should be getting.

The Duke researchers say they are neither for nor against affirmative action but that they simply want to “contribute to the understanding of the implications of affirmative action in admissions practices by proposing new concepts, new tools, and new data sets.” They correctly say that higher education is better off when people understand the consequences of how students are admitted to college.

Richard A. Tapia, a mathematician and professor of computational and applied mathematics at Rice University, has also written (subscription required) recently about the mismatch theory. In his view, colleges are obligated to admit slightly less qualified students in order to achieve “equitable representation,” then work to help those students succeed in school. George Leef of the John William Pope Center responded to Professor Tapia here.

The Duke scholars’ report is available for purchase for $5.


Class Act

Some scholars are debating whether to scrap racial preferences in favor of class-based preferences. In a debate at the Library of Congress last week, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and Columbia President Lee Bollinger argued for the status quo – racial affirmative action. Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow John McWhorter and NYU Sociology Department Chair Dalton Conley argued for class-based preferences. Their proposition would mean that colleges would rework affirmative action to benefit (through admission, separate from financial aid) low-income families regardless of their color.

This idea could have two possible underlying motives. One is the belief that the reason minorities deserve a leg up in higher education is because they are poor. The other is the principle that race should not matter at all in college admissions and that making it a factor only creates a stigma for minority students. McWhorter and Conley seemed to be arguing the latter, and they declared the value of setting high academic standards. But wouldn’t a new angle of favoritism retain the problem of mismatch, stigma, and lowered standards? Preferences are still preferences, and though perhaps seeming less shallow than discrimination based on skin color, class-based affirmative action would carry the same problems.


“This Time the Conservatives Were Right”

Bill Maxwell, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, weighed in on the Virginia Tech diversity policy as set out by VT’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences promotion and tenure guidelines. Maxwell wrote, “As a member of a minority group and as a former college teacher, I wish the Virginia Tech folks had used better judgment and avoided yet another needless battle between liberals and conservatives.” He applauds VT for seeking to correct its error and quotes our opening article about the case, then adds, “But let us be clear. While the NAS accuses Virginia Tech of "political orthodoxy," it is a powerful political group that strongly opposes racial and gender preferences in college admissions and hiring.”

It is nice that someone thinks we are “powerful.” We’ll accept that as an assessment of the quality of our arguments. But NAS, as we have oft repeated, has no political affiliation. As one of us has written, “We are not a political organization, but a body of scholars who hope to sustain a vision of the university as a fundamentally good institution that deserves to be sustained.” We believe that this good institution can only be good if it honors academic integrity and offers equal opportunity.

Maxwell granted that “this time the conservatives were right” and that as a former professor, he would not want to be forced to prove loyalty to diversity. His conclusion shows his willingness to see past group identity and consider the obligations of academic freedom. It’s unfortunate that Maxwell can’t see that NAS seeks to do the same thing.


John Jackson on VT and FIRE

The day after Virginia Tech’s president announced that he was rescinding the promote-diversity-or-else policy, John L. Jackson, professor of communication and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, published a defense of that policy (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Tech?”) on The Chronicle Review. Professor Jackson did not appear to dive too deeply into the published record. He came out swinging with non-sequiturs, mis-identifications of key participants, and an uncritical reliance on the Chronicle’s imperfect reporting. The documentary record was fully available at FIRE, but perhaps it isn’t the best idea to let facts stand in the way of a good rant.

Two days later, Professor Jackson climbed down—somewhat. He was ready to concede that the utterly apolitical FIRE might not be best described as “conservative.” His concession, however, is a model of linguistic stinginess. He confesses he wasn’t “nearly nuanced enough.” And that, “Civil libertarianism is not simplistically reducible to conservativism in all the many ways in which that latter position plays itself out within the academy and beyond.” Get that? Not simplistically reducible. 

The professor of communication certainly has a way with words. Here he is explaining why, despite being materially wrong on every significant point of fact, he is actually right: “Regardless of FIRE’s goals, isn’t the VT move equally intelligible against the backdrop of larger debates within the academy about the place of Affirmative Action?”

The NAS invites readers to submit translations. 


Offending the Diversitarians

Last November, Walter Block, a Loyola New Orleans economics professor and senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, gave an address at Loyola’s Maryland campus. His talk, a critique of the concept of social justice, was covered in an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The article’s author paraphrased Block’s speech, stating that, in considering the cause for the male-female wage gap and the glass ceiling, Block concluded that “women are less productive [than men]” and that “the explanation was the same” when Block was asked why black people are paid less than white people.

Based on this article—not on Block’s speech—a group of faculty and staff members who call themselves the Affirmative Action/Diversity Task Force issued a report that was sent out to the entire academic community. The task force wrote that “it is our responsibility to respond critically to statements made by members of Loyola University that run counter to our commitment to inclusion and that marginalize women and African Americans, a majority of our community.” They continued, “Professor Walter Block's reductionist statements about the productivity of African Americans and women in the marketplace ignore critical factors and structural patterns of inequality. His flawed remarks are dangerous, fueling those with prejudices to confirm their biased views.”

We are not familiar with Professor Block’s speech or his other academic work, but this procedure looks extremely doubtful on its face. Universities do not typically have committees charged with smearing the reputations of faculty members who are alleged to have said controversial things. If academic freedom means anything at all, it means that when faculty members speak on intellectual issues within their disciplines, they should not then face ad hominem attack by an official body of their own institution. 

But it gets worse.

The Affirmative Action/Diversity Task Force did not trouble itself to inquire of Professor Block what he actually said or give him any opportunity to respond to the allegations. It went simply to a public statement of his culpability, and put this in a manner that suggested his low moral character. A man who issues “dangerous” remarks that fuel prejudice clearly has no constructive role to play within an academic community.

Seeing their memo, Professor Block tried to reply but was told he could not post on the university website the task force used. He then contacted the diversity committee. Since none of them had seen his speech and were reacting solely to the article about it, he invited them to attend a second delivery of his speech so that they could hear his arguments in person. He delivered this speech on March 25 at the New Orleans campus and urged the task force to attend. Out of ten, only one of them, Ted Quant, showed up. The next day, Professor Block wrote to Quant asking him these questions:

On the basis of my lecture last night

  1. do you regard me as a sexist?
  2. do you regard me as a racist?
  3. do you think I marginalize my black and female students? (In case you didn’t get the testimonial letters from my students that were given out last night, I take the liberty of attaching them, now.)
  4. had you seen my lecture before the Diversity Task Force Report on me, would you have signed it? If not,
  5. do you, in retrospect, now regret signing, that letter? If so
  6. will you publicly renounce your signature on that letter, and thus disassociate yourself from it?

Nearly a month later, Quant has still not replied. Now Professor Block is asking the rest of the diversity task force to watch the video of his speech and respond to these questions. Block is tired of being blocked. He wants to clear his name of accusations from within his own university. If you have two hours to spare, take a look at his lecture and see if you can answer his questions. Block’s own account of this misadventure is here

He starts it by listing his accusers—a list that bears inspection. The members of the Loyola University Affirmative Action/ Diversity Task Force are: 

Ted Quant (Twomey Center), Lydia Voigt (Sociology), Wing Fok (Management), Lisa Martin (Mass Communication), Alvaro Alcazar (Twomey Center), James Hobbs (University Library), Kurt Bindewald (University Ministry), Artemis Preeshl (Theater Arts and Dance), Karen Reichard (Women’s Resource Center), Anthony Decuir (Music and Fine Arts). 

He abbreviated the name of the Twomey Center. It is properly called the Twomey Center for Peace through Justice. We await the justice.



More than forty years after President Johnson launched his revised form “affirmative action” focused on equality of results, the policy continues to vex American life in general and the university in particular. The current battles spread out in too many directions to allow a simple assessment of where things are going. One point seems clear: the larger struggle is no longer about equality of opportunity or results. It is about the power of experts and bureaucracies to impose their will. Frequently they employ a rhetoric that invokes some of the old language of “justice,” but the reality seems to be that are concerned mostly with preserving their own capacity to decide who gets what. Affirmative action in general has become a spoils system that serves the purposes of the people who run it far more than its supposed beneficiaries. 



  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

June 5, 2024


Subpoenas for All!

Ohio Northern University gnaws its teeth with an appetite for vindictive lawfare....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...