Mobbing For Preferences

Peter Wood

On Tuesday, September 13, a mob of University of Wisconsin students overpowered the staff and swarmed into a room at the Madison Doubletree Hotel where Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, was giving a press conference on the release of two new reports from his organization. The fracas was covered by the local newspapers and television; featured on The O’Reilly Factor as part of an interview with CEO chairman Linda Chavez; written about by several essayists; and subject to considerably blogging, notably by University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse and Brooklyn College history professor KC JohnsonInstapundit Glenn Reynolds linked to the story, which is now widely known though, interestingly, it was not covered by The New York Times, or other major news outlets. The Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned it as a minor item in its breaking news update, The Ticker.  The Wisconsin State Journal covered the event (“Swift Reaction to Report,” September 13) noting in a subheading “Students storm news conference.”

What actually happened last week?

The immediate occasion was the release of CEO’s two reports, Racial and Ethnic Preferences in Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, (The report is available as a PDF here:  DOWNLOAD University of Wisconsin Study)  and Racial and Ethnic Preferences in Admission at the University of Wisconsin Law School (The report is available as a PDF here:  DOWNLOAD University of Wisconsin Law School Study).

The press conference was held at 11:00. By then, word had already reached the organizers of the event that a group was planning a disruptive protest. They alerted the hotel, which closed its front doors as well as the doors of the conference room and posted staff to guard them. The protestors gathered outside the hotel where they remained for a period chanting slogans. One of their number, however, sneaked into the building through the kitchen and made his way to the hotel entrance, where he opened the front doors from inside. The protesters surged into the lobby.

At that point their chanting became audible in the conference room but wasn’t loud enough to disrupt the closed-door proceedings. At about 11:45, however, someone opened the doors to the conference and the sound of the chants drowned out attendees who were trying to ask questions.

Roger Clegg at that point had finished the formal part of the press conference and was talking with some students who had attended it. But just as the event was adjourning, the students outside pushed past the hotel staff, some of whom were thrown to the ground. The mob poured into the room, and Clegg, accompanied by University of Wisconsin Professor Lee Hansen and two members of the hotel staff, struggled through it to the exit, and, accompanied by protestors, to the hotel elevator. Several of the protestors prevented the elevator doors from closing until the two hotel staff members pushed them back.

I base this account on news reports, video, and what Roger Clegg and Lee Hansen have told me.

No one appears to have been hurt and I’ve seen no report of property being damaged. Though protesters broke a variety of laws, no one was arrested. Some of the protesters remained in the hotel until later in the day when they were finally removed by the Madison police.

The general manager of the Doubletree Hotel, Rom Ziarnk, issued his own press statement describing what had happened:

Unfortunately, when escorting meeting attendees out of the hotel through a private entrance, staff were then rushed by a mob of protestors, throwing employees to the ground. The mob became increasingly physically violent when forcing themselves into the meeting room where the press conference had already ended, filling it over fire-code capacity. Madison police arrived on the scene after the protestors had stormed the hotel.

Later that day, Clegg participated in another event, a debate at the University of Wisconsin’s Union South, attended by 850 people. UW law professor Larry Church spoke in defense of the university’s racial and ethnic admissions preferences and Clegg called the preferences “a recipe for disaster.” Though there were boos and catcalls, security at the debate was tight and there was no mob behavior.

Behind the Mob

The invasion of the news conference was a planned event, egged on by University of Wisconsin Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate Damon Williams. On Monday before the news conference, Williams posted an “Important Invitation to Students” on the university’s “Creating Community” Web site.  The message in its entirety said:

September 12, 2011

Dear Students,

This afternoon a troubling communication was brought to my attention that involves a threat to our diversity efforts.  I invite you to an urgent meeting this evening at 8:00 in the MSC Lounge in the Red Gym to discuss this matter.  While last minute, I urge you to participate so we can be in community regarding our response.


Vice Provost Damon A. Williams

The online student newspaper, The Badger Herald, reported 1:21 a.m. Tuesday morning that “a crowd of more than 150 students” responded to Williams’s “ominous message” by showing up at the Red Gym, where they were met by Williams and Dean of Students Lori Berquam. They characterized the CEO reports as a “coordinated attack” against the campus. According to the reporter, Williams urged the students to mobilize and told them, “Don’t wait for us to show the way.”

Williams also told the students, “CEO has one mission and one mission only: dismantle the gains that were achieved by the civil-rights movement.”

It is unclear whether Williams had a direct hand in setting up the details of the mob action, but it is plain, as Professor Hansen told me, that Williams and other university officials did nothing “to discourage” the students.

Perhaps in classic “community organizer” fashion, Williams set them in motion to engage in mob tactics while stopping short of giving them explicit instructions or warning them to act within the bounds of the law. Williams attended the news conference himself but left the room shortly before the mob invaded. He appears late in the video of the event shown on The O’Reilly Factor as he emerges from the room pumping his fist in what looks like a “go get ‘em” signal to the protesters. After the students had taken over the conference room and were using it to make their own speeches, Williams tweeted his praise of the protesters from his official university account:

Back in Bascom. Students were awesome. Big ups to @sou11stress for live tweets. DAW

This is to say that Williams’ subsequent denials of involvement look tenuous. The day after the event, Williams told an interviewer, the university “never want[s] students to cross legal boundaries.”


The Center for Equal Opportunity has spent many years fighting against the use of racial preferences in college admissions. To do this, it typically seeks data from colleges and universities, which typically throw all sorts of obstacles in the way.

The Wisconsin case goes back to 1998, when the then head of the National Association of Scholars Wisconsin affiliate, Professor J. Marshall Osborn, filed a freedom of information request asking for data on racial preferences in admissions at the University of Wisconsin. He was rebuffed and filed again the next year. Eventually, Osborn and CEO together filed a lawsuit to enforce the FOI request. They were fought to a standstill in one case; but prevailed in a decision by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin in April 2002.  The court ordered the University to comply with the FOI request. The text of that decision, including the court’s summary of the lengthy proceedings, is here. CEO did not immediately take advantage of the court ruling, but eventually asked for the data, and the university complied. The CEO reports are based on an analysis of that data.

They show that the University of Wisconsin employs an astonishing level of racial preferences in both undergraduate and law-school admissions. The reports need to be read in their entirety, but the broad picture is that on significant measures of college preparedness—SAT scores, ACT scores, and high-school rank—the median scores of black and Hispanic admittees were far worse than those of white and Asian admittees. The black/white SAT gap for median scores for the years of the study (2007 and 2008) was 150 points. The Hispanic/white SAT median score gap was 100 points. CEO calculated the probabilities of admission for “a male applicant with a composite ACT score and class rank equal to the median for black admittees” and found the probability of admission for such a black or Hispanic in-state student to be 100 percent; for an Asian student, 41 percent; and a white student 38 percent.

The odds ratios of individuals with identical academic credentials being admitted to undergraduate study at the University of Wisconsin were 576 to one if the applicant were black and 1,494 to one if the applicant were Hispanic. The report tries to put these odd ratios into perspective by comparing them to the relative odds of a smoker and a non-smoker dying from lung cancer: 14 to 1.

These preferences amount not to a thumb on the scale for minority applicants, but a fully-loaded dump truck.

Being admitted to the University of Wisconsin with such preferences isn’t an especially good deal for the admittees. As The Chronicle’s Ticker writer pointed out:

report last year by the Education Trust said the Madison campus had one of the highest gaps in black-white graduation rates of any of the 293 public colleges it examined, with about 81 percent of white students and 58 percent of black students graduating within six years.

Naturally, officials at the University of Wisconsin don’t regard these facts as troubling—just their public release.

Side Story

These events add up to three scandals: the University of Wisconsin’s shameless use of racial preferences; the role of a high university official in inciting a mob; and the actions of the mob itself.

It seems odd, therefore, that the immediate controversy turned on whether the word “mob” is a correct description of the students who violently broke into the conference room at the hotel, illegally occupied it, and attempted to prevent the departure of the speaker.

Michael Olneck, professor emeritus of education and sociology, has busied himself writing letters to newspapers disputing the hotel manager’s description of the mob as a mob:

I attended the press conference and was in the main lobby afterward. There was no “mob” that was “physically violent.” There was an organized group whose loud chanting forced an end to the press conference, and which attempted to enter the conference room after the doors were open.

The student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal added in its editorial preface to a statement by Linda Chavez:

While we agree that civility must be respected when debating the issue of racial discrimination by both sides, describing the recent protestors as a “mob” and “thuggish” is both extremely offensive and a gross exaggeration of the events on Tuesday.  Portraying the entirety of student reaction as negative is an inaccurate generalization and undermines the valid complaints of many students.

Such exquisitely calibrated sensitivity!

What’s Next?

One would have to be very naïve to think that the University of Wisconsin will be moved by the two CEO reports to mend its admissions policies; or that it will hold Vice Provost Williams and Dean Berquam accountable for abusing their authority; or that it will discipline the students involved. There is in Williams’ subsequent statements a glow of satisfaction that things came off very much as he hoped. And the absence of broader press coverage points to the usual fate of such stories. They are just too awkward to fit with the official narrative of how “diversity” enriches American higher education. When we think of diversity, we are not supposed to think of gross discrepancies in admissions standards, unfairness to applicants, and “mismatches” between admittees and institutional standards, let alone flash mobs organized to intimidate critics, or university officials purveying falsehoods to whip students into taking illegal actions.

So what happens next? Maybe nothing at the level of University of Wisconsin administrators, but the story feeds that other narrative that informs most of what I write about on the Innovations’ blog: the rapidly growing cultural defection of many Americans from higher education. It is a defection driven by the recognition that our colleges and universities are antagonistic to basic American values of fairness and equality. Many in higher education, of course, pride themselves on being champions of these very values, but they get to that pride by redefining the terms in ways that most Americans regard as nonsensical. “Fairness” achieved by racial classifications, quotas, and subterfuges that institutions struggle to keep out of public view is not fairness. “Equality” that is defined by reducing people to identity group affiliations is not equality.

The University of Wisconsin can wait for the immediate controversy to blow over, but at a deeper level it is squandering public trust and, ultimately, public support. And that will make a difference. State Representative Steve Nass, who chairs the Assembly’s Colleges and Universities Committee, says the CEO study “provides a basis for a legislative oversight hearing on UW-Madison’s questionable and possibly illegal admissions process. My committee will likely conduct such a hearing in the near future.” Governor Walker is surely watching too.

This article was originally published on September 22, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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