Tuesday Temptations

Ashley Thorne

Inside a Jiggle Elephant

 A story in the New York Times science section today draws attention to the work of Satre Stuelke, an “artist-turned-medical-student” who uses x-ray technology to scan, not body parts, but everyday objects. Stuelke scans toasters, Big Macs, and remote control airplanes to create a collection of images and videos he calls “radiology art.” His x-ray of a toy elephant reveals the machine inside that makes it jiggle at a pull of the tail. His image of a 1950s rubber duck shows an internal metal squeaker.

Stuelke said that he hopes his art prompts people to “think about how things are constructed.”

We at NAS wonder if Stuelke’s institution, Weill Cornell Medical College, will ever come out with a scanner large enough to scan entire universities. They could use a little more transparency.


Stereotype Threat and the SAT

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education published “Affirmative-Action Programs for Minority Students: Right in Theory, Wrong in Practice.” The article, written by four sociology professors who have written a forthcoming book, intended to debunk arguments against racial preferences in higher education. It begins: 

The use of race-sensitive criteria in admissions continues to be controversial, and critics have leveled three basic charges against it.

For one, opponents say the practice constitutes reverse discrimination, lowering the chance of admission for better-qualified white students. They also contend that it creates a mismatch between the skills of minority students and the abilities required for success at selective institutions, setting those students up for academic problems. And they claim that it stigmatizes minority students as less than fully qualified, which results in demoralization and substandard performance, when in fact those students may be well qualified.

This third claim is how affirmative activists define “stereotype threat,” which the authors also call “subjective performance burden.” The idea is that black and Hispanic students are so worried they will fulfill a negative racial stereotype that they are distracted by anxiety and perform poorly on standardized tests. If they had not been feeling the pressure to prove the stereotype wrong, their minds would be freed up for successful test-taking. For this reason, these authors and others recommend abolishing the SAT. They don’t come right out and say that. The euphemism is:

Rather, the results imply that as currently administered by selective institutions, the application of race-sensitive admissions criteria appears to create a stigmatizing setting and should be reconsidered. Indeed, if the way affirmative action is administered and framed can be changed so as to mitigate the stigma now being created, its negative academic effects might disappear.

Mary Grabar, writing at Minding the Campus, has further examined the movement to marginalize the SAT.

Another negative academic effect that the authors bump up against is that when minority students are placed in special, racialized remedial programs upon arrival at college, they do not “live up to their academic potential.” The authors call for colleges to label such programs “nonremedial” to make the stigma disappear.

Roger Clegg has responded to this article’s weak arguments in a timely posting at Phi Beta Cons. He concludes: “The best way to ensure that black and Hispanic students not fear that they have been admitted because of their ethnicity would be for them to know that, in fact, they were not admitted because of their ethnicity.”

One more item of note: the professors of sociology who wrote the Chronicle article cite Derek Bok and William Bowen’s book The Shape of the River as the final authority disproving the “mismatch hypothesis,” the argument that minorities admitted through affirmative action are often unable to succeed in demanding academic institutions.

Bowen and Bok’s book claims that racial preferences in elite colleges work as advertised: the minority students who receive the preferences thrive; the colleges benefit; and society is better off. In her majority opinion, Justice O’Connor relied heavily on the arguments put forth by Bowen and Bok in The Shape of the River, and yet, until recently, no one has systematically examined their arguments and so-called “evidence.”

But this year, Larry Purdy, one of the three lawyers from the Minneapolis law firm Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand who represented Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter in the U.S. Supreme Court cases Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, published a new book entitled Getting Under the Skin of ‘Diversity’ which definitively dismantles Bok and Bowen’s assumptions. To read more about Purdy’s book, click here. To purchase Getting Under the Skin of ‘Diversity,’ click here.


Is it Really Just Luck?

Ever feel like nothing you do really matters? If you’re applying to colleges, you might be justified in that presentiment.

Today Chad Aldeman writes “The Admissions Lottery” at Inside Higher Ed:

Students will soon be receiving word from their chosen colleges and universities, but as more students apply to more colleges than ever before, the joy of acceptance or the agony of rejection are increasingly random. It's time to stop treating the college admissions process as we have in the past, and start treating it as it's become: a lottery.


Selective colleges did not mean for this to happen; rather, they are victims of their own success, along with the emergence of a truly national higher education market and the rise of a rankings-driven consumer culture. But, there is no going back now, so colleges should embrace the unavoidable randomness and go from a lottery-like system to a true lottery.

Aldeman notes that in many admissions departments, officers can afford to spend only about 10 minutes on each application, rendering the process essentially arbitrary. He proposes that each institution set a threshold “based on high school grades and SAT score” and students who want to enter the nationwide roulette can pay a flat fee. The gamble, says Aldeman, has inherent benefits:

A lottery would increase opportunity for students who lack social connections, and a lottery would make it impossible for colleges to favor candidates unlikely to need financial aid over those who do. It would also reduce the perceived stigma of non-acceptance, and thus the terrible pressure that many high school students face. It would create an objective baseline for each institution, end the pretension that college admissions are non-random, and focus institutional missions back where they belong: teaching and preparing students to be productive members of society.

It’s encouraging that, unlike the sociology professors advocating affirmative action, Aldeman wants to keep the SAT. It’s also interesting to realize that in his admissions lottery, racial preferences would disappear. Or would it? Wouldn’t the whole system just be a giant robot of collectivism? Where is the incentive to try in high school beyond the baseline?

Also, in the current system, admissions offices ask for a lot more than grades and SATs. Applications require essays, recommendations, and extra-curricular activities (sports, summer jobs, community service). Admissions [supposedly] looks at whether the student took advanced courses, whether he starred in the school play, and whether he became an Eagle Scout. A lottery would disregard all these now-relevant aspects of students’ applications. Perhaps that’s not a bad idea. College-bound students today are snowed under with excess commitments deemed necessary for admission into selective institutions.

Aldeman compares the proposed lottery with the matching program to place medical students in residency. Last week on match day 2009, my friend and her husband were overjoyed to receive their first choice. I was thankful that the Matchmaker didn’t fail my friends. But would it be so agreeable for college admissions across the board?

NAS stands on the principle of individual merit and we are inclined to look warily on the lottery scheme. Yet we’d like to hear from you, dear readers. Will education be better off with a game of luck or skill? Bingo or basketball?


We’re Not Just Sustainable, We’re Immortal

The Chronicle reports one match that remains secure: colleges won’t be separated from their sustainability directors. At a time when layoffs are happening in most departments, many institutions are still hiring to fill positions in sustainability. One reason for this is financial. Dedee DeLongpré-Johnston, a sustainability officer who is moving from the University of Florida to Wake Forest University, said that the job security is an example of “‘the magic of being on soft money,’ noting that her position is supported through grants and other private funds.” And sustainability is reputed as a money-saving, energy-efficient effort.

But another reason is hidden in this sentence: “Whether or not colleges are creating director positions or replacing people who are leaving might be an indication of how seriously those colleges regard their commitment to sustainability.” Translation: any change to downsize a sustainability program can instantly sink a college in the Slough of Despond. Higher education has enmeshed itself in a system where sustainability programs (like diversity and social justice initiatives) are essentially a badge of academic immortality. If you’re in, you’re in for good. If you try to get out, you’ll only sink deeper.

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