Virtuoso Violinists Beware Texas

Peter Wood

Diversiphiles and promoters of racial preferences in college admissions have struggled for years to find ways around inconvenient legal obstacles to their wish to engineer the composition of college classes. In March 1996, the Fifth Federal District Court of Appeals handed down a decision in Hopwood v. Texas that prohibited racial preferences in college admissions. With the support of then Governor Bush, Texas then adopted a brand new approach aimed at increasing the number of minority students in state colleges and universities without using outright race-based preferences. The new law mandated that the top ten percent of every graduating class of every high school in Texas be automatically admitted to a Texas public university.

The idea had immediate appeal, and soon Florida and California adopted versions of it—except California opted for 4 percent. 

The law has had mostly predictable consequences. Students in the top 11th percent of their classes feel the sting of an arbitrary standard. Students attending highly competitive high schools realize perfectly well that they are penalized for not attending one-room school houses in the Davy Crockett National Forest. And some have complained that the rule makes no allowance for student not in the top ten percent of their classes but who have special talents. The president of the University of Texas at Austin, William C. Powers, Jr., laments the “virtuoso violinists, brilliant mathematicians, gifted poets, [and] computer-science wizards,” who are left behind—presumably in the top 12th and 13th percents of their classes. (Why exactly UT can’t admit them anyway is unclear.) And racial preffies worry that too many white students are receiving a benefit that ought to go to minorities.

Justice O’Connor’s majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger in June 2003 changed the picture somewhat. O’Connor ruled—contrary to Hopwood—that state universities could use racial preferences justified on the basis of “diversity.” The administration at the University of Texas at Austin saw an opening and went for it. UT almost immediately adopted racial preferences in addition to the ten percent rule. This move, however, seems to have satisfied no one. The inequities of the ten percent rule persist, and UT’s additional racial preferences are, in the view of the preference crowd, just not enough. One sip of preferences leaves you thirsting for more. And virtuoso violinists still did not catch a break.

It is possible to look at these rule changes as cynically motivated by people who are playing identity politics, but it is also possible that Texas just wanted to play nice on the playground. Analysts have been analyzing which rule maximizes the dueling priorities: quality and diversity. Texas has teetered from affirmative action to a top-ten-percent-policy, to a tottering in between position of both-at-once. Racial preferences ensure “diversity” (of one kind) but reduce quality and fairness. Ten-percent rules guarantee a roughshod sort of fairness, but reduce academic quality. Ten-percent rules have a mixed record on increasing minority enrollments. 

Almost everyone agrees that intellectual diversity—a diversity of perspectives—

is a valuable part of higher education.   But how exactly does diversity of perspectives connect to diversity of ethnic, racial, or high school backgrounds? Ten percent rules make a double assumption: that differences in “high school background” can produce the racial and ethnic mix the policy gurus deem appropriate, and that a selection of top ten-percenters from all around Texas will produce an enlivening mixture of different perspectives. For the sake of argument, wouldn’t one down-easter from Maine produce more “diversity” at UT than two dozen students from different corners of Texas, but taught the same Texas history (and a scattering of other subjects) from the same state-approved textbooks? 

Texas, sad to say, just lacks diversity. 

The topic comes up at this moment because the see-saw is teetering again. Two white students have filed a suit in U.S. District Court to challenge the validity of UT’s racial preferences. They say the ten-percent rule is doing all that’s needed to achieve “diversity.” Meanwhile, the Texas legislature will be mulling bills aimed at retiring the ten percent rule altogether. 

Thanks to Justice O’Connor, there is no end in sight for these college admission follies. It would be nice to think that someday, Texas and the other 49 states will try a different experiment, one involving admitting students on the basis of academic talent, self-discipline, foresight, and commitment to learning. And nothing else. Well, maybe violin virtuosity. 

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