Was Teresa Sullivan an Affirmative Action Hire?

John Rosenberg

Was Teresa Sullivan, the embattled ex-president (and as I write this perhaps the soon to be next president) of the University of Virginia, an affirmative action hire? Will she be if she’s rehired?

No, of course not, reasonable people will exclaim, pointing reasonably to her impressive curriculum vitae packed with high-level university leadership positions — Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University of Texas System; Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor — as well as demonstrated academic success as a professor of sociology (and law at Texas) with an extensive record of publication, along with numerous awards for both scholarship and teaching.

But I like to ask the question anyway, for two reasons: 1) Many of my friends here in Charlottesville, being liberal, are not so reasonable, and I enjoy (this does not speak well of me) watching them sputter with such indignation at the very idea that anyone would suggest such a thing that it accidentally reveals what they, like Sullivan’s co-author Elizabeth Warren with her similar self-righteous denials, must really think of those who actually are affirmative action hires, and more seriously, 2) If you look more closely at Sullivan’s c.v. you will see that a considerable proportion of both her administrative and scholarly career has been deeply involved with promoting affirmative action and then preserving as much of it as possible after successful political and legal efforts to eliminate or restrict it. She is not, I think, an affirmative action hire in the sense of having needed or received bonus points based on her gender, but she is a product of American higher education’s fixation on affirmative action nevertheless.

I have seen no evidence in all the reporting about the current crisis at UVa that Sullivan’s extensive record as a committed and engaged proponent of racial preference has played any role at all — either in her hiring, firing, or possible re-hiring. Indeed, “diversity” is the dog that has not barked during this entire controversy. But perhaps it should, not only because feeding and protecting it has been such a prominent part of Sullivan’s career but also because the next president of UVa, like the president of every selective institution, will in all likelihood have to come to terms with a Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas that either eliminates or significantly narrows the “diversity” loophole through which academic diversicrats have been driving the locomotive of discriminatory racial preference for a generation.

Sullivan is clearly one of the leading and most experienced “diversity” engineers driving that locomotive. Indeed, the Fisher case now teed up at the Supreme Court and the challenge to Michigan’s Proposition 2, modeled after California’s Prop. 209 that banned racial preferences and now before the Sixth Circuit, are both covered from tip to toe with Sullivan’s fingerprints.

As a top official at Texas, with appointments in both Sociology and the Law School, Sullivan was responsible for overseeing affirmative action, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Fifth Circuit in Hopwood in 1996 (her husband, Douglas Laycock, then a law professor at Texas, later at Michigan, and now at UVa, was a prominent member of the defense team). Friends at Texas who are true believers in affirmative action, by the way, told me at the time that losing Hopwood was not as big a blow to them as the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case. They would much prefer to have lost in the Supreme Court, which would have had the effect of banning preferences nationally, than in effect having it banned just for them, leaving their competitors at Michigan, Virginia, etc., free to offer preferential treatment to their heart’s content. Perhaps the Court will do with Fisher what it didn’t do with Hopwood, undoing what it did in Grutter.

After Hopwood prohibited its race-based affirmative action, Texas, as most readers know, implemented its top ten percent plan. Sullivan, as the top academic officer in the system, was heavily involved, and she published extensively about it. That plan was successful in producing pre-Hopwood levels of “diversity,” if not more, and was race neutral on its face (if not in intent), thus complying with the invitation in Grutter to use such means where possible. Nevertheless, as the Fisher brief by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor point out, “The University of Texas promised, with reflexive alacrity, to restore race as an admissions factor within hours after Grutter was issued.” As the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs for the University of Texas system when that announcement was made, a good deal of that “alacrity” was no doubt provided by Teresa Sullivan.

In a 2003 article she wrote with Princeton’s Marta Tienda and others she explained that “the top ten percent admission policy is not an alternative to affirmative action” (italics in original) because “the demographic profile of the two public flagships has failed to keep pace with the growth of minority groups among college-age students.” Race-based preferential treatment — or as Sullivan, Tienda, et al. put it observing the protocols of political correctness, “race-sensitive admissions” — was still needed in order to produce racial proportionality. As her husband explained succinctly to the New York Times, “‘The growth of the minority population in Texas has covered up the failure of the 10 percent plan,’ Mr. Laycock said."

Perhaps ironically (or maybe just a case of chickens coming home to roost), this emphasis on making the UT student body reflect more closely “the demographic profile” of the state may contribute as much, or more, to any Supreme Court rejection of what Sullivan wrought in Texas than the fact that the top ten percent plan produced sufficient diversity without race preferences. Even Grutter described “outright racial balancing” as “patently unconstitutional,” and in Parents Involved Chief Justice Roberts noted that a fatal flaw of the “racial balance” sought by the school districts is that it was defined “solely by reference to the demographics of the respective school districts.”

When Sullivan arrived as provost at Michigan in 2006 she must have feared (correctly, as it turned out) that history was about to repeat itself: the citizens of that state were poised to vote in November on Prop. 2, a constitutional amendment that would ban preferential treatment based on race. At her very first meeting with the Michigan faculty,

Sullivan cited two reasons why she thinks diversity in higher education would suffer if Michigan voters ban affirmative action programs in November.

First, some minority students might stop applying. Second, those minorities who receive offers of admission might refuse to enroll for fear that they might encounter a hostile environment.

What this says is that it is necessary to discriminate against Asians and whites and others because blacks and Hispanics might  regard a school that didn’t discriminate against them, and in favor of themselves, as “a hostile environment.” I’m not sure which is worse: what this statement says about blacks and Hispanics, or what it says about Sullivan’s own indifference to racial discrimination.

The voters did pass Prop. 2, by a substantial margin, and thus once again Sullivan found herself leading the effort of a major state university to continue promoting race-defined “diversity” in the face of a legal requirement not to hire or admit on the basis of race.

One of her major efforts in that regard was working with the College Board to create a program, Descriptor Plus, to identify “diverse” applicants without overtly using race. A top ten percent plan wouldn’t work in Michigan because not enough high schools had heavy black or Hispanic majorities, but targeted demographic mining could accomplish much the same thing. As described by the Michigan Review,

Descriptor Plus, at a cost of $15,000 per year, will analyze an applicant’s geographic location to place the student in a “cluster.” According to the College Board, they have segmented the entire U.S. population into 180,000 geographic “neighborhoods,” and placed each of these “neighborhoods” into one of 30 clusters, each with unique attributes. Among the included attributes are: mean SAT scores, average parental education levels, percentage of high school graduates entering college, and the percentage of students that are minorities. Using these collected attributes and clusters, U-M hopes preserve current minority enrollment levels while obeying the letter, if not the spirit, of Proposal 2.

In a 2009 scholarly article on this effort Sullivan explained that these demographic indicators are “applied in a holistic admissions evaluation” and “are not simple substitutes for race or ethnicity.”

Of course they are not “simple substitutes for race or ethnicity.” They are complex, expensive substitutes — but, as Shika Dalmia has just pointed out in “Diversity Schemes,” just as clearly dedicated to the “flouting of voter will.”

Another effort to thwart the will of Michigan voters was a lawsuit brought by a thuggish ally of the University, a sometimes violent group aptly named By Any Means Necessary. All during the campaign the University had vigorously and outspokenly opposed Prop. 2, often listing chapter and verse of the good things it would prohibit if passed. As soon as it did pass, however, University officials, including Sullivan, professed confusion over the meaning of “… shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin….” As a brief filed in the case stated,

an affidavit of a University official filed in support of the cross-claim alleged that the language of Section 26 was simply too puzzling to be implemented. See Affidavit of Teresa Sullivan ¶ 18 (attached as Exhibit 4) (“Because of the uncertainty surrounding the implications of Proposal 2 for these types of aid programs generally, immense hardships would ensue ….”)

Even assuming for a moment that Sullivan was really confused by the conventional civil rights language of Prop. 2, the “immense hardships” she envisioned if the University really had to start  treating everyone without regard to their race or ethnicity is as good an indication as any of the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in American universities.

So far no court or irate public has tried to curtail the University of Virginia’s use of racial preferences, which are extensive. (The Fourth Circuit has, however, prohibited race-based scholarships, although when I looked at this issue back in 2005 — in Is The University of Virginia A Racial Scofflaw? — there was considerable evidence that UVa still either awarded them or worked questionably closely with private donors who did.)

Recent data on the extent of racial preference at UVa are hard to come by, but a good deal of older data is more than suggestive. In a thorough and detailed analysis the Center for Equal Opportunity found that in 1999 “the relative odds of admission, controlling for test scores and high-school ranks and also for legacy and in-state resident status,” of a black compared to a white were 111.11 to one. By comparison, the relative odds in favor of in-state applicants was 15.76 to 1 and of legacy applicants was 4.32 to 1. In a similar 2002 study of the UVa law school, CEO found the relative odds of admission of a black over a white applicant for UVA, controlling for other factors, were almost 650 to 1 in 1998 and 730 to 1 in 1999 (the highest in any CEO study).” In ananalysis of the class entering UVa in 2003 presented to the Virginia Association of Scholars, David Armor of George Mason University found that among students with SAT scores between 950 and 1350 70% of black applicants were admitted compared to 25% of white applicants. He also found that for that entering class “[t]he median SAT score for all UVA admissions is 1350, while the average for admitted black students is 1026.” Finally, In Drastic Racial Statistics From UVa, I found that for the class entering in Fall 2005:

  • 7% of the applicants were black;
  • 12.3% of the admits were black;
  • 29.4% of the non-black applicants were admitted;
  • 57.1% of the black applicants were admitted.

It would be nice if either the Board of Visitors or the legislature imposed some transparency on the University so that the extent of current racial and ethnic preferences were visible and easy to track.

In any event, given the no doubt continuing pervasiveness of preferences at UVa and the central and arguably even dominant role studying, developing, implementing, and protecting racial preference policies has played in Teresa Sullivan’s career, it would be odd indeed if that issue had been absent from the Board’s initial decision to hire her … and odder still if it were, as is apparently the case, not involved in its decision to fire her and now possibly to un-fire her.

Especially since the Supreme Court now seems poised in Fisher to prohibit or curtail policies that are pervasive at UVa, it is now well past time for the “diversity” dog to bark in Charlottesville.

This article originally appeared on the blog Discriminations.

Image: RS3J2808 by Miller Center // CC BY

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