At the American university where I teach, one of my assigned tasks is to advise undergraduates—mostly freshmen and sophomores. This essay describes a conversation I had in 2017 with one of those advisees. I will call him Daniel.
Daniel was a sophomore at the time. He had been an advisee of mine for a year already, and I’d come to understand that he was a prodigy. I’d also formed a hypothesis, based on a certain bluntness and lack of social tact he exhibited, that Daniel might be on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum. He seemed weak on interpersonal skills and narrowly, even obsessively, focused on math and science. During his first year of university studies, Daniel had taken a number of upper-level math and physics courses that none of my other advisees had taken, and had earned flat As in almost all of them. His GPA probably would have been a perfect 4.0 if the university had allowed him to take only math and science courses. As it was, it was a 3.85.
At the end of his freshman year, Daniel applied for admission to a competitive honors program that our university runs, but he was rejected. He came to my office to discuss this—or, rather, to complain about it. I soon realized that he was not just disappointed; he was angry. Daniel believed he’d been treated unfairly. He believed he was the victim of reverse racism.
I told Daniel that I understood why he was upset, but I reminded him that the program he’d applied to is highly competitive. The admissions committee presumably received many strong applications. There is always some subjectivity in admissions decisions, I noted, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Subjectivity isn’t the same as unfairness.
Daniel said he wouldn’t be upset if he believed that the applicants who’d been admitted to the program were as strong as him, or stronger. But he said he had reason to believe they were not.
I asked him what he meant by that. He then pulled a laptop out of his backpack and opened up a spreadsheet.
Daniel proceeded to explain that he and a friend had both applied to the same honors program and had both been rejected. Afterwards, they wondered who had been accepted. They scrutinized the social-media accounts of fellow students and found several dozen applicants who’d posted about being accepted. A lot of them, they noticed, were either African American or Hispanic. Daniel and his friend then asked around and identified several dozen students who had been rejected, many of whom were Caucasian or Asian. This made Daniel and his friend suspicious. They decided to create a spreadsheet—the one Daniel was showing me—to organize the data they’d collected; and then they decided to gather more.
Daniel explained that he and his friend wanted to find a measure of academic achievement that they could track statistically. A student’s GPA is not public information, but the Dean’s List is; so they were able to use that as a discrete variable—Dean’s List, yes or no—as a rough proxy for achievement. Daniel explained to me that it would have been better to use a continuous variable (like GPA), but he and his friend had to work with what they had.
Daniel explained that he and his friend had performed various kinds of statistical analysis on the data, and had concluded that admission to the honors program was closely related to Dean’s List status within certain groups. However, there were large differences in acceptance rates across those groups. Overall, he told me, the factor that explained the most variance in admissions outcomes was (as he’d suspected) the race or ethnicity of the applicant. The patterns were quite stark. African Americans who weren’t on the Dean’s List had a better overall chance of being admitted to the honors program than whites or Asians who were on the Dean’s List.
At this point, I got up and closed the door to my office.
Daniel went on talking. He told me he was thinking of filing a protest with the admissions committee and challenging them with the data he’d gathered. He was also thinking about sending his data to the university newspaper as a way of exposing the unfairness of the committee’s decisions.
As I listened, I began to think about what I might tell Daniel once he stopped talking.
Should I tell him what I thought—that he might well be right about why he was not admitted to the honors program?
Should I tell him that I had heard some talk among the faculty that seemed to confirm his suspicions? A few months earlier, I’d heard a dean saying that the honors program was too “traditional” in its make-up. What the university needed to do, this dean said, was “make the program look more like America as a whole.” Having been in academia for several years, I had a pretty good idea what that might mean.
Should I try to make the case for affirmative action, explaining that the policies are well-intentioned and designed to make up for real injustices, including slavery, segregation, and racism?
Should I tell Daniel that sometimes in life one just has to accept this kind of unfortunate outcome as part of a larger process of social transformation?
Should I introduce him to the concept of “taking one for the team”?
Should I mention any of my own experiences with affirmative action?
Should I tell him about the time when I applied for an internal position at our university, only to learn that it was actually a “targeted” search? I came to understand that the faculty members doing the hiring were determined to hire a candidate from an under-represented minority. This meant that I, as a white male, had almost no chance of being selected.
Should I tell Daniel about the time when I interviewed with a small college, and the woman I was interviewing with came right out and told me that she and her colleagues were really hoping to hire an African-American candidate—but, unfortunately, there were not all that many African-American candidates in the applicant pool, so she wasn’t convinced that her school would be able to achieve this goal?
Should I tell him about what happened afterwards, when I spoke to some other graduate students about this interview? One of the graduate students said that what the interviewer had done was wrong: she shouldn’t have said what she did.
Wait a minute, I said. What is it that upsets you about this whole thing? Are you upset that the committee members are so focused on the race of the applicants? Or are you upset that this woman was honest enough to tell me the truth? (That turned out to be an awkward conversation.)
Should I tell Daniel about the colleague I’d spoken with just a few weeks earlier, who’d told me, with much frustration and a touch of anger in his voice, that he was getting out of academia because he’d concluded that it is now virtually impossible for a white male to get a tenure-track position in his field? This young man had finished his PhD and published a book. He had applied for scores of tenure-track jobs, but had finally concluded he was not likely to get one. “Picking me,” he explained, “won’t do anyone any good. It won’t help the institution show that it is combatting racism, and it won’t allow any of the members of the hiring committee to assuage their white liberal guilt.” Shortly thereafter, this colleague took a non-academic job as a computer programmer.
Should I tell Daniel that, over the years, I had grown more and more frustrated with the way in which the academics I work among approach hiring? I’d seen plenty of searches in which members of the hiring committee went out of their way to try to hire persons of color, or members of under-represented minority groups, but nobody would ever admit publicly that this is what was going on. Nor did anyone want to admit that their efforts to boost minority candidates made job-seeking more difficult for members of other, non-preferred groups. Over and over, we were encouraged to celebrate the hiring of a minority candidate, but nobody ever said anything about the persons who were passed over as a result. Everybody seemed to look at these hiring decisions with one eye open and one eye strategically closed. To me, this seemed dishonest.
In the end, I didn’t tell Daniel about any of my own experiences.
I told him that I thought he might be right about why he hadn’t been accepted into the program. It looked to me like the push for diversity might have been the cause, or at least a key factor, in regard to the decision—though it was impossible to be certain. I then briefly (and perhaps half-heartedly) outlined the usual justification for affirmative-action programs.
But what I emphasized most was that I thought it would be unwise for Daniel to launch a campaign against the admissions committee, even if his data was as strong as he seemed to think it was. I told him that a campaign of the sort he was considering would almost certainly fail. He might get some catharsis out of it in the short run, but it would probably do no good in the long run. The committee was unlikely to revisit its decisions or change its procedures going forward. Support for affirmative action is almost universal among academics. Very few are even willing to express hesitations or second thoughts on this issue, lest they be deemed racists. The people who make these decisions feel good about the people who benefit from affirmative action, and they avert their gaze, as much as possible, from the people who are harmed by it. They might be embarrassed by Daniel and his friend’s data, but they would probably not abandon their approach.
I warned Daniel that I thought his plan might end up doing him a lot of harm. If he chose to make his exposé public, the most likely outcome would be that some student or faculty member would accuse him of being a racist. Publishing his data would probably end up hurting him rather than helping him.
When Daniel heard me use the word “racist,” even in this conjectural, non-accusatory way, he responded angrily. He told me that he was not a racist. He had voted for Democrats in the 2016 election and hated Donald Trump. And as it happens, I had reason to believe this was true. The morning after that election, Daniel had come to visit me in my office, deeply troubled by what a Trump presidency might mean for scientific research and funding.
Daniel told me that he believed affirmative-action policies were justified for college admissions, but he did not think they should be used to filter out qualified applicants to honors programs and graduate programs.
He then spoke for several minutes about his own ethnic background. He reminded me that he was Jewish, and told me that both of his parents had put up with a lot of antisemitic discrimination in their universities and workplaces. Back then, they were regarded as “non-white” and were discriminated against as a result; now (ironically) he was considered “white” and was being discriminated against on that basis.
I listened with real sympathy. The situation seemed unfair to me, too. To be honest, I’ve never been quite clear on how we’re supposed to get over centuries of judging people by their skin color or ethnicity by paying more and more attention to skin color and ethnicity.
In the past few years, in fact, I’ve increasingly had the sense that affirmative action may be backfiring. Policies meant to correct historical iniquities seem to be stoking racial resentment. Like Daniel, I dislike Trump intensely. I don’t have much in common with his followers, and I certainly don’t think of myself as one of them. But I do, increasingly, understand some of the grievances that motivate them. I wish I didn’t, but I do.
In the end, as I’ve mentioned, I didn’t tell Daniel about any of my personal experiences or private thoughts. I assured myself that doing so might be counterproductive: after all, my goal was to calm Daniel down, not rile him up.
I told Daniel that he could still succeed at our university, and get accepted by a top graduate school, even if he never made it into the honors program—as long as he just kept on taking challenging math and science classes and posting good grades. That would carry the day. He would move ahead, while the unqualified would fall by the wayside, unable to do the heavy intellectual lifting that advanced courses required.
Daniel must not have been entirely convinced by my arguments, because he proceeded to tell me about a “plan” he had come up with to ensure he would be accepted by a good graduate school. He told me that two of his four grandparents were descended from Sephardic Jews who’d fled Spain in the 1500s. This, he said, made him “technically, part Hispanic”—and thus eligible for preferential admission to graduate-school programs.
I tried to discourage Daniel from putting this plan into action. I told him I thought it was deceptive and dishonest. He might be accepted by a university, but eventually the faculty members would learn that he was not the sort of Hispanic they’d intended to admit. As with his idea of publishing his data, I thought this idea would probably end up hurting him rather than helping.
Daniel eventually calmed down and left my office. He went on with his studies and did not publish his numbers.
In some ways, I think I gave Daniel good advice. Publishing the data he collected would probably not have helped him in the long run. Neither would presenting himself as Hispanic for the sake of graduate admissions. Those actions would probably have led to some unpleasant consequences.
On the other hand, maybe it would have done some good to let the world know just how far the admissions committee was willing to go to admit under-represented minorities and make that honors program “look more like America as a whole.” By the same token, maybe there is something cowardly about not challenging current practices because it’s not in one’s own self-interest to make trouble. Maybe the world would be a better place if some people did challenge these preferential policies.
So what do you think, reader? Did I give Daniel good advice? Or would you have told him something different?
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.