The Plus Factor

Affirmative action deserves a more critical assessment.

Does every university admissions officer read Machiavelli?

It sure seems so. The end: racial justice. The means: whatever it takes (i.e. affirmative action).

In the recent past, it's been difficult to criticize the process whereby universities dole out preferential treatment to applicants of fashionable ethnicity.

As everyone's aware, such a critique could only be the product of a racist hate-monger. And, to confuse the matter, admissions officers have always been extremely secretive about their actual methods of choosing candidates based (at least partially) on race.

Well, this summer in Austin, academia's dirty little secret went public. In Hopwood V. Texas, the University of Texas Law School was sued by four white applicants who claimed that they were denied admission because of their race.

Forced to reveal their method of implementing affirmative action in admission decisions, Texas law school officials admitted that they reserve about 15 percent of their places for Blacks and Mexican-Americans. And, if quotas weren't bad enough, Blacks and Hispanics are evaluated by separate admissions committees, using separate admissions criteria.

All applicants are given a Texas Index (TI) number, which is based on their undergraduate grade point average (GPA) and their Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score. An extremely high TI number guarantees acceptance, and an extremely low TI number guarantees rejection, regardless of other factors such as extracurricular activities or quality of the college attended.

As the university conceded, the TI number which ensures automatic acceptance for Blacks is below the automatic rejection number for white applicants.

Such a warped evaluation procedure goes far beyond what the Supreme Court deemed reasonable sixteen years ago in Bakke V. Regents of the University of California. This seminal decision proclaimed that universities are allowed to use an applicant's race as a "plus factor," but not as the determining factor in admission decisions.

As Justice Lewis Powell wrote, "Preferring members of any one group for no reason other than race or ethnic origin is discrimination for its own sake."

And this past August, a federal district court judge agreed with the plaintiffs that the Texas law school had violated their rights, as defined by the Bakke decision.

Unfortunately, the judge refused to mandate any changes in the Texas admissions policy, claiming that the law school had acted in "good faith." Officials at the law school jubilantly announced that their "goals and policies were upheld and endorsed."

Evidently, the morally commendable motives of admissions officers ensure that their methods are beyond reproach--no matter how egregious or hypocritical.

So is Texas an isolated instance of affirmative action gone awry? Most likely not. A lawyer for the university told The New York Times that the "Texas approach to affirmative action is in the mainstream." And law school deans from Stanford. Michigan, Minnesota and North Carolina testified at the Hopwood trial that they use similar schemes to admit minority students.

Hopefully while the Hopwood case is being appealed, university officials everywhere will consider the insight offered by Texas law professor Lino A Graglia in lost week's Wall Street Journal: "racial preferences may have been the cause rather than the cure for racial hostility."

It's time for a frank assessment of affirmative action policies. After all, even Machiavelli had standards.