Analyzing the Evidence
In defending the lawsuits, Michigan may also rely on the research of its own scholars, including an Oberlin graduate. Richard O. Lempert '64, a law and sociology professor at Michigan, and two other researchers found that black graduates of Michigan's law school went on to earn just as much money as white graduates and experienced just as much career satisfaction. The black graduates were also more likely than white graduates to be involved in leadership and service activities. "LSAT scores and grade-point averages, which predict quite successfully grades in law school, have very little success in predicting success after law school--at least as we can measure success," Lempert says.
The subtitle for the study is "The River Runs Through Law School." "Our findings are very consistent with The Shape of the River, but in a sense, are even more meaningful. We're closer to the career-ending point," he says.
But critics of affirmative action say that such social-science research is typically conducted by advocates who want to see affirmative action survive. Michael Greve, executive director of the Center for Individual Rights, the organization representing the students suing Michigan, says such evidence rarely sways judges. "If you base legal decisions on that kind of evidence, the decision and the law is only as good as the evidence," he says. "The courts are particularly leery of approaching the issue from that kind of direction.
"What you really need is a compelling governmental interest and not plausible social-science evidence. Sure, we're in favor of diversity, especially in elite education, and sure, we think it's good for the country if blacks succeed at higher levels of society--but just not at the price of race discrimination."
Greve says that in almost every admissions system he's become familiar with, if you know three variables--grades, test scores, and race--you can predict 95 percent of the decisions, with most of the exceptions involving preferences for athletes.
But President Dye says that's not the case at Oberlin. "The legal challenges are being fueled by a politics of resentment--that affirmative action is unfair," she says. "The challenges are also fueled by an increasing feeling among many Americans that an education is an individual and private entitlement, rather than a public good.
"Oberlin was the first and for many years the only college or university to make interracial education central to our mission. We have always believed that the best college education is one that brings students different from one another to campus to live and learn together."
Dean Koppes adds that it's wrong to try to eliminate preferences based on race, especially since there is less societal need for the other preferences that most colleges employ. "In one sense, of course, college admission is a zero-sum game. There are students who don't get admitted to an institution because they don't play football or they don't play the oboe. In crafting a class, a whole range of characteristics needs to be taken into account."
Critics of affirmative action also charge that it has a stigmatizing effect--that it leads people to believe that all black or Hispanic students benefit from preferences. Defenders of affirmative action "deny that racial preferences stigmatize the preferenced person, whereas it seems to me rather clear that they do," says Lino A. Graglia, a professor of law at the University of Texas who opposes racial preferences.
Is it better for 40 Mexican-American students to get in under affirmative action, or for 30 to get in without the use of affirmative action? With the second group, "it's assumed that all got in the same way as everyone else. With the first group, maybe more than half got in the same way as everyone else, but they'll all be suspect," he says.
"The most detrimental thing about affirmative action is that it's racially polarizing," Gralia continues. "Our only hope of making it as a multi-racial society is by officially de-emphasizing the importance of race in every way."
President Dye says she finds the argument that there's a stigma attached to affirmative action "disingenuous." "I don't see evidence that people feel that way. And they shouldn't feel this way. No one is admitted to Oberlin unless we are confident that he or she can succeed and thrive here."
Michigan's Professor Lempert points out that the argument against affirmative action in undergraduate admissions at Michigan ignores something--the fact that the university had preferences that largely favored whites in addition to the contested preferences for minority students. Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students got a 20-point bonus on a 150-point scale that plays a large part in the admissions process, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.But applicants from high schools with very strong reputations could have received a boost of ten points, plus additional points if they took Advanced Placement or honors courses. Children of alumni got an extra three points. All three benefits went in disproportionate numbers to white students.
"If you live in the inner-city--as many black students do--you're unlikely to get those points because your high school probably doesn't have many, if any, Advanced Placement courses," Lempert says. "That stacks the deck against minority students."
Virginia's Dean Scott notes that whites are also the most likely beneficiaries of the preference awarded to legacies at Virginia's law school. "The first black who attended the law school graduated in 1957," he says. "You would predict that fewer numbers of African Americans would be eligible for that legacy benefit."
As at many institutions, minority students at Oberlin would like to see their numbers grow. But Robinson points out that students today don't always have a great sense of how far Oberlin has come. "African-American students at Oberlin are very concerned about numbers, and I don't discount that concern at all. But, ironically, the numbers now are substantially larger than any numbers that you saw during my era, the early 1960s. Then, the number of African-American students in the entire student population was equal to what Oberlin admits in each class today."
President Dye makes clear that Oberlin is showing no signs of wavering in its commitment to affirmative action. "This nation still has a lot of work to do to remedy hundreds of years of systemic and structural inequality," she says. "That doesn't happen overnight. Oberlin has always been dedicated to this task, and always will be."