L E T T E R S  T O  T H E  E D I T O R :

Affirmative action is not the way to achieve a common goal of equality

To the Editor:
I must disagree with a statement written to sound as if it were applying cause to effect in a letter from my acquaintance, Ms. Mello, and her fellow student Mr. Olson, in the Nov. 21, 1997 issue of your newspaper. The statement is, "The SAT, for example, has been shown to be a racially biased test." No sources were cited, nor was the analysis described. I suspect there is a strong, statistically significant correlation between scores and socio-economic status, scores and race. Correlation, however, is not synonymous with causation. Correlations can and frequently do explain predictions but cannot be equated with cause. Indeed, our own Oberlin data show that for academic success in introductory Chemistry, the SAT-Math scores predict reliably and consistently a student's performance in the course (see the article by H. Spencer, Oberlin Observer, April 11, 1997; and the paper by H. Spencer, Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 73, Pages 1150-1153, December 1996). [Note: Prof. Spencer and I have discovered the same finding for introductory Biology at Oberlin, and Profs. Spencer, Bollinger and I have discovered the same for biology and chemistry courses at Winthrop University.] If you read these facts, and take cognizance of the logical conclusions which arise from them, a high SAT-M score, regardless of the sex or race of the student who earned it, bodes well, and a low SAT-M score, again, regardless of the sex and race of the student who owns it, predicts poor performance. Therefore, there is no racial or sex bias in the predictive values of these scores in these disciplines. In plain English, if a student has a low SAT-M score, he will likely not do so well in the course, period. It is unfortunate that we beat up on the SAT scores (mere pieces of data, facts) as if they were the culprit. It's our lack of clarity and honesty in our own analysis of the implications of such facts that is the culprit.

I question the notion of "the right of all people to quality education." First "quality" is but a notch in a relative grading scale. Unlike truth, quality is a matter of personal taste. Second, access to education is arguably a right, and may perhaps even be guaranteed by governments, but education itself is not guaranteed, even for an enrolled student, whether at Oberlin or elsewhere. Education is earned; its attainment is rendered likely, but even then not guaranteed, by academic qualifications. And therefore, because of this, qualifications relevant to earning as education comprise logical and only those intellectually defensible criteria for admission. Note that diversity, sensu strictu, as a goal in an institution, academic or not, renders sex, race and religion as qualifications for admission. It achieves the very exclusiveness that it purports to destroy.

Making diversity the main criterion for admission or hiring is a dangerous idea. It would justify taking away a person's access to academia because he did not fit the desired "diverse" outcome. Indeed, this is precisely what affirmative action in the United States appears to have achieved for student and faculty applicants of the "non-minority, over-represented" persuasion. By extension, albeit perhaps an unintended result, a student or faculty member accepted under "diversity criteria" might not receive the respect and dignity otherwise accorded a person of accomplishment. And yet, this is precisely what affirmative action has achieved for accomplished persons who happen to belong to the "minority, underrepresented" category. A social or academic policy, regardless of how honorably conceived it is, which discriminates against certain people on the basis of race, sex or religion, and deprives certain people on the bias of race, sex or religion, and deprives certain people of the dignity of achievement can only be described as egregious and inhumane.

I agree that a just society is one in which everyone can participate fully. I agree that our current society suffers from great inequities. I agree that we must take steps to level the playing field of opportunity. What I do not agree with is that affirmative action, as it has been practiced, has brought us closer to those goals. I do not agree that admitting students or hiring faculty just because they provide diversity, without regard to known parameters of academic preparedness, helps students so admitted, or faculty so hired, or helps promote our common goals.


To the Editor:
I must respond to a student and acquaintance, Mr. Bajpai, who suggested in a letter in the 21 Nov. 1997 issue of your newspaper that perhaps I do not know that in my own country, the Philippines, social inequality exists. It does, I know it, and it makes me deeply livid, personally. But affirmative action would not solve that inequality; access by sufficiently academically qualified students to university education does, albeit slowly. We don't move mountains back there, but the 89-year-old state (public) university, the University of the Philippines, admits students and hires faculty solely on the basis of academic preparedness (I know; I was a student there for seven years, the last three of those years an instructor as well.) When those of us who graduate from such an institution look at each other, we all know what our degrees mean. The degree means academic success, with no qualifications whatsoever, for students faculty, and anyone else. I might mention here that the faculty of the College of Agriculture, a de facto college of science of the University of the Philippines, is about 40 percent women, with earned PhDs (from local and foreign universities), and no, they do not teach labs or in women-specific disciplines. My calculus, statistics, sociology, psychology, genetics and horticulture professors were women; nearly half of my professors in physics, botany, zoology, chemistry and English were women. In fact, the student body was 40 percent female; I understand this number has grown to about 50 percent in the mid-1990s. No quotas were used to admit students or hire faculty, only academic criteria.

I learned from my study of history and sociology that all human societies have problems, conflicts or struggles at one time or another. What are racial problems in a racially diverse country such as the United States are perchance analogous to socio-economic or religious problems elsewhere. They certainly are among Filipinos, a people with more subtle, sometimes imperceptible, race-based differences. We are, instead, a people obsessed with differences in wealth and religion - distinctions of a more visible sort in our daily lives. The problems of my country and its people are numerous and vexatous, but clarity about academic preparedness and an understanding of diversity in academia are not among them. I offer these observations to demonstrate that social problems and academic problems intersect, but do not substitute for each other, and thus do not have common solutions.

-Yolanda Cruz, Associate Professor of Biology, wrote both of these letters.


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Copyright © 1997, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 126, Number 11, December 5, 1997

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