George W. Bush mounted his bully pulpit on Martin Luther King’s birthday and took aim at the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action policies, calling them “a quota system.” He tried to soft-pedal his quota-slinging rhetoric with an “I strongly support diversity of all kinds” statement and then fired off several more rounds of anti-quota talk directed at the “method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal.” His sympathy for the goal but condemnation of the method harked back to the compassionate conservatism of white moderates in Birmingham in 1963, whose equivocations prompted Dr. King to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King posited that the Ku Klux Klaner and the White Citizens Councilers may not be “the Negro’s great stumbling block.” Instead, he decried “the white moderate…who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods.'”
We can have an honest disagreement about what constitutes a quota–or whether Michigan’s approach is the most sensible one to achieve the school’s laudable goals–but Bush’s language and the dishonest characterization of Michigan’s processes in the brief filed by his Solicitor General make such a conversation all but impossible. The strategy of the Administration brief is to “quotify” any aspect of the admissions process that dares notice the race of applicants. Even when the college admissions committee merely flags the files of underrepresented students of color for further review or the law school committee seeks–as a matter of informed educational policy–a critical mass of students of color to assure their participation in a robust exchange of views in the law school classroom, the Administration concludes that there is no meaningful distinction from strict numerical quotas. The bottom line in their judgment seems to be that any attention to race, whether it is a nuanced point system, as at the University of Michigan college, or a more flexible and individualized process, as at the Michigan law school, is simply a quota in disguise. And yet neither the Solicitor General nor the President offers any specific evidence that anyone at either the college or the law school was admitted or excluded “solely” or even primarily based on race.
Because race has a political, economic and social component, professor of psychology Patricia Gurin finds that when people who have lived on the darker side of our racial divide have access to our classrooms and our faculties, white and nonwhite students alike achieve better intellectual growth and improved capacity to participate in our multiracial democracy. The rhetoric of quotas shuts down the conversation about racially diverse classrooms and their relationship to the learning environment. It also diverts our attention from the real double-bind that distorts the face of higher education in America.
The first thread in the double bind is the artificial scarcity created by the overinvestment of state resources in prisons because of mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws, which has starved educational budgets. As a result, many students who want to attend public institutions of higher education cannot, both because of rising tuition costs and because the competition for admission is fiercer than ever. And competition for the more selective public universities is especially tough, because the schools function less and less as educational greenhouses and more and more as status markers and gateways to elite networks.
The rising number of applications requires ever more efficient means of sorting candidates. This helps explain the second thread of the educational double-bind, our worship of simple, uniform measures of qualification, which I call “testocracy.” The central problem is that Michigan, as is true of most elite educational institutions, has allowed its admissions standards to be driven by the rankings posted by a newsmagazine. No one wants to admit the dirty secret of higher education: In the name of merit as determined by U.S. News & World Report, the current system emphasizes efficiency and brand valuation over individualized assessments; test scores over initiative, persistence and creativity; and wealth over diversity.