I Do Solemnly Affirm

New Yorker article:

In the spring semester of my senior year of high school, my father got a call from the headmaster of the school I was about to graduate from. The headmaster said that he was expecting to speak soon with the admissions office at the single Ivy League college to which, on the headmaster?s advice, I had applied. He was wondering whether my father planned to attend a local cocktail-party fund-raiser for my school that Sunday. My father (rightly, in my opinion) hung up on him, and a few weeks later I received a rejection letter from the Ivy League college. This was my introduction to the meritocracy.

The phrase “affirmative action” is a slippery one, and its vague definition contributes to the difficulty of debate about it. If it means “lower standards for a particular group” then it has the potential to demean the achievements of individuals and crowd out otherwise qualified applicants. My personal ideal is that employers and recruiters make an extra effort to seek out qualified candidates that might not otherwise apply for a position in a job or a school. That, I think, is a positive action that one can take to improve diversity in educational institutions and workplaces. I don’t know if it would be enough, though.

In the workplace, it’s slightly less complex than the college admissions office, because there’s really only one question: can this person do this job? An employer doesn’t care what your excuse is. They don’t care what color your skin is, or where you’re from. They have a list of qualifications that you meet or don’t meet. At most, they’ll have a training program where you can demonstrate that you’re a quick learner and a good hire. But maybe not.

Schools have more luxuries, really. They can do things like make allowances for opportunity. Say, for example, Tom’s school had five AP classes and Bill’s only had two. We can see that both of them took advantage of all the AP classes that were available and both students work hard. Bill might be a great student who will excel given the chance. It’s impossible to tell in advance. And there are a million factors of difference between the two that you can’t quanitfy, all of which intevitably get tied up with the single overriding factor that shouldn’t matter: race.

Now, the “development admit” is more than just seeking out and asking rich kids to apply to your college. It’s every bit as serious as race-based affirmative action policies. It’s like “legacies,” where if your parents and grandparents went to the school they give you a bonus too, because people who have more than one generation at the same school give more and contribute to the culture of the school. These admissions policies are good for the school and good for all the other students. How else are you going to pay for those scholarships, that new science center, the security service that will walk you safely across campus after dark? Several universities in this country have gone from mediocre to top-twenty with the funds from development admissions policies.

Purely academic admission preferences are an impossible ideal anyway. Perhaps we should add money to the list of factors more clearly: poor students who haven’t had the opportunity to excel, and rich students who have had every opportunity to fuck up, can both get an extra weight.

Ethically shady? Well, yes. But few ethical decisions are truly black and white.