Jennifer Gratz’s prominence in the campaign for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is curious: Few ballot initiatives draw so heavily on the story of one person. Gratz has a reason to be upset. Back in 1995, the eager high school senior applied to the University and didn’t get in. At the time, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts used an admissions process that was later deemed unconstitutional – namely, a point system that gave each applicant a score based on all sorts of factors, including SAT or ACT score, GPA, legacy or athlete status, socio-economic status and, of course, race.
Gratz had her day in court, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that indeed, the system was unconstitutional. The University could have all the “compelling interest in diversity” that it wanted, but the explicit use of points was, well, too much. The end result of the case was not only that thousands of applicants have to write a few more essays – It was her partnership with Ward Connerly to put an end to affirmative action programs in college admissions and in the public sector entirely.
The argument goes that by considering race in college admissions, universities are practicing discrimination, letting immutable factors like race trump merit. That is, in a nation that should be aspiring to be a true “meritocracy,” we are holding ourselves back by selecting undeserving students from underrepresented minority groups over deserving students.
But how do we decide who is deserving?
Some would say that a high school class president from a wealthy suburb who graduates at the top of his class and volunteers some 20 hours a week deserves to go to the University. I would say that the 5-year-old enrolling in kindergarten at Detroit Public Schools deserves to receive an education that gives him a chance to go to college. Statistically speaking, the first student has an excellent chance of attending a good college. The second student doesn’t.
Deserving is complex. In his book “Democracy and Freedom,” Amartya Sen uses the parable of a woman who can employ one of three qualified people. One man is by far the poorest; one man is the unhappiest, having just lost his job; and the other suffers from a chronic but curable disease. There are no easy answers, and determining who is deserving requires considering the foundation of what we value – helping the poorest, bringing the greatest utility or freeing those who suffer from illness.
According to MCRI proponents, however, it’s simple. If one of those workers is slightly more qualified, he deserves it. Race, ethnicity and gender certainly have nothing to do with deserving. A few will concede that socioeconomic status may play a part, that those never had access to the same resources their wealthier peers did deserve a leg-up. Others won’t go so far, demanding instead a completely merit-based system. Let all those who want to attend the University of Michigan grab hold of those bootstraps and pull. Then let admissions officials pour over each applicant’s test scores, grades, curriculum, and accept, reject or wait list.
But test scores can be misleading. Worried students with wealthy parents can hire a private tutor to provide 32 hours of top-notch ACT test prep through Kaplan for just $3400. Kaplan also offers an ACT course for the masses, guaranteed to boost your score – it only costs $700. But then, curriculum, GPA and those all-important leadership activities can be misleading as well. Some schools don’t have Advanced Placement courses, the most fashionable predictor of academic success. Some students have to work part-time and can’t run for president of the School Spirit Pep Club.
At some point, there is subjectivity. At some point, those immutable characteristics of race, class and gender come into play. They are present in nearly every aspect of a child’s upbringing and education. Through affirmative action policies, colleges consider these aspects in determining who deserves to be admitted. The use of these characteristics in determining merit is no more significant than how the more accepted measures of admission – SAT tests, difficulty of curriculum, GPA – are biased by them.
Of course, college admissions is just one aspect of MCRI, though you might not know it from the discussion on campus. MCRI would ban affirmative action in public employment and contracting as well. If the factors determining admission to college are complex, then certainly those for employment and contracting are even more so. Hiring involves qualifications, work experience – and connections. Less than 4 percent of the 11,000 seats on the boards of Fortune 1000 companies were held by blacks in 2002, and less than 2 percent were held by Latinos. Eleven percent of corporate officers are women. Thanks to decades of discrimination, the higher-ups in businesses and government are overwhelmingly white men.
These powerful white men have golfing buddies who have kids who could really use a job. These powerful white men know a white guy who can definitely offer the lowest bid. They’ve been friends for decades, since college. It’s certainly understandable why just 3 percent of government contracts were awarded to women-owned businesses in 2003. It’s understandable why the unemployment rate among blacks and Hispanics in Michigan was more than twice as high as among whites in 2004.
And so in a world where connections determine who gets hired and which small business makes it, affirmative action allows those who have been shut out from those connections to have a shot.
If we lived in a world in which only hard work and talent paid off, maybe we wouldn’t have to consider factors like race and gender when we look at what it means to be deserving. But admissions decisions, hiring decisions and contracting decisions aren’t made like that. Few employers have the time or energy to thoroughly review every application and objectively select the best-qualified candidate. And the sort of “best-qualified” MCRI supporters tend to advocate is again some set of criteria labeled as objective, despite being anything but.
One woman’s story should not determine a state constitutional amendment, and allowing one school’s admissions policy to confine the discussion about MCRI to the college campus is just as myopic.
As a society, we – not Gratz – have to determine who is deserving. Is merit the only factor we should consider when hiring, contracting and admitting students? Does a specific attempt to measure merit make those selected deserving?
MCRI’s passage would take a difficult issue and make it simple. Those who are privileged, those who score well on standardized tests, those who have connections to ensure they never count themselves among Michigan’s unemployed – they, and they alone, would have merit. They, and they alone, would be deserving.