In case you haven’t heard yet, here’s what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had to say yesterday during oral arguments over the case, Abigail Noel Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which centers on the constitutionality of admissions criteria that take race into consideration as one factor, what remains of the principle of affirmative action:
Justice Scalia: There are — there are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to — to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well. One of — one of the briefs pointed out that — that most of the — most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.
Mr. Garre: So this court —
Justice Scalia: They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re — that they’re being pushed ahead in — in classes that are too — too fast for them.
Wow!! What was he trying to say, really? According to an explication of his comments in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Scalia might have been referring to the idea of “mismatch,” a notion which contends that students admitted to a college under a preference, despite having allegedly weaker academic credentials than the college’s typical student, are less likely to succeed. The idea has won support from conservative think tanks and scholars like economist and law professor Richard Sander at UCLA, author of a controversial study ostensibly demonstrating that if law schools eliminated racial preferences there would be more black lawyers. In a blog post published yesterday, Sander claimed that only “people who haven’t read the relevant literature can still claim that mismatch is not a genuine problem.”
That’s not the view of Matthew M. Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, who was one of the authors of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, a scholarly book based on research that found that whatever students’ grades and test scores, they were more likely to graduate if they attended a more-selective college. Mismatch is “not crazy-sounding in theory,” Chingos told the Chronicle. And there are circumstances under which it would happen: “If we took someone who couldn’t read, they’d be unlikely to succeed at Harvard.” But the real question is whether colleges’ actual policies designed to encourage diverse admissions really do admit students who are not likely to succeed. “There is no high-quality empirical evidence in support of that hypothesis,” he said. As Chingos wrote in a 2013 paper debunking much of the “mismatch” literature,
the current weight of the evidence leans strongly against the mismatch hypothesis. Most importantly, not a single credible study has found evidence that students are harmed by attending a more selective college. There may well be reasons to abolish or reform affirmative action policies, but the possibility that they harm the intended beneficiaries should not be among them.
Scalia’s remark that “most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas,” may have been referencing research showing that historically black colleges produce a disproportionately high percentage of African-American graduates who go on to earn doctorates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But, so what? Why should that mean that black students have any less likelihood of succeeding at more diverse institutions? Chingos offered an analogy: Most Pell Grant recipients who earn bachelor’s degrees don’t get them from top colleges. That’s a question of enrollment patterns and volume. But a particular Pell-eligible student would still have a higher chance of graduating if he or she went to a more-selective college.
All that said, however, perhaps the most meaningful question to ask about Scalia’s at best insenstive remarks is whether or not there’s any evidence suggesting that he, along with other advocates of the “mismatch” thesis, really care at all about whether African-American students succeed in college anywhere. This is the point made forcefully and effectively by the always-interesting and perceptive blogger Tressie McMillan Cottom:
The painful truth about hand-wringing over whether Affirmative Action “harms” racial minorities is that no one cares if Affirmative Action harms racial minorities. The faux concern for the well-being of poor put-upon non-white students who are promoted beyond their ability never extends to concern for the many more white students who are surely promoted beyond theirs. At the same time we have debates about whether any student learns anything in college anymore (see: Academically Adrift), we also debate if there is too much learning happening for poor non-white students. And we care about that only as it is politically convenient to defend the legacy preferences, white preferences, athlete preferences and donor preferences at colleges and universities. With friends like this, as the saying goes, non-white students don’t need enemies. . . .
Whether black or hispanic students do not like the culture, drop out, transfer, get an F in freshman comp is not the issue. The issue is not individual performance but institutional exclusion. Of course, these universities could agree that the mismatch is just too great to bear. They could concede that the greatest universities in the world are just too fragile for a few thousand or so non-white, non-legacy students to exist on the yard. It may be the case that for all of our collective brilliance and innovation we simply cannot overcome the compound effects of white racism and residential segregation and educational stratification. In which case, put these institutions out of their misery and turn off public funding for them and to them. The mismatch between what they are and what a just, diverse, and ethical society needs may well be too great.
Cottom is right. If our colleges and universities cannot accommodate the needs of minority students, of economically disadvantaged students (and remember the recent study that revealed how many community college students are currently homeless), immigrant students, and those with disabilities, then what on earth are we doing? And what justifies public investment in our work?
What is really striking in all this is how Scalia so cavalierly ignores evidence and relies solely on his own speculation and, yes, his prejudices. But perhaps that suggests that maybe it’s Scalia, despite his admirers’ tiresome and insufferable claims about his tremendous “intellectual firepower,” who is the one “mismatched” with his position. That’s the point made by satirist Andy Borowitz, who writes:
A new study conducted by legal scholars indicates that Justice Antonin Scalia would fare better if he served as a judge at a court that was “less advanced” than the United States Supreme Court.
According to the study, Scalia’s struggles to perform his duties in a competent fashion stem from his being inappropriately placed on a court that is “too demanding” for a person of his limited abilities.
“Forcing Justice Scalia to weigh in on complex legal issues that he lacks the background or aptitude to comprehend is, at the end of the day, cruel,” the study said.
The legal scholars theorized that Scalia would be more likely to thrive in a “lesser court where he does not feel that he is being pushed to hear cases that are too challenging for him.”
“If Scalia were reassigned to a ‘slow track’ institution such as a town traffic court, that would be better for everyone,” the study recommended.
Now there’s a useful program of affirmative action!