Low entry threshold, or affirmative action: a case study

Low entry threshold, or affirmative action: a case study

Low entry threshold, or affirmative action: a case study

Over the 2010s, a pointless drama played out in the American Supreme Court - twice. A young woman, Abby Fisher, filed a personal injury lawsuit against University of Texas at Austin for not admitting her as an undergraduate. In fairness to Fisher, it turned out that the suit was the concoction of adults in her life who wanted it to become the landmark case that would bring down institutional affirmative action. Instead of effecting a policy change, though, the suit turned into a trial of the social and educational values of the suburban American middle-class with Fisher as their innocent embodiment.

The facts of the case were deceptively simple and largely predicated on the overall context of American higher education. To cover quickly the environment of the case, American education has a divided system with sharp distinctions existing between the private research universities, e.g. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and the government-funded state universities. Each of the fifty states has its own university system, and within that system there is the flagship research university, usually titled University of State Name[1], followed by other taxpayer funded, state-owned institutions of decreasing repute, quality, and competitive entry, which in turn affects career prospects. As unwieldy and complex as this system is, as E.S. Savas noted in his book Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships, it serves an important function in American society because it represents a certain type of justice and equality: all taxpayers can find an institution of higher learning for their child, without any real concern for academic preparation or quality. What is important for understanding the Fisher case is that University of Texas at Austin is the flagship institution for the state of Texas’ educational system.

Fisher ultimately graduated from Louisiana State University, which severely undermined her suit since that meant that there was no personal injury; hence the judicial rejection of her suit on the first attempt. The explanation was that the only way a personal injury could have occurred was if UT-Austin’s denial of admission would have meant that Fisher never received a university education, which she clearly did. The crux of the second, reformatted case was the accusation that the university did not consider other, non-academic traits when examining Fisher’s application.

A major portion of the case dates to 1997, when the Texas State Legislature voted to mandate that UT-Austin admit unconditionally the top ten percent of students at each state high school. Although this piece of legislation might rightly be seen as an improper government intervention in academia, it was well within norm for American taxpayer funded institutions. In response, the university administration instituted an additional admittance procedure, the combination of the “Personal Achievement Index (PAI)” and the “Academic Index (AI)” whereby local students might be admitted without top ten percent marks. The system is exactly as it sounds; for those lacking sufficient grades, extracurricular activities combined with good performance on standardized examinations might provide an alternate route into the university.

Fisher did not have the academic marks for entry to UT-Austin, and the crux of her lawsuit was that her achievements were not properly recognized by the PAI system. The affirmative action-diversity element came as an unsubstantiated claim that the university admitted minority students of lower academic standing and less “accomplishment” than Fisher under a complex subdivision of the PAI in which evaluators made accommodations for students coming from broken families or deprived regions, features which might hint at ethnic background but which are not empirical evidence of it. In rebuttal, the university revealed that when admissions officers set the threshold score for the “PAI/AI” for non-ten percenters, they do so in complete ignorance of ethnic background since this data is not divulged to them at any point in the process. Consequently, the Supreme Court ruled that, although the university might be faulted for not having a transparent evaluation system, it had acted within its rights when administrators rejected Fisher’s application.

When the defense revealed that Fisher’s application was rejected as meretricious early into the selection process, i.e. before factoring for under-privileged background, the real issue, one that is symptomatic of contemporary society, emerged. When confronted directly, UT-Austin’s lawyers divulged that none of the activities, such as volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, that Fisher listed as examples of accomplishment which outweighed academic underperformance truly mattered when screening candidates. It was a case of market saturation since “everyone” listed such activities, rendering them expected, not remarkable.

While the defense lawyers in this particular case took pains to express that the market for accomplishments was not a personal devaluation of Fisher as an individual, devaluation is exactly the way the situation is perceived at a broader national level. The Fisher revelation reduced to risibility the ethos of the suburban soccer mom, who for the last two generations has spent twelve years ferrying her children from sporting matches to volunteering events all in the mistaken belief that such activities provide meaningful opportunity for them. In this way, the Fisher case represented classic sunk-cost fallacy thinking. It is understandable that those who have invested time, energy, and money chasing after busyness don’t want to recognize, or to be told, that it was all for naught. When the inevitable revelation that these pursuits have no significance occurs, the response is an angry accusation that society has rejected their values, as represented by their supposed achievements.

 

This is not to say that affirmative action as a policy isn’t fraught with problems. However, blaming it has become a crutch for suburban, middle-class Americans who are dissatisfied with their, ultimately chosen, lots in life. In their narrative, they have been denied opportunity because of affirmative action, not because they have invested their resources poorly. Until the metaphorical suburban soccer mom develops sufficient responsibility to abandon a set of unproductive values, this group is going to remain entrenched in a cycle of ambition coupled with low recognition.


[1] The one exception is the University of Pennsylvania which is a private, Ivy League institution. The reason for the unusual nomenclature is that it was founded prior to the American Revolution and therefore predates the US state education system. On a side note, this name confusion has caused no end of partisan bickering between President Trump’s supporters and detractors since many people on both sides are unaware of the nature of his old university and frequently assume that it is a state school on the basis of its name.

Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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