Joe Conason's Journal

The president opposes affirmative action. So how does he defend the institutional favoritism that got him into Yale? Plus: More on bad "legacies."

Published January 16, 2003 5:53PM (EST)

Remedial reading for the rich and lazy
Among the many email comments on Bush and affirmative action were two revealing dispatches from academia. The first came from a woman whose husband has worked for more than two decades in student services at a university. She asked not to be identified further:

"Anyone familiar with a modern universityknows that it is not a 'meritocracy' and there is preferential treatment all the time. It is not just the 'legacy' admissions like George W. It is also the athletes--who get all sorts of academic supportBut one group that receives incredible special treatment (not just admission) seems to be under the radar. My husband works for a university that has a huge 'LD' program that essentially allows rich white students to buy special treatment in college. By getting a doctor's diagnosis as 'learning disabled' and paying for 'enhanced LD services,' parents of these students get tutors, extra testing time, assistance on tests, etc. It is a virtual 'profit center; for the cash-strapped university, and many of these students are not so much 'learning disabled' as they are rich, lazy and dumb! "Some of these people have to have their exams read to them because they can't read; others can't write; they get four hours instead of two to complete an exam, etc. There is a huge amount of staff time and energy [spent] just getting these kids through college. But none of it shows up on the transcript--it's all confidential! When you see these kids pull up for services and jump out of the $40,000 SUV that daddy bought them, its hard not to get a bit irritated.[This] is happening at universities all over the country.The program needs to be exposed, but too many people are afraid to speak up for fear of being accused of discriminating against the disabled. But the reality is that the key criterion for receiving these services is ability to pay."

Remedial education is, of course, a major complaint of affirmative action's critics. If remedial ed for legacies gets dressed up as "services to the disabled," however, that's just fine.

Isn't that special?
While searching my office for W's autobiography this morning, I came across an old copy of "Debating Affirmative Action," an excellent paperback anthology of essays from all perspectives edited by Nicolaus Mills. It includes a 1991 article reprinted from the Washington Monthly on legacy admissions by John Larew, a former chairman (meaning editor) of the Harvard Crimson.

Investigating quotas for the rich and well-born, Larew came across an advertisement in the right-wing Dartmouth Review. Placed by a group of "concerned" conservative alumni, the ad demanded an end to "goals or quotas for any special group or category of applicants. Equal opportunity must be the guiding policybased solely on individual performance."

As Larew read on, however, he came to this qualification: "Alumni sons and daughters should receive some special consideration."
[5 p.m. PST, Jan. 16, 2003]

The Yale man's legacy
Our text for this morning after the president's denunciation of affirmative action at the University of Michigan can be found on Pages 21-22 of "A Charge to Keep," the George W. Bush autobiography (written by Karen Hughes):

"Andover taught me the power of high standards. I was surrounded by people who were very smart, and that encouraged me to rise to the occasion. I was a solid student but not a top student. I did well in the courses I liked, such as history, math, and Spanish, and not so well in others, such as English. When I met with the dean to discuss different college options, I told him I would like to go to Yale. Many in my family had gone there; they loved the school and their love was infectious. On several weekends I had visited Yale to watch football games, and I was impressed by the campus. The dean tactfully suggested that I might think of other universities as well. I told him that if I did not get into Yale, there was only one other option for me, the University of Texas. I was not sure what would happen. I looked forward to either alternative. It was chaos in the mailroom the day the college acceptance letters arrived. The fat envelopes brought good news, the skinny ones rejection letters. I received a fat envelope from Yale and so did thirty-eight of my Andover classmates."

Let's examine a couple of key phrases in that uplifting passage. "I was a solid student but not a top student ... The dean tactfully suggested that I might think of other universities as well." It sounds as if Bush was pretty confident of attending Yale despite his so-so prep school transcript. He probably chose UT as his safety school because he surmised the state university wouldn't reject a prominent Texas politician's son. (That much he was easily smart enough to figure out.)

Why was the Andover dean so concerned about Bush's prospects at Yale? Perhaps he glanced at Bush's SAT score of 1206, above average but nowhere near the level needed for acceptance at an Ivy League school. (According to Cecil Adams, who writes the Straight Dope column, Bush's score was almost 200 points lower than the average for Yale freshmen circa 1970.) Bush's middling SAT score, incidentally, is roughly the same as that for most of the black students admitted to selective schools in a major Mellon Foundation study that began in 1976.

Perhaps that Andover dean also looked at Bush's "solid" grades, which may or may not have exceeded the C average he later earned at Yale. In other words, despite Bush's status as a Yale "legacy" from a very prominent and wealthy family, the dean was sufficiently naive to think he might not be admitted.

Back then, "affirmative action" for the sons and daughters of alumni was a major factor in admissions at Yale and other selective colleges -- and continues to be an important factor today. The children of alumni are about twice as likely to be accepted by Yale as other applicants. Whether their qualifications are twice as good, nobody seems to know. In the class of 2004, according to this interesting essay in the Yale Herald, the largest identifiable group of matriculates is from "families with some kind of Yale affiliation."

Now there is no movement among conservatives to require that legacy applicants (or athletes) display the same level of merit as anyone else admitted to an elite school. To the right diversity isn't an important value -- but traditions of family privilege must be preserved.
[10:03 a.m. PST, Jan. 16, 2003]

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