The College Admissions Scandals

A few weeks ago, Ito and I went to “Admissions,” the very well performed and thought provoking play by Joshua Harmon about affirmative action, at Studio Theater. Several friends had independently attended the play and suggested that we get together for one of Ito’s superb dinners and discuss it.  So we enjoyed an evening discussing the pros and cons of “affirmative action,” the “temporary” suspension of nondiscrimination legislation meant to repair and make up for discrimination against blacks that made them less prepared for college. It is a complex issue without obvious solutions. The play did an excellent job of fairly presenting all perspectives on this issue.

My opinion is that suspending, even temporarily, equal treatment (merit-based college admissions) of applicants to universities and colleges, as is done with affirmative action, is not the best approach to achieving equal treatment of all. It attempts to treat the symptoms of racial discrimination rather than the disease. First of all, private universities (unlike state schools using tax payers’ money) should be free to establish whatever admission policy they want.  Any school I would want to attend will want to include an element of diversity in its student body as an important element of the education they offer and will build that into its admission policy in whatever way it considered sensible.

And now we are confronted with the revelation that some of the rich and famous paid bribes to get their underperforming children into top schools. As stated in the Washington Post: “the scope and sheer shamelessness of an elaborate scheme in which some of the country’s richest people allegedly paid bribes to get their children into top U.S. universities is truly mind-boggling.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-college-admissions-scandal-should-prompt-broader-soul-searching/2019/03/13/f67aa986-45b5-11e9-aaf8-4512a6fe3439_story.html

This is shocking and unacceptable for the same reason I oppose affirmative action. It violates the principle and standard of merit in hiring people or admitting them to college. Our country is one of the wealthiest and most respected in the world because firms and organizations allocate jobs, positions, and resources in general on their merits (i.e. qualifications for the job, etc.). In short, people and other resources are put to their most productive use.  Obviously, this is not always the case. But firms that fall short of this standard suffer lower profits than if they had adhered to it. In short, in the private sector there is an economic incentive to employ the resources (including people) that best fit the needs being filled. Companies that employ their under-qualified relatives suffer lower profits as a result. Hiring or admitting people on the basis of merit is also our standard of fairness that is widely admired throughout the world.

Affirmative action is a deliberate departure from this standard as are the recently revealed bribes and test score cheating for college admission. In the first case it is an effort to overcome the damage of earlier discrimination against a once enslaved people. In the second case it is an effort to overcome the deficiencies of intelligence or character in our own children. A world in which we acquiesce to standards other than merit will always favor the already well off. We will never fully achieve the high standards of merit based appointments we have set, but we should never stop trying. A powerful strength of the private sector in a competitive free market economy is that the economic incentives are in the right direction.

American universities may never achieve a perfect admissions system completely based on merit and devoid of personal bias, but we should encourage them aim for it. The world outside of the academic environment is unfair enough when it comes to race, gender, sexual orientation and religion to name a few. Let us try to instill in the younger generation the understanding that hard work and smarts are what gets you ahead– not money, influence and certainly not the color one’s skin. And let’s promote attitudes and policies that encourage and reward such a reality.

Liberty and the Overly Prescriptive State

Few things reveal a person’s views on liberty more than their attitude toward the right of others to say or do things they disagree with. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects our right of free speech and assembly, later interpreted to include the right of association. “The NSA Unravels a Civil Rights Era Win”/2013/08/29/ None of these rights is absolute (yelling fire in a theater, etc), but where we as a society draw the line has a great deal to do with how successfully our diverse citizens will live together in harmony and freedom.

The latest example of the imposition of the state into what should be private issues of belief is California’s ban on health practitioners “offering psychotherapy aimed a making gay youth straight.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco ruled that the law does not violate the free speech rights of licensed counselors and patients seeking treatment.” “US Court Upholds First in Nation Law Banning Gay to Straight Therapy for Minors”/2013/08/29/

Conversion therapy is a scientifically documented scam, but if its practitioners believe in it, it is not a deliberate fraud (maybe they do and many they don’t). We are freer, and live in greater harmony the more we allow people to pursue and experiment with their own beliefs. This includes things the rest of us might think are silly. Such freedom, when exercised within a strong set of moral values, also tends to move society more quickly to a more virtuous level. The caveat is that in allowing people to live according to their own creed, they must do no real harm to others.  Even the “doing no harm to others” standard is subject to discussion and can moved a bit this way or that – toward more freedom or less. In the case of the California law against conversion therapy, the law was aimed at protecting minors from harm inflicted by such therapy and we have rightly been quicker to protect minors than others. In short, drawing an appropriate line between private rights and state intervention is a serious and not particularly easy undertaking.

Those of you who are lucky enough to be Facebook friends of Jonathan Rauch, author of “Denial” and currently a contributing editor of the National Journal and The Atlantic, and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institute, have access to a very thoughtful discussion of the freedom of conscience, association and speech and equal protection of the law. In comments to one of Jonathan’s postings, Charlotte Allen, Tom Palmer, and Walter Olson, Walt Becker (a pseudonym), David Dalton and others explore the interface between the freedom of association and equal protection of the law in the context of same sex marriage. In such discussions it is critical for those of us who defend the importance and morality of liberty to clearly distinguish what we individually believe is right and good from what is or should be allowed under the law. The law should allow people to make their own stupid mistakes.

In reaction to slavery and Jim Crow laws, which legally discriminated against blacks, America has gone well beyond repealing such legislation and has adopted a range of anti-discrimination laws limiting the ability of “public” businesses to choose their employees and customers. These anti-discrimination laws are now increasingly being extended to GLBTs (Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders). Personal beliefs and preferences, whether we agree with or respect them or not, thus confront state interference in our personal choices and behavior. Doctors, who do not believe in abortion, are required to perform them. Companies whose owners do not believe in contraception are forced to provide health insurance and condoms to employees wanting them. A New Mexico photographer and baker are sued for refusing to provide their services to a same-sex wedding ceremony.

Equal treatment in the law was put aside for Affirmative Action giving preference to blacks in some cases on what was meant to be a temporary basis until the damage of earlier negative discrimination could be reversed. The Supreme Court has now started to roll back such preferences. In the above Facebook debate, Charlotte, who has trouble accepting marriage equality for same-sex couples, takes a more libertarian position on other areas of state imposed morality when she says “Why can’t we give people the freedom to set the parameters of their own commercial transactions?” The optimal balance shifts over time and I doubt that we have it anyway.

The government, which is often a lagging reflection of public sentiment, has been one of the last to extend equal treatment to same sex couples. Pure profit motive led corporate American to move ahead several decades ago to extend “marriage” benefits to employee partners of whatever sex. They did so in order to attract the best employees without regard to their color, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. Discrimination has an economic cost.

No church should be required to marry anyone they don’t want to or don’t believe would be consistent with their beliefs. Allowing same-sex couples to receive a marriage license and the legal benefits that come with it from the State, which is surely required by the principle of equal protection of the law, does not and should not obligate any church to do so. I think that the treatment of the Boy Scouts of American set the right example.  As a private club the law allowed them to exclude gay boys from membership if they wanted to. However, evolving social understanding and attitudes and deeper reflection by Boy Scout leaders are slowly leading the Boy Scouts to change this policy. Getting the balance right will never be easy, but I prefer to error on the side of personal freedom rather than government dictated morality.