According to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, California State University in San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly)
is widely regarded as the academic star of the California State University system and ranks as one of the best regional universities in the West. It regularly competes for strong students against top UC schools. And it often wins.
Yet by another measure, Cal Poly falls short when compared with other selective California schools: its enrollment of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.
Stuart Silverstein and Doug Smith, the LAT writers, make it clear that they believe Cal Poly doesn’t measure up.
Cal Poly provides a case study in what can happen when a highly selective school, prohibited from considering applicants’ race and ethnicity, makes few allowances for weighing other personal qualities in the admissions process.
Cal Poly admits students largely by the numbers — grade point averages and test scores. Admissions decisions are so automated that applicants don’t even submit an essay, and no one in the admissions office actually reads a typical application.
The contrast with UC schools is striking. They consider such factors as students’ ability to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages and other hardships — a process that can be subjective and lately has proved controversial. Two regents have questioned whether the system amounts to backdoor affirmative action. [Editorial comment: “can be”??]
Carried to its logical conclusion, this approach ultimately questions the very idea of academic selectivity. And, in our legalistic culture, everything is always carried to its logical conclusion.
In January, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued Cal Poly for discrimination, contending that the campus’ heavy reliance on the SAT penalizes Latinos because they generally score lower than whites on the exam.
Victor Viramontes, a defense fund lawyer handling the case, said the university compounds the problem by trumpeting the high average scores its students earn — a factor that could turn off potential Latino and black applicants.
The contrast with the traditional civil rights movement could not be more dramatic. In the old days, i.e., before affirmative action, civil rights advocates opposed what they called “white male discretion” as a cover for discrimination, and they argued for merit, claiming that racial discrimination irrationally excluded many better qualified candidates in favor of less qualified ones only because of skin color. Now civil rights advocates argue for discretion and against merit. Go figure.
Finally, here’s a question for diversiphiles: which higher education system is more diverse: one in which every campus regulates admissions so that they all accurately reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of the state; or one in which most campuses do so but one or two continue to stress colorblind merit?