f11photo via shutterstock
The Yale University campus in downtown New Haven (f11photo via shutterstock)
TERRY COWGILL

During a presidential election year, a deadly pandemic, an economy near depression and in the aftermath of an historic tropical storm that knocked out power for a week or more, so many issues are flying below the radar that it’s easy for even a news junkie like me to lose sight of them.

One that caught my eye this week in Connecticut involved the thorny issue of racial discrimination – not in the workplace or the criminal justice system – but in the rarified world of elite college admissions.

After a two-year investigation, the Trump Justice Department last week accused Yale University of illegally discriminating against Asian and white Americans in the undergraduate admissions process.

The probe began as a result of complaints from Asian American groups. In a notice-of-violation letter sent to Yale lawyers, the Justice Department has further threatened a lawsuit against Yale if it does not voluntarily comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forms the basis of the complaint. The DOJ also publicly supported Asian American students who sued Harvard for discriminating against them two years ago.

“There is no such thing as a nice form of race discrimination,” Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division said in a press release announcing the Yale action. “Unlawfully dividing Americans into racial and ethnic blocs fosters stereotypes, bitterness, and division.”

Leaving aside for the moment that the president for whom Dreiband works has “divided” Americans by race to an extent not seen since George Wallace, this is a gut punch to Yale. At a time when administrators should be focusing on how they will accommodate thousands of nervous students and parents in the upcoming fall semester during a worldwide health crisis, the university now will have to assemble a team to respond to a lawsuit that appears to have little merit.

Yale “categorically denies this allegation,” a spokesman said – both on the merits and because it was made before the Justice Department had received all the information it had requested from the university, which President Peter Salovey insists “will continue to look at the whole person when selecting whom to admit.” The allegations of discrimation against Asian Americans applicants also were disputed by many Asian American students at Yale.

Yale further says its practice of taking race into account in admissions is consistent with federal law and Supreme Court rulings. Indeed, a federal judge in October found that Harvard’s aforementioned policies were legal and did not discriminate against Asian Americans. That decision has been appealed.

There is no question that the admissions policies of Yale and many other similar universities result in disparities between the racial composition of the applicant pool and those who are actually accepted.

Universities insist that the educational experience for all is enhanced if the student body reflects the diversity of society at large. I would agree with that philosophy. But here’s the dirty little secret: if elite colleges and universities accepted students solely based on measurable benchmarks (test scores and grades), their campuses would be full of Asians from America and from abroad.

I have spoken with admissions officers from elite New England boarding schools and they tell me the same thing. They could easily fill the bulk of their schools with highly qualified students from China, Korea and India – and most of them are full-pay, which helps the bottom line tremendously.

But the reality is that these schools and universities depend on alumni for a level of charitable giving that ensures the long-term survival of the institutions – and foreign alumni are not exactly known as big givers. The best way to get alumni to open their wallets is to make them feel connected to the institution. If they return for alumni weekend and see a student body that is radically different from when they themselves were enrolled, those graduates will feel less connected, or so the reasoning goes. So private schools and colleges must walk a fine line.

Though I fully support the goal of diversity, I’d be reluctant to make admissions decisions based on race. The United States has such an ugly history on that subject that making any decisions based on race should be out of bounds. I’d like to see affirmative action, both in admissions and hiring practices by employers, based on socioeconomic background. Such a practice would still disproportionately benefit people of color but would remove race as a tangible factor.

When I was a private school teacher, one of my students was the daughter of Bill Cosby, the now-disgraced actor and comedian who at that time had a net worth in the nine figures. Should she have been given college admissions preference over some poor white kid living in a trailer off a dirt road in West Virginia? Of course not. I fully understand that the Cosby case is the exception, but it does not detract from the injustice of making decisions based on race.

The good news is the Yales and Harvards of this world will be fine no matter what happens. The bad news is that many smaller second- and third-tier private colleges already have closed (with more on the way)  –  the victims of declining birth rates, the pandemic and poor economies of scale that have made many of them unaffordable. This is tragic. It will mean fewer choices for students – of all races.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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