Archive for February, 2001

From Bakke to Atkinson

Sunday, February 25th, 2001

“The consideration of race as a measure of an applicant’s qualification normally introduces a capricious and irrelevant factor working an invidious discrimination. Once race is a starting point educators and courts are immediately embroiled in competing claims of different racial and ethnic groups that would make difficult manageable standards consistent with the Equal Protection Clause.” — Justice William Douglas, DeFunis v. Odegaard, 1974.

“Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” — Justice Harlan Stone, Hirabayashi v. US , 1943.

The University of California System perpetually finds itself at the center of affirmative action controversies in college admissions. This is no accident. In 1973, Alan Bakke applied for admission to the University of California, Davis Medical School. The medical school had 100 positions available for incoming students. Of these, the medical school reserved 16 for minority applicants. Alan Bakke demonstrated that he had test scores and an academic record superior to minority students that had been admitted under the special program.

Bakke sued. The case worked its way up through the courts. In 1978, the US Supreme Court found that since race was the only reason that Bakke had been excluded from the special program, the University of California violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. The Court did, however, leave open the possibility that race might still be considered as one factor in the admissions process. In particular, “race or ethnic background may be deemed a `plus’ in a particular applicant’s file, [so long as the applicant’s race] does not insulate the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.”

The University of California System nonetheless seems intent upon making sure that the college admissions process yields the appropriate number of students in different racial and ethnic groups. Seizing upon the wording of the Bakke decision, the University of California employed race and ethnicity as one additional factor in admissions. If race and ethnicity had remained a modest consideration only playing a part in borderline cases, splitting the difference between students with similar credentials, the policy might have continued indefinitely. However, this additional factor turned out in many cases to be a definitive one. At the University of California at Berkeley there was a time when the mean SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores between black and white students was 200 points out of a possible 1600. Since Asian-American students were statistically over-represented, they faced even higher barriers than whites did for admission.

Because of such abuse of discretion, the sense of justice among California citizens eventually caught up with the University of California. In November 1996, Californians passed Proposition 209, which read in part:

“The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

The Supreme Court granted the University of California the discretion to consider race, the citizens of California suffering under its abusive use terminated the discretion.

University of California President Richard Atkinson is now proposing to eliminate SATs as an admissions criterion in favor of a more “holistic” evaluation of applicants. Part of the problem with the test, according to Atkinson, is that is serves as a barrier to access for minority students. Atkinson talks of using SAT achievement tests (SAT IIs) as a partial substitute. This is disingenuous given that such achievement tests would favor students with access to more rigorous curricula, most commonly more affluent students.

No one believes that SAT tests or any other test is a means to completely and solely evaluate potential students. Any school that looks solely at SAT scores or scores from similar tests does itself a disservice. SAT tests cannot measure dedication, assiduousness, motivation and other character traits important in making maximum use of a college education. SAT scores do not measure musical or athletic achievement, which may be an important part of a student’s contribution to a school.

Nonetheless, elimination of the SAT test throws away important information. According to comparisons of SAT scores and college grades, SAT scores forecast approximately 25% of the college academic performance of students. High school grades and ranking, taken together, have about the same predictive value as the SAT. Standardized test scores and high school academic achievement are the best predictors of college success.1,2 Even with these measures, student performance cannot be completely forecast. It would, therefore, be unwise to dismiss the important information provided by SATs. More information, not less is required.

Ironically abandoning the SAT test may hurt minority students. Although, minority students have on average lower scores than white applicants, statistics from the College Board suggest that SAT tests actually overpredict minority performance in college. If other criteria could more accurately predict college performance, access for minority students could be reduced.

The likely reason that Atkinson is really proposing to eliminate SAT scores is to muddy the college admissions process with so much arbitrary discretion that Atkinson will be able to implement a covert racial spoils system. It would be very difficult to go to court and argue that any particular student has been arbitrarily treated if the judgment criteria are undecipherable or amorphous. The absence of clear standards hides racial or ethnic discrimination and allows it to survive scrutiny. If one really wants to have an effect on minority access to college education, the emphasis must be on the front end, in young childhood. Squandering efforts in the college admissions process by stacking the system merely covers a much larger wound with a tiny Band-Aid and ultimately does a disservice to those who preferential treatment is meant to help.

  1. Bridgeman, Brent, Laura McCamley-Jenkins, and Nancy Ervin, “Predictions of Freshman Grade Point Average from the Revised and Recentered SAT I: Reasoning Test,” College Board Research Report No. 2000-1. ETS RR No. 00-1, College Entrance Examination Board, New York.
  2. Wightman, Linda F., “Standardized Testing and Equal Access: A Tutorial,” Book Chapter in Compelling Interest , Eds: Mitchell Chang, Daira Witt, James Jones, Kenji Hakuta, sponsored by the American Educational Research Association and Standard University Center fro Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, in press.

Be Not Afraid

Sunday, February 18th, 2001

To those that knew him well, John Bradley was a middle-American citizen whose soft hues seemed reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. He spent the bulk of his life quietly raising his family, running a modest business in Wisconsin, and eschewing opportunities for attention and rewards, while earning the respect of his community. In an age that worships celebrity, it is hard to appreciate those who value achievement over self-aggrandizement.

Yet John Bradley was briefly a celebrity. The fact that few now recognize his name is a testament to how steadily and assiduously he worked at maintaining a conventional life. John Bradley was a medical corpsman in the Navy who was one of the six soldiers that raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi on the small volcanic island of Iwo Jima during the World War II. A photograph of the marines and corpsman tilting the flag into place instantly became a national symbol of courage and honor. Only three of six in the photograph survived the next few days. The US Government retrieved the three remaining “heroes” and used them to promote a seventh war bond campaign. Nonetheless, Bradley and the other survivors viewed the fellow Marines who were killed as the true heroes of Iwo Jima.

It is hard to imagine the courage, fortitude, and devotion that motivated the marines that captured Iwo Jima. Despite incredible losses, these men moved day-after-day rooting out an equally determined enemy who would rather die than surrender. It was a time when “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” The accidents of history asked much of what has been called the “Greatest Generation” and they responded.

It would be foolish to seek economic or military crises just to serve as a test of metal. We live in a time of relative peace and prosperity and this is certainly a wonderful blessing. Nonetheless, I have often wondered whether, if called upon, we Baby Boomers who have spent their lives basking as the center of attention, could muster the same courage. Could the D (digital)-generation the children of the Baby Boomers, pampered with the Internet and video games and mind-numbed by MTV, find the fortitude of their grandparents?

In a recent speech, the usually quiet Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas raised the possibility that we too face a challenge that is, in a different but important way, threatening to the nation. The fact that the new challenges are subtler makes them difficult to recognize.

Justice Thomas is worried that an undue emphasis on “civility,” toleration, and being non-judgmental has circumscribed rather then enlarged the scope of the vigorous debate necessary for a democratic society. Because the Left has effectively demonized legitimate positions on important issues, Conservatives censor themselves lest they be ridiculed and labeled as racist, homophobic, misogynist, or plain mean-spirited. The reactionary liberals have used this strategy to place their policy proscriptions outside the scope of legitimate debate. The tendency to bow to these pressures represents, according to Thomas, intellectual cowardice.

Justice Thomas’s comments can and will be deliberately parodied to suggest that Thomas is against civil discourse. Of course he is for civility, but not the false civility that degenerates into a dishonest modulation of ideas that obscures real and important differences. There are those who could say that Justice Thomas’s call for intellectual fortitude is somehow in conflict with President George Bush’s effort to return civility to political discourse. In reality, it would only be a contradiction if one constrains the meaning of civility to the narrow definition of silence or unwillingness to make spirited yet fair argument.

According to Thomas, “A good argument diluted to avoid criticism is not nearly as good as an undiluted argument, because we best arrive at truth though a progress of vigorous and honest debate.” Those who engage in “debates of consequence” should expect to be treated badly, but must remain “undaunted” in this pursuit.

Justice Thomas is a devout Catholic who has drawn lessons of courage and forthrightness from Pope John Paul II. The Pope has been a key figure in the twentieth century, helping to liberate Eastern Europe, consoling those persecuted in Africa, and calling upon the rich western countries to eschew a “culture of death.” According to Thomas, the common theme that runs through the Pope’s message is to stand up for what you believe to be right and most of all “be not afraid.”

Of course, we are all afraid. John Bradley was afraid as he landed on shores of Iwo Jima, pinned down by machine gun fire and artillery shelling. Eastern Europeans were afraid under dictatorial constraints of Communist rule. In a smaller, but still important way, Conservatives are afraid of the personal attacks that can come for standing up for certain beliefs. The injunction to “be not afraid,” is not an instruction on how to feel, but how to act.

Today’s challenges do not require us “to risk our lives against some monstrous tyranny.” Thomas tells us that, “though the war in which we are engaged is cultural, not civil, it tests whether this ‘nation: conceived in liberty…can long endure.”’ How we act now, whether we choose to “be not afraid” in the face of intimidation, will indicate whether we honor in a small way those who froze at Valley Forge, died at Gettysburg, or climbed the slopes of Mount Suribachi.

Happy Birthday to Ronald Reagan at 90

Sunday, February 11th, 2001

(With sincere apologies to Dr. Seuss.)

Today is your day.
You went to great places!
Dutch you had your fine day.

You had brains in your head.
You had pride in your heart.
You led our great country
At the end and the start.

You were alive when the Cold War began.
Up to the Evil Empire you did stand.
Those who said the Soviets were here to stay
Were the same to claim they would fall anyway.

To Berlin all the way you flew
And stood up tall,
And invited Gorbachov to,
“Tear down this wall!”

When you came in inflation was high.
Interest rates caused borrowers to cry.
When you left inflation was tame.
And the prime rate fell just the same.

Of all that you have achieved, one thing stands out.
Of American greatness you had no doubt.
You reminded us all of what’s inside.
We can now look at each other in pride.

And did you succeed?
Yes! You did indeed
Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed.

Partnership With Faith-Based Communities

Sunday, February 4th, 2001

If one had $1000 to alleviate the suffering of others, would it be wiser to donate the funds to the Salvation Army or to the Department of Health and Human Services? The obvious answer to this question lends itself to the possibility that some government resources may be more effectively deployed to faith-based institutions and other local community groups. While government-provided social services form the necessary “social safety net,” it has become clear that some problems seem amenable to more decentralized efforts.This last week, George W. Bush established a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives devoted to reducing regulations and abating barriers that unnecessarily stand in the way of cooperation between the government and communities of faith in alleviating social problems. Though taxpayer funds may be used by religious organizations, Bush’s initiative directs that “delivery of social services must be results oriented and should value the bedrock principles of pluralism, nondiscrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality.” Secular non-profit organizations will also be enlisted in a “multi-pronged effort that focuses on community, non-profit, and faith-based” organizations “to deliver social services.”

For some on the Left there is the fear of theocratic, government-funded institutions requiring testaments of faith before social services are rendered and the suspicion that private institutions will replace public obligations to those in need. For those enamored of regulations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Bush’s initiative represents “a dangerous loosening of licensing and standards for providers of social services.” These concerns on the Left are matched by worries on the Right that government funds will inevitably bring with it controls that will undermine the mission of religious organizations. Religious institutions might become less effective precisely because they become too entwined with government.

Bush has selected a Democrat, Professor John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania, to head his effort. DiIulio is sensitive to these issues and will probably proceed deliberately and carefully in implementing a partnership between the government and various community institutions.

There are some core principles that can serve to avoid compromising both religious neutrality on the part of the state and the integrity of religious institutions.


Social services offered by any institution directly funded by the government must be available to all eligible people regardless of religious belief. This is actually a rather simple burden to meet in many cases. By far, the most common social outreach efforts provided by churches are soup kitchens. Providing food does not involve any direct religious component. Although such services might be provided in a religious environment, crosses on the walls in the basement of a church, for example, the service itself does not require any religious affirmation by clients. Care should be taken to insure that a diversity of service providers is available so that those uncomfortable in a religious environment can be accommodated.

Avoid Use of Government Funds for Overhead

Religious institutions should scrupulously avoid relying on government funding to pay for overhead costs or other core expenses. The church or temple mortgage payments should not be dependent on continued government support of a program. If government requirements become too onerous or appear to conflict with the mission of a religious group, such organizations should be able to comfortably walk away from previous arrangements.

Empower Individuals to Choose Service Providers

If faith or spirituality is required as part of a program, that service should be provided via a voucher given to the client rather than direct government funding. Clients should be able to choose the program, secular or not, that best serve their needs. By using the intermediary of the client, government can avoid excessive entanglement with religious institutions while supporting successful programs. This approach in this context has not yet been embraced by Bush, but may become a option as Bush’s initiatives grow.

The most problematic situations occur when social services involve a faith component. For example, some faith-based programs for drug and convict rehabilitation have a spectacular record of success and this success is dependent upon the emotional and spiritual support associated with faith-based ministries. Joseph Califano, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare for President Jimmy Carter and a Great Society Democrat, explained in an interview with US News and World Report that ex-drug addicts he comes into contact with invariably claim that religion was an important component in their rehabilitation. Seriousness about significantly reducing drug addition requires encouraging the efforts of faith-based and faith-centered programs.

Secular drug rehabilitation programs have recidivism rates of over 50%. By contrast, Charles Colson, reformed Watergate criminal, reports “San Antonio’s Victory Fellowship — a Christian program — has a recidivism rate of 20%. Prison Fellowship’s Transition of Prisoners Program, which includes a focus on substance abuse, has a recidivism rate of 9%.”

It is shortsighted to deny desperate clients access to programs with proven success records. Government neutrality with respect to religion can be maintained by allowing clients to opt personally between secular or faith-based programs.

Common Sense, Sensitivity, and Tolerance

Government funds have found their way to private faith-based institutions in the past in ways that have benefited the community and avoided un-Constitutional entanglement between the state and church. Many private universities in the country are affiliated with churches, yet students use government grants and loans to attend these very schools. Church-affiliated hospitals manage to accept Medicare payments with little problem.

There will be some on the Left that will seize any case where a faith-based institution improperly uses funds to undermine the entire effort in much the same way that “welfare queens” were used to undermine support for welfare. There will be those on the Right that chafe at legitimate requirements for financial accountability on some private institutions. Wisdom is the key to reconciliation of these problems.

George Bush’s experience in Texas provides a useful example of the application of common sense. In 1995, a Texas agency stopped funding a very effective Christian anti-drug organization because the counselors in the program lacked the state-mandated classroom hours. In the words of Marvin Olasky, the guru of compassionate Conservatives,

“When the organization’s drug-free alumni from diverse ethic origins demonstrated with great Texas resonance at the Alamo, cards and letters poured into the Governor’s office. Governor Bush had the political acumen and human concern to come to that group’s aid, and then propose legislation to pen up the regulatory dogs.”

This experience explains Bush’s emphasis on evaluating programs on the basis of “results” not mere technical rule compliance. Bush’s current efforts are fraught with potential difficulties. Political enemies are sure to seize upon any set back. However, not to pursue this approach is to allow fear and cynicism to prevent the alleviation of suffering.

For their part, faith-based institutions should consider a permutation of the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant us the serenity to accept government funds when appropriate,
Courage to eschew such funds when they threaten our mission, and the wisdom to know the difference.