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Saturday, July 19, 2014

No, the University of Wisconsin - Madison is Not Planning to Distribute Grades Based on Race

I feel the need to make this seemingly-obvious point because John Leo at Minding the Campus is claiming the exact opposite. From his strongly-worded post:

A remarkable article on the University of Wisconsin (Madison) appeared yesterday on the John William Pope Center site. In it, UW economics professor W. Lee Hansen writes about a comprehensive diversity plan prepared for the already diversity-obsessed campus. The report, thousands of words long, is mostly eye-glazing diversity babble, filled with terms like “compositional diversity,” “critical mass,” “equity mindedness,” “deficit-mindedness,” “foundational differences,” “representational equity” and “excellence,” a previously normal noun that suffers the loss of all meaning when printed within three words of any diversity term. 
But Professor Hansen noticed one very important line in the report that the faculty senate must have missed when it approved this text: a call for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high-status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.” So “representational equity” means quotas at all levels. And let’s put that last one in caps: GRADES WILL BE GIVEN OUT BY RACE AND ETHNICITY.
While affirmative action is a fascinating topic from a constitutional law and federal courts perspective, I typically try to avoid discussing it because of the strong reactions this topic can inspire. But when bad arguments or sketchy claims are made in a debate -- even one involving a controversial subject -- I think that it can be worth stepping in to call out the nonsense.

And if that nonsense is in all capital that point a reply is all but necessary.

The report that Leo discusses is available in full here. I invite the reader with time on his or her hands to read the report in full and search for the quote Leo highlights. The reader with less time can CTRL-F search the article for the quote. But both readers will be disappointed, because the “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high-status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades" quote does not appear in the report.

A side-trip to the post by W. Lee Hansen that Leo references at the beginning of his own post clears up some of the confusion. Hansen notes that the quote about the grades doesn't come from the report at all. It is, in fact, from an earlier, "Inclusive Excellence" agenda item from a 2009 meeting of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

Compounding Leo's error is the brief treatment of the 2009 Inclusive Excellence agenda item in the 2014 report. It is far from a call to distribute grades based on race and ethnicity. The report recognizes that the Inclusive Excellence concept is something that departments should keep in mind -- but the report does not treat the 2009 item as a comprehensive diversity plan. Rather, the 2014 report and its numerous, specific proposals serves as the UW-Madison diversity plan.

Up to this point, Leo has been mainly guilty of misquoting and mischaracterizing the UW diversity plan. But there is one final point worth making against Leo's rush to condemn the plan. One major argument against affirmative action programs is that they result in academic "mismatch." Richard Sander is probably most well known for advancing this thesis, most notably in his book, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help and Why Universities Won't Admit It (co-authored with Stuart Taylor Jr.).

In that book, he argues that affirmative action creates academic mismatch by placing students of color in schools where they are unprepared for the academic competition they face. By granting preferences to students based on race, schools pay less attention to whether those students have an adequate academic background to compete effectively with other students. This causes the students of color to fall behind in their studies and ultimately be less likely to graduate or excel in their chosen areas of study.

But if mismatch is such a convincing reason against affirmative action, it seems unfair to preclude proponents of affirmative action from arguing that elimination of mismatch should be a priority for schools. Leo and Hansen both recoil at the idea of a more equal distribution in grades. But all that this goal really articulates is a desire to eliminate the mismatch effect that so many opponents of affirmative action highlight as a major problem. If academic mismatch is indeed a problem with affirmative action, then I think it is perfectly sensible for proponents of affirmative action to reply that focused tutoring and outreach be employed to improve the situation.

Leo's characterization of the UW-Madison plan is not only sloppy -- it effectively forecloses proponents of affirmative action from defending their policies against mismatch arguments. Moreover, Leo's characterization of the diversity plan is no more accurate than Above the Law's Elie Mystal's characterization of Sander's mismatch thesis as an argument about "why black people aren't smart enough to be involved in higher education." This overly-hasty and inaccurate approach muddles the discussion of an important issue and prevents reasoned debate.


  1. So, you are arguing that "distribution of grades" is - in practicality - simply "focused tutoring and outreach?"

  2. I'm arguing that "distribution of grades" in the context of the UW-Madison policies were stated as a goal to be achieved rather than a set of actions for faculty to take. While actively distributing grades based on race is problematic, working toward a situation where grades are more equally distributed does not necessitate that type of active grade distribution. The UW-Madison policies treat grade distribution as a goal, rather than a course of action. Implying that a goal of grade distribution is the same as active distribution is misleading, and the goal of a distribution is far more likely to manifest itself through focused tutoring and outreach programs as the 2014 policy illustrates.

  3. I think it sounds a lot more like grading on a curve than "focused tutoring." This is especially true when you consider one of the other definitions offered by the UW System as a part of the same stated goals: "Deficit Mindedness."