Admitting Error
The New Republic
Issue date: 12.27.99
Post date: 12.09.99
In the wake of legal pressures to end affirmative action, the public universities of America are now facing political pressures to redefine their educational mission. Given the wide SAT-score gaps between white and Asian students on the one hand and black and Hispanic students on the other, governors in three states have concluded that the only way to admit meaningful numbers of minorities to their flagship schools without resorting to racial preferences is to lower admissions standards across the board. Governor George W. Bush of Texas supports a plan that guarantees the top ten percent of graduates from all Texas high schools admission to the Texas public-university campus of their choice, regardless of their SAT scores. His brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, is sponsoring a similar plan that guarantees automatic admission for the top 20 percent of Florida high school graduates. And Gray Davis, the governor of California, has promised slots in the University of California system to graduates in the top four percent of each high school in California. These plans are being hailed as a creative way of balancing racial justice with political reality. In fact, they are a recipe for the destruction of America's great public universities.

The sad drama being played out in Texas, Florida, and California should hardly come as a surprise. Indeed, in a Supreme Court case in 1997, a brief submitted by three University of Texas law professors warned that, "barring a miraculous improvement in elementary and secondary education for minority students, color-blind admissions will soon produce either public universities without competitive admissions, public universities without adequate funds, or both."

The ten percent plan Texas adopted has vindicated the professors' fears. Minority enrollments at the Austin campus, the University of Texas's flagship, have been restored to something like their pre-affirmative-action level, but at the cost of dramatically lowering the academic qualifications of entering freshmen. To address the gaps in preparation, Austin has scrambled to provide special classes and teachers for pre-med students with SAT scores 200 points below the university average. This is a tragic waste of resources. Like the handful of other great public universities in America--Virginia, Berkeley, UCLA, and Michigan--Austin distinguished itself as a research powerhouse, fueling the development of the largest high-tech corridor outside of Silicon Valley. If forced to redirect its resources toward remedial education, which it is ill-equipped to provide (and in which other campuses specialize), Austin will soon find itself unable to attract top-notch research faculty and graduate students. As the destruction of the City College of New York demonstrated, formerly selective public universities can't retain top research faculty when they move toward increasingly open admissions. The consequence in Texas, California, and perhaps Michigan will be a redefinition of the mission of public universities, which will be consigned to providing remedial education while the great centers of research and high-level undergraduate education move entirely to the private sphere.

The New York Times praises the Texas, Florida, and California plans for focusing the attention of public-university administrators on the flaws in early education, writing that "[u]niversity administrators who once thought themselves above the public education debate have realized that, to a great extent, the fates of the public schools and the universities are closely intertwined." But it is unclear why these administrators, who have no expertise in K-12 education, should spend their time and resources trying to reform an early-education system that the rest of society has shamefully allowed to deteriorate rather than focusing on the quality of the universities for which they are directly responsible.

The most tragic aspect of the dismantling of the great public universities is how little is gained and how much is lost in the process. Only a handful of campuses are selective enough to have resorted to racial preferences in the first place. But these are precisely the campuses that are being destroyed by the dismantling of selective admissions procedures. As Samuel Issacharoff of Columbia Law School points out, the flagship campuses of the public universities served a dual function. Through highly selective admissions standards, they became models of excellence in teaching and research. At the same time, through affirmative action programs that allowed them to lower admissions standards for a small group of students, they were able to sustain their political viability as public institutions by appearing to serve all the people of the state. Now