Are Campus Protests A Product Of Academic Mismatch?

Bauerlein mismatch pic

(By Mark Bauerlein)

As we watch undergraduates march on the quad, occupy the administration building, storm the president’s house, and demand wholesale changes in personnel and policy, let’s understand that the administrators and faculty have created these perceptions of “structural” or “systemic” racism.  It comes down to the “mismatch” problem of affirmative action and the tensions it fosters.  The progressives and social engineers have pushed affirmative action on the basis of a utopian idea, but they overlook the concrete conditions of real people caught at the center of the programs.  They deserve the scorn of the individuals they promised to help.

The students leading the charge are clear about how they feel about the faculty and officials.  They despise them.  That student screaming at the Yale professor about security and informing him in pungent f-words that he ought to be removed from his post isn’t licensed to do so out of simple moral outrage over the social-political situation on campus.  She directs her disgust straight at him.  The list of demands issued by the Black Students at Emory University, where I teach, was riddled with contempt for campus leaders, its threatening tone clear from the ultimatum, “If we do not receive a response, and our demands are not met, we will take appropriate nonviolent actions which will escalate until our demands are met.”  They don’t just want to gain more advantages for a historically-disadvantaged population.  Some of them want to affront and demean the faculty and officeholders.

It’s humiliating for those of us on campus who are inclined to meet insult with a hard and firm annulment.  When campus leaders respond with indulgence such as the President Salovey statement, our dismay rises.  They think that pacification will end the demands and produce a less fractious student body, and so they promise to hire more faculty of color and to provide more spaces of academic support and caregiving.

It isn’t hard to interpret these gestures as forms of bureaucratic management.  Bureaucrats search for any quick solution in order to make a problem go away, at least for a while.  If we can just get out of the media spotlight and calm people down and maintain our positive “brand,” they think, then a momentary self-abasement and compromise is worth it.

Their approach has a surface rationale, to be sure.  Protesters want more resources, more group representation at the head of the classroom, more recognition of their suffering.  But it won’t stifle the complaints for very long.  The current list of grievances we find issued to campus administrators has too many odd features inappropriate to higher education for us to take it as face value.  Talk of “safe spaces” and “a community of care” and “triggers” by individuals who can vote, serve in the military, and file their own taxes can’t be straightforward and literal.  This is not the idiom of grown-ups, much less independent citizens in a free republic.  It must have a latent significance.

Earlier this year, social scientists Peter Arcidacono and Michael Lovenheim issued a paper entitled “Affirmative Action and Quality-Fit Tradeoff.” The study went further than customary takes on the performance of students who benefited from affirmative action.  Usually, success is measured by graduation rates.  Arcidiacono and Lovenheim look at choice of major, too, and find a troubling trend.  Here, the researchers confirm a pattern noticed by Arcidiacono and two co-authors in a controversial 2012 study entitled “What Happens After Enrollment?  An Analysis of Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice.” Here is the summary of what happens to students who are less prepared than other students in the incoming classes:

Differences in grading standards and study time have disproportionate effects on those who are at the bottom of the preparation distribution. Within colleges, there is massive sorting surrounding who persists in majors in the sciences, with those who have higher SAT scores (and in particular SAT math scores) being much more likely to persist in the sciences (Arcidiacono 2004, Arcidiacono, Aucejo, and Hotz 2013).

The “massive sorting” takes place because under-prepared students can’t perform to the level of better-prepared students, and so they leave for easier majors—less prestigious and less remunerative ones.  The process, researchers discovered, has a significant racial component.

In their earlier study, Arcidiacono and his team found that African-American male students were more likely than white male students to declare an initial interest in science majors, but they had a significantly lower rate of completing those majors.  Fully 54 percent of them ended up in the humanities or social sciences, while only eight percent of whites did.  The crucial finding was, the later study states, “this entire racial gap can be accounted for by controlling for academic background.”

In other words, the lesser college-readiness that affirmative action recipients possess has its effect once those students begin their coursework.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  Affirmative action students have lower SAT and ACT scores, which are highly predictive of academic success.

The pattern follows from the test scores, though the discrepancies are larger than one might have expected.  The affirmative action students are bright and ambitious, but the Tier One school is a rarefied atmosphere containing the best of the best. The more competitive and rigorous the discipline, the more discrimination between stronger and not-as-strong students will take place.  If you are in the 80th percentile in the overall population, you are one of the superior ones, but if you’re among people in the 90th percentile and up, you’re decidedly inferior.

What is important here is to acknowledge the human impact of the trend.  Why do affirmative students drift away from STEM fields?  They want to become doctors and engineers and scientists.  It’s a dream for many of them, and as they head to college everything seems to be falling into place.  They have performed superbly in high school, well enough to enter super-selective institutions, so they assume that success will continue.

Then comes the first weeks of organic chemistry and differential equations.  Here is where the mismatch comes to a head.  Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, authors of Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, imagine what happens at that point.  They interviewed more than one hundred “people from all walks of life who shared the experience of receiving racial preferences in college,” they say in the opening pages, “and who have endured or seen classmates endure traumatic university experiences.”  Scattered in the book are testimonials from students, one of them admitting, “I had what I can only describe as a complete nervous breakdown.”

Here’s the process as “mismatch theory” projects it.  When affirmative action recipients enter STEM classes, the presentations go much more quickly and impersonally than they did a few months before in high school.  The professor (or grad student or adjunct) doesn’t seem to be interested in the students.  All the encouragement and support seems to have fled.  Other students in class appear to be right on track, answering questions and following the equations on the screen with ease—and they’re all white and Asian—while the affirmative action students struggle to keep up.  One subject tells Taylor and Sander, “People in my class had had science since grammar school, but I wasn’t even introduced to science until my sophomore year of high school.”  The workload is frightful.  They have gone from being recruited and cajoled and praised by the admissions process to being swamped by the assignments and chastised by the professor (through lower grades).

We should add a social aspect to the academic one, too, one that takes a high emotional toll.  They are 19 years old, away from family and home for the first time.  High school buddies are far away.  Other kids seem to slide smoothly into college life, but these ones dread the midterm.  They end up discouraged and insecure.  It is humiliating to be drawn into a situation with happy impressions of your own rightness only to realize that all your expectations were wrong.  They have no other outlet than rage against the system that has put them into this trap.

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