THE AFFIRMATIVE-ACTION PRESIDENT'S DILEMMA
By David B. Wilkins. David B. Wilkins is a law professor and director of the legal
profession program at Harvard Law...
February 7, 2001
It is common knowledge that President Bush was not much of a student. Although the facts
of his lack of academic distinction--at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Yale
University and Harvard Business School--are well known, few people have stopped to ask a
seemingly obvious question: How did someone with mediocre grades get admitted to two of
this nation's most prestigious universities? With respect to Yale, the answer is plain.
George W. Bush was admitted to Yale because his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, and
his grandfather, Prescott Bush, were prominent alumni.
Giving preferential treatment to the children of alumni is standard practice at most elite
institutions of higher learning. University officials claim these "legacy
admittees" strengthen their schools by creating continuity across the generations and
building a loyal alumni base. This justification parallels the most commonly articulated
defense for affirmative action in minority admissions. But Bush and many of his supporters
have expressed skepticism--and in the case of U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, outright
hostility--for affirmative-action policies for minority students while saying virtually
nothing about the affirmative help routinely given to alumni children.
The president's admirers who oppose affirmative action for minorities might try to avoid
this uncomfortable analogy by offering a different justification for Yale's decision.
During the campaign, those supporting Bush typically chalked up his academic difficulties
to youthful indiscretion, emphasizing instead his record in business and as governor of
Texas. Judged from the perspective of his post-graduation accomplishments, his defenders
implicitly assert, Yale's decision to admit the future president was a wise one.
The empirical record, however, belies any attempt to distinguish the two forms of
affirmative action on the basis of post-graduation success. The overwhelming majority of
minority students who benefit from affirmative action in university admissions also go on
to become productive and public-spirited citizens. In the most comprehensive study to
date, former university presidents William Bowen and Derrick Bok conclude that black
students from selective colleges and universities lead successful and rewarding careers
that parallel those of their white classmates. A recent study of the University of
Michigan Law School's minority graduates reaches a similar conclusion. Indeed, the
post-graduation success of minority students who neither enjoy Bush's ready access to
circles of power, nor the automatic assumption of competence that still is attached to
those who are white and male, suggests that minorities actually get more out of their
education than their white peers.
Rather than seeking to distinguish affirmative action for legacies from other practices
designed to tailor admissions policies to meet university objectives, Bush and his
supporters would do better to ask what the success of both kinds of affirmative action
says about the predictive value of the "standard" criteria used to admit all
students. In the Michigan study, for example, researchers
found, with only one exception, no statistically significant correlation for any student
between undergraduate grades and scores on the Law School Admissions Test and future
income or public service. The exception is the inverse correlation between test scores and
public service-- the higher a student's LSAT score, the less likely he or she is to engage
in significant public service. These findings suggest that law schools and other
educational institutions should re-examine their admissions processes for all students.
President Bush claims he wants to "leave no child behind" and to "improve
the tone in Washington." Minorities might take this effort more seriously if Bush
were to acknowledge forthrightly the role that legacy affirmative action has played in his
own life. Such candor would go a long way toward persuading minorities that the president
really intends to move beyond traditional Republican rhetoric that brands any effort to
aid minorities as preferential treatment while ignoring advantages routinely given to
those already in positions of power.
Similarly, Bush's pledge to leave no child behind would be more credible if it were
accompanied by an explicit promise that the Bush Justice Department will, notwithstanding
the views of Atty. Gen. Ashcroft, defend admissions policies that ensure minority students
have the same opportunity to succeed as Bush was given when he was admitted to Yale.
Should Bush yield to those on the right and attack affirmative action for minorities while
saying nothing about legacy admissions, he will reveal that compassionate conservatism has
almost nothing to do with practices that promote diversity and everything to do with
policies that protect the children of privilege.