Affirmative Action and Racial Preference at the University of Michigan

by Carl Cohen

Professor Carl Cohen, a long-time member of the Philosophy Department faculty at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, discusses the presence of racial preferences and biases in the admissions policy of his institution. Cohen makes the case that such policies are intrinsically immoral and have no place in any public institution. It should be remembered, in regard to Dr. Cohen’s essay, that the notions of racial preference and group indemnity are intimately linked to the ideas of multiculturalism and diversity, which show up frequently in the existing undergraduate curriculum. In effect, Dr. Cohen shows what type of practice derives from the theory to which so many in the contemporary academy seem intent on recruiting students.

The public policy professed by the University of Michigan is one of strictly equal treatment of the races. In the disclaimer appearing in official University catalogs (and elsewhere) in the fall of 1995: “The University of Michigan is committed to a policy of non-discrimination and equal opportunity for all persons regardless of race, sex, color, creed, national origin or ancestry . . . in employment, educational programs and activities, and admissions.”

The formally approved practices of several Colleges within the University—as will be seen in detail below—do not accord with this professed commitment. In fact, preference by race is given systematically at the University of Michigan to applicants for admission—to the Law School, to the Medical School, and to the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. The evidence for this is overwhelming, the conclusion indisputable. The passages cited below, and figures given below, are all taken from official University documents obtained in response to Freedom of Information Act Requests which carefully avoided all individual identifications. Some documents requested were not provided, but the figures appearing on those that were provided are sufficient to demonstrate the case.

Preference for admission to the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LS&A) for some racial groups is formally manifested in several ways.

1. Decisions Made on First Review of Applicants

The Office of Undergraduate Admissions prepares a many page document entitled “College of Literature, Science and the Arts / Guidelines for All Terms of 1996.” The first page of this document gives admissions officers (“counselor”) a table that directs their responses to applications on first review; some applicants are admitted at that time, some are rejected, and some decisions are postponed. Many decisions to admit or reject are specified as to be made automatically, by clerks. The table is headed “CONFIDENTIAL Internal Use Only.”

All applicants are divided into 90 intellectual categories, or “cells,” on the official table. Each cell is delineated by a combination of grade-point average in earlier schooling (on the vertical axis) and ACT or SAT scores (on the horizontal axis). In each cell is written two or three lines of code, indicating responses to be made to applicants on first review. At the top of the table appears this instruction: “In general, use the top row in each cell for majority applicants and the middle and bottom rows for underrepresented minorities and other disadvantaged students.”

There are many cells, many categories of performance, in which the directed response to majority applicants is rejection, but (with exactly the same scores) the directed response to minority applicants is acceptance. In ten cells, for example, in which GPA is 3.0 and above but SAT scores are below 1000, majority applicants are rejected; minority applicants accepted. In 24 cells in which GPA is below 2.7, majority applicants are rejected by clerks without further attention, while minority applicants, although not automatically admitted, are channeled for special processing. In nine mid-range cells in which GPAs are somewhat above 3 and SAT score are somewhat above 1090, minority applicants are accepted for admission while majority applicants are postponed for further review.

A careful review of the LS&A decision grid leaves no possible doubt that the system of first review response distinguishes sharply between minorities and nonminorities, giving substantial preference to the former. Whether the “Affirmative Action Objectives” of LS&A are quotas in fact is, as Justice Powell said in Bakke, a “semantic distinction [that] is beside the point. . . . It is a line drawn on the basis of race and ethnic status.”

2. Admission Percentages to LS&A, by Ethnic Groups, Fall of 1994

In addition to preferential policies, such as those governing admission to LS&A, it is possible to exhibit marked preferential results.

A document headed “Office of Undergraduate Admissions” and subheaded “Profile of the University of Michigan, Fall 94, For All Units” gives a table, or grid, with 108 categories or “cells” delineated by “former school GPA” on the vertical axis and “best test score” [SAT or ACT] on the horizontal axis. In each cell appear the number in that category who applied, and the number in that category who were offered admission.

Grids of identical form are prepared for “underrepresented minorities,” and for all students. The fraction, admissions / applications, gives the percentage in that cell who were offered admission. Those percentages, for minorities and non minorities, may be readily compared. These comparisons reveal strong systematic preference in favor of minorities in LS&A for 1994. In almost every cell in which there were any minority applicants at all, the percentage of minority admissions was higher than the percentage of nonminority admissions. In many cells and groups of cells the minority admission rate was very much higher.

(a) If an applicant’s GPA was between 2.80 and 2.99 (B-), and SAT scores were 1200-1290, then the nonminority admission rate was 12% while the minority admission rate was 100%.

With the same GPA and SAT scores of 1100-1190, then the nonminority admission rate was 11% while the minority admission rate was 100%.

With the same GPA and SAT scores of 900-990, then the nonminority admission rate was 17% while the minority admission rate was 92%

(b) If an applicant’s GPA was between 3.40 and 3.60 (B+), and SAT scores were 900-990, then the nonminority admission rate was 13% while the minority admission rate was 98%.

(c) If an applicant’s GPA was between 3.60 and 3.79 (A-), and SAT scores were 800-890, then the nonminority admission rate was 12% while the minority admission rate was 100%.

And so on and on. There is no doubt that, flatly on the basis of minority group membership, strong preference is given in admission to the College of LS&A.

Similar programmatic biases can be shown in the selection of applicants to the Integrated Premedical-Medical Program (INTEFLEX), to the Law School of the University of Michigan, and to the Medical School of the University of Michigan.

Reasonable persons will agree that non-numerical factors—evidence other than a student’s GPA or test scores—are appropriately considered in offering admission to applicants. Such factors as community service, character, special circumstances of earlier schooling, and the like will (rightly) account for many cases of numerically anomalous admission. But if weighed fairly, non-numerical factors will be considered for applicants of every ethnic group. In all groups there will be applicants with special needs, special talents, or special achievements. Good character and dedication to one’s community are not found disproportionately among the members of any one race or ethnic group.

To give favor to males or females, to whites or blacks, or to persons of any color, because of their sex or color, is morally wrong because doing so is intrinsically unfair. Color, nationality, and sex are not attributes that entitle anyone to more (or less) of the good things in life, or to any special favor (or disfavor). When in the past whites or males did receive such preference, it was deeply wrong. The same type of preference is no less wrong now when the colors or sexes are changed. The very bitter fruit that racism has produced is a consequence of its immorality.

Admission practices at the University of Michigan indeed show very marked preferences by race and ethnic category. This is not consistent with the University’s formal profession of strict equality of treatment by race, cited above.

The question arises—Do the University officers who make the public declaration of commitment to equal treatment know or believe that in fact our practice does not accord with this profession? If they do, troubling issues of honesty arise. If they do not, if they have been truly unaware of the racial preferences we give in admission, then changes certainly ought to be made very promptly now. Either we must change our practices to bring them into accord with the public declaration of our university, or we must change our public declaration so that it reports honestly the racial preferences that we give.