Unz Debates Yale: Is Affirmative Action as Bad as Meritocracy?
Last Tuesday, I went up to New Haven to hear Ron Unz debate college admissions at the Yale Political Union. The listed topic was “Resolved: Affirmative Action Should be Ended.” Unz would make an initial presentation and take questions, then the students would debate the topic themselves. I think most expected that Unz, as publisher of a conservative magazine, would give a sophisticated but fairly standard critique of the affirmative-action admissions and make the case in favor of a purer “meritocracy.” But of course Unz’s critique of elite admissions doesn’t target only, or even particularly, affirmative action: it is a take-down of the entire process, the elements that are allegedly merit-based as much as those focused on diversity.
I doubt more than a handful of the roughly 200 students in the debate hall had read the Unz article before the evening. They constituted, of course, a naturally tough audience: to persuade them that Yale and other top schools would serve the nation better by, as Unz would argue, setting a minimal standard for kids who could do the work and then filling most of their freshman class by lottery seemed roughly analogous to convincing the membership of Shinnecock that capital gains and dividends should be taxed at a higher rate than ordinary wages. These are kids, after all, who for a brief shining moment in their 17th or 18th year, presented themselves to a secretive admissions committee as brighter, more interesting, more deserving of future elite status than 99.9 percent of their peers in America, and indeed the world. For managing to peak at the right moment, they will receive a stamp marking them as “really smart” for the rest of their lives. Few of them would be inclined easily to deem the process which so honored them as totally without merit.
But Unz, if you don’t already know from his California political activities, has an attractive debate manner, one that seeks rather softly to guide listeners to agreement. His arguments can seem almost gentle in presentation, belying the extent of their radicalism. He surrounds the polemical ground he’s trying to gain rather than charging it head on. And of course, he knows pretty much every available fact and statistic about his subject, the arguments and counterarguments, better than anyone else in the room. If he didn’t exactly make converts, he was certainly warmly received.
I was curious, of course, as to how Yale students would respond to two of Unz’s more important assertions: First, that Asians are now dramatically discriminated against in Ivy admissions, massively underrepresented relative to their grades and test scores. And second, that Jews, having experienced a considerable falling off in top academic performance from a generation or so ago, are now extremely favored in admissions relative to their actual achievement, though here the evidence is somewhat less conclusive. But we never got there. The topic was affirmative action—which doesn’t massively impact either group. And the Unz point about admissions is broader, and he approached it in the broadest terms.
In his initial talk, Unz spoke of the flaws in the current diversity categories: Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic—pointing out that there was just as much diversity within each category as between them. We know that an Hispanic can be a scion of a wealthy Argentinian family of German background or someone from a Bronx barrio; Asians include groups that do relatively great on SATs and academics and groups that are rather below average. Within the white category, there exist many groups, some massively overrepresented on campus, some nearly non-existent. So if diversity is the goal, the Yale campus represents what Unz labeled “pseudo-diversity.” The young woman in the question period who said she sometimes felt like the only Southern Baptist on campus helped illustrate the point. But then, Ivy League admissions also, perhaps primarily, seek to create a meritocracy—admitting the top academic students. The ideological struggle over admissions generally concerns how diversity and meritocracy are balanced. But, Unz asserted, colleges like Yale are falling down in both realms. Unz did allude in passing to the increasingly blatant discrimination against Asians, and the degree of corruption that permeates the process, including the handing out of admissions spots in return for donations to the college. This “corrupt” process would matter less, except, as he noted, “the funnnel of opportunity is narrowing” in American society, and it is increasingly difficult to get to the top without a credential from a top university.
I think the students were not prepared really to grapple with these assertions. They applauded (by pounding on their desks) at some points, as when Unz said that within the white category some groups are massively overrepresented and some are massively underrepresented. (Why, I wondered.) And they expressed disagreement (by hissing, also a YPU practice) at some of his assertions, perhaps especially the idea that admissions for the able be allocated by lottery. In any case, they followed with a debate about affirmative action on more conventional lines, defeating the motion to rescind it by a narrow margin.
Afterwards Unz and a few students repaired to a cafe to continue the discussion. Phil Weiss and I joined them. There he pointed out that the rationales used for the current system—which results in discrimination against Asians and in favor of Jews—were exactly the same as those used by Ivy League administrators in the ‘2os, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s—to keep the Jewish enrollment down to 15 percent or so, lest the colleges come to seem “too Jewish.”
Then he said—which I think is the critical point in all this—that all this wouldn’t matter so much if the United States were doing really well: yes we have this quirky way of choosing our elites, but the country and the people in it are making good progress. But of course, it isn’t; for the past several decades, real incomes of those in the middle of society have been dropping dramatically, while those at the ever narrowing top are expanding. We are involved in seemingly endless wars, especially against countries in the Muslim world. Do these developments have any connection with with the way top colleges choose our elites? While the idea can’t be excluded, Unz’s critique suggests that elite college admissions were less corrupt a generation ago than today. Still, a more general sense of societal leadership failure should put every aspect of how elites are chosen under a microscope.
The next day Unz gave a talk before Asian-American law students and the Federalist Society and then spoke again on the subject at the home of Amy Chua and her husband (law professor Jed Rubenfeld). I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall, or even more, a witness to the private conversations that took place afterwards, assessing what was said, what left unsaid. It is impossible to dispute that Unz has opened up a conversation of absolutely critical importance, and once opened, it’s not going to easily be shut down. Too much is at stake.