Wisconsin Economics Professor Accuses UW-Madison Of Plan To Require Race-Based “Diversity Grading”

UW-Madison_logo.svgLee Hansen, a professor emeritus of economics at UW-Madison, has caused a stir in academic with an article entitled “Madness in Madison” with the John William Hope Pope Center for Higher Education, a North Carolina-based think tank. The article quotes at length from a UW-Madison guideline entitled Forward Together: A Framework for Diversity and Inclusive Excellence that refers to equity in grading and also references how minority students should be allowed into special programs or high-demand majors. The broad language raises concerns with faculty like Hansen over how professors are supposed to achieve these goals and whether they will be evaluated based on such guidelines. Hansen is a well-respected economist with a long and impressive academic history.

The document contains a definition of diversity that seems to include virtually characteristics of every human on Earth:

Individual differences in personality, learning styles, and life experiences, and group or social differences that may manifest through personality, learning styles, life experiences, and group or social differences. Our definition of diversity also incorporates differences of race and ethnicity; sex; gender; and gender identity or expression; sexual orientation; age; country of origin; language; physical and intellectual ability; emotional health; socio-economic status; and affiliations that are based on cultural, political, religious, or other identities.

It is a challenge to distinguish such a statement on the meaning of diversity from a simple acknowledgment of humanity. It is equally challenging to think of how a professor is to “recogniz[e] [those] individual differences” in teaching beyond recognizing that you have a class of humans rather than androids (which thankfully have not made the list as of yet).

250px-1549_siftwinnowHansen clearly believes that the school’s commitment to “sifting and winnowing” goes a bit too fall when it comes to race.

The real controversy surrounds the more concrete mandate for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.” Hansen notes that students normally compete for high-demand majors and special programs but could now be told that they must select a different major due to their race or ethnic background. Hansen argues that department chairs would have to create in some cases a de facto quota system where students were excluded or included solely on the basis of their race.

The call for consideration of race and ethnic background in grading is the most controversial. The mandate for “proportional participation . . . in the distribution of grades” has created the greatest outcry. It is not clear how a professor is to guarantee such “participation” in the grade distribution. The obvious fear is that race is supposed to be considered. However, to me, it reads like an aspirational statement that the overall program seeks to better educate all students to guarantee that there is racial equality among the top performing students. However, the concern remains about the measures that a professor must take to try to accomplish this objective:

At the very least, this means even greater expenditures on special tutoring for weaker targeted minority students. It is also likely to trigger a new outbreak of grade inflation, as professors find out that they can avoid trouble over “inequitable” grade distributions by giving every student a high grade.

Hansen adds that this analysis of the available data shows that roughly 25 percent of admitted minority students “do not meet the competitive admission standard applied to other applicants [and] find themselves at an immediate academic disadvantage” at the school.”

The debate at UW-Madison is occurring at a time when the Supreme Court is signaling increasing discomfort with race-based admissions and lawsuits are increasing over allegations that state schools continue to circumvent rules against race as a determinative criteria in admissions (or any criteria in some states with prohibitions). We discussed the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Schuette v. BAMN that states, like Michigan, can prohibit any use of race in admissions in a “color-blind” state entrance system for colleges and universities.

The court has been struggling in this area for decades. In 1977, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court allowed only a limited use of race for the purpose of achieving “diversity” in classes. The Medical School at the University of California at Davis set aside 16 of the 100 seats for minorities. The court ruled it unconstitutional but was deeply divided on why — a harbinger for the line of cases that would follow Bakke.

The court spent nearly the next 40 years spinning on the ice of affirmative action, unable to get traction or a clear direction. The court’s split decision in 2003 is illustrative. It was presented with two cases involving the use of race as a criterion in the undergraduate and the law school admissions processes at University of Michigan.

In one case, Gratz v. Bollinger, the court voted 6-3 that the university violated equal protection in the selection of students based on race and other criteria. It then ruled 5-4, in Grutter v. Bollinger, to uphold race criteria in the admissions process for Michigan Law School.However, Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stressed that the court “expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” O’Connor’s statement was ridiculed by many (including some on the court), but seemed to capture the fluidity of the court’s position on the use of race.

In 2013, the court again seemed to produce a nuanced and uncertain decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, where the court rejected a lower court decision upholding the use of race in admissions at the University of Texas. However, it did not prohibit the use of race but rather sent back the case for the imposition of a more demanding test of “strict scrutiny.”

These cases offered little hope that a “bright line” could be reached to bring resolution of the issue and meant that the court would continue to referee such matters. That line, however, was reached in Schuette.

Michigan voters responded to the divided results in the Grutter and Gratz cases to bring their own clarity to the area. They passed a constitutional amendment that required an entirely colorblind process for selection at state schools (as well as barring schools from giving an advantage to some students based on other immutable characteristics like gender). By a vote of 6-2, the court ruled this week that citizens could do precisely that.

Some academics argue that the guidelines like the ones at UW-Madison represent another form of end run around these rulings by telling administrators and faculty that they are tasked with ensuring equity in grading and participation in various programs. In fairness to UW-Madison, I cannot find fault with stating that goal which after all is part of the academic creed of equity and diversity in education. What some view as a requirement to elevate students by race, others would view as merely an aspirational statement on what we hope to achieve as academics. Hansen however notes that such guidelines are taken as more concrete directions and leave faculty uneasy in how they are supposed to help guarantee such results. All academics are already committed to avoiding racial bias (which is often deterred through anonymous grading) and any such prejudice is already grounds for dismissal of an academic. These guidelines raise greater concerns because of the continuing tension of admissions standard that incorporate race and the lack of transparency over admission scores and standards for academics like Hansen.

What is clear is that even the last two Supreme Court decisions in Schuette and Fisher have done little to quell the ongoing controversy and uncertainty over the use of race in admissions or grading. That promises a continuation of decades of litigation over these issues, which is good for commentators like me but hardly positive for academia as a whole.

40 thoughts on “Wisconsin Economics Professor Accuses UW-Madison Of Plan To Require Race-Based “Diversity Grading””

  1. I had a firefighter explain to me years ago how they lowered the physical fitness standards (but ONLY for women) so that women could become firefighters . . . who were then unable to carry unconscious, full grown men out of burning buildings, or carry the hose up flights of stairs.

    I don’t care what gender a firefighter is who’s come to pull me out of a house fire – I just want them to be able to do the job.

    It’s a fact that most men are stronger than most women. I don’t want any bars lowered for me. I just want to be treated equally. If a woman is physically able to pass the test and other requirements to be a firefighter, then go for it. But I won’t care too much about the quota of women that got on the fire department if I burn to death because they’re not strong enough to get me out.

  2. How will they achieve these goals? The same way Affirmative Action has always worked in practice: by lowering standards and imposing quotas.

    Some of my professors bitterly complained when I was in college that they had to teach the class 2 ways: to those who deserved to be there based on academic merit, and to those who were completely lost but had the “right” skin color.

    Making the basal amount of melanin a requirement for anything is a misguided approach. Skin color should have NOTHING to do with your qualifications for ANYTHING. Admissions, the legal system, the real estate market – it should all be blind.

    If you want to improve college admissions for minorities than fix the public education system so that everyone gets an excellent education. Address the high dropout rate among minorities. Fix what is dragging these students behind, but don’t lower the bar for any reason.

    Because what do these people think these programs do to race relations – when the “right” skin color will get you a better grade? I recall some firefighter and cop friends of mine bitterly complaining that it took them years to get in to their respective academies, when they accepted African Americans with far worse test scores and the barest expressed interest. It caused resentment for those recipients of favor.

    1. Karen – the worst example is the NOLA police force that lowered the bar so low they had criminals on the police.

  3. I see all the familiar nom de plumes… This is Face Book to you guys!

  4. Sounds a little silly. Mathematics & engineering obviously is right or wrong. History usually ends up with one version of the truth but these days there could be another right answer. English does have some bearing on ethnicity and social background, but it still has to be good and consistant. One should never give an ethnic minority a higher mark for that reason alone.

  5. Nick wrote “I may have discussed this w/ you”

    Yes, me. It is getting bad there when Islamists even take children’s toys.

    Paul wrote “the 10% figure goes back to the Kinsey Report”

    That answers a few questions. For some people, Kinsey was some kind of god.

  6. Saucy, Thanks much for the article. I may have discussed this w/ you? I have gotten to know several Iraqi Christians in San Diego where I spend winter. They own virtually all the convenience and liquor stores. Great people. They love the US. These guys left during Saddam’s reign of terror. They hated him. They really worry about friends and family who were unwilling or unable to get out of there.

  7. Saucy, The report is @ cdc.gov It’s titled: Report 77 Sexual Orientation and Health Among US Adults. It was published on 7/15/14. It’s extrapolated from the extensive study they did in 2013.

  8. BarkinDog wrote “The Choice Not An Echo mantra started with conservatives. That is the beginning of gay marriage.”

    You really shouldn’t lick your balls when writing comments.

    Phyllis Schlafly wrote a book titled “A Choice Not an Echo.” She opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions. She said that “[a]ttacks on the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman come from the gay lobby seeking social recognition of their lifestyle.”

  9. Annie, accepting a sociological study from the National Bureau of Economic Research is like accepting medical advice from a lawyer.

    The 20% figure does not pass the smell test. Here’s a better article:

    And you really should read the NIH article I referenced because it puts a dim view on the common knowledge that gay adoption is free of risk.

    P.S. The Atlantic is about as liberal as it gets.

  10. How come I always hear this sort of rant that Liberals are in favor of gay people and gay marriage when all the gay people I have met have been conservative as all Hell. The Choice Not An Echo mantra started with conservatives. That is the beginning of gay marriage. Now if you want to talk about marriage and echo then you had to meet my mother in law. Jeso. If they ever name a hurricane after Ruth then I am moving to the mid west on a fast train.

  11. As a guide dog for a half blind guy I can tell you that blind grading is the answer to fairness in schools. The teacher grading the paper, exam, piece of artwork, or whatever should not know the name, rank, race, serial number of the perp involved. To do otherwise would be to have to have the blind leading the blind. God put Dog here on Earth for a variety of purposes.

  12. Nick, the only people throwing out the 10% figure were liberals trying to convince the rest of the population that LGBTs were common to gain popular acceptance, The Atlantic Magazine wrote two years ago that the percentage was between 1 and 2 which sounded right to me. Do you have a URL for the NIH study? The only one I unearthed was one that found that children of homosexuals are more likely to be that way compared to the general population, which is rather significant in itself. I am rather shocked this has not received greater recognition especially considering that “social and parental influences” are a significant factor in someone declaring himself to be LGBT.

    1. saucy – the 10% figure goes back to the Kinsey Report, I think. Kinsey was working with bad data to begin with so his figures were skewed.

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