John Leo
A Harvard University Press book exploring a fairly narrow question -- why aren't there more black and Hispanic professors? -- is about to take center stage in the affirmative-action debate.

The book, "Increasing Faculty Diversity: The Occupational Choices of High-Achieving Minority Students," reports that roughly 10 percent of high-achieving black and Hispanic college seniors want to become professors -- about the same percentage as whites. But only a small pool of non-Asian minorities earn grades good enough to get them into graduate school. And the study finds that affirmative action is making things worse: It steers minority students to selective colleges where they are underqualified and likely to get lower grades. The low marks make them less likely to attend graduate school. They also erode students' confidence, often convincing them that they aren't suited for academic careers.

The argument that affirmative action disturbs the proper "fit" between most minority students and the colleges they attend has been made for years by conservatives, notably by Thomas Sowell, the economist and columnist currently at the Hoover Institution. The argument says that out of "diversity" concerns, the most selective colleges that usually accept students with 1400 SATs find almost no blacks and Hispanics at that level, so they reach down to take minorities with 1200 scores. The colleges that usually require 1200 scorers then take minorities with 1000 SAT scores, so that on each rung of the campus hierarchy, black and Hispanics are in danger of being overmatched by a fast curriculum and better prepared white and Asian students. The universities get credit for pursuing diversity, but the negative effects of that pursuit don't register with parents or the public.

Studies on the ill effects of preferences are usually shrugged off by academia, but this one may prove unshruggable. It has impeccably liberal sponsors: the Mellon Foundation and the presidents of the eight Ivy League schools. As a result, it is likely to have some impact on the Supreme Court debate over preferences at the University of Michigan. Claude Steele, professor of psychology at Stanford and a member of the study's advisory panel, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Sandra Day O'Connor's law clerks are likely to notice: "They'll say, 'Look at this. Here's a real thorough study, and it's arguing that affirmative action is harming these kids.'"

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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