"One lesson that I have derived from participating in this debate, for heaven knows how many years, is the simple-minded assumption that you either deserve to be there or you don’t. There isn’t just one index of merit, and the point of admissions is not to bestow gold stars on people who’ve done well before, to predict the future. It’s to choose students to invest in who are going to make the university better and are going to make society better. Those are bets on the future."--William G. Bowen
As the Sotomayor debate ramps up (again) in the next few weeks, here is a reasoned voice on affirmative action from The New Yorker. Surprise! Major corporations, the U.S. military, and institutions of higher education support "affirmative action" because they have learned that a diverse pool of talent is in their immediate material self-interest. As my parents said, "don't trust folks to act rightly, trust them to act in the interest of their pocketbooks"--anti-climactic but often a perspective that is little heard in this emotion filled debate.
William G. Bowen joined the faculty of Princeton in 1958. He became provost in 1967 and served as president of Princeton from 1972, the year Sonia Sotomayor matriculated as a freshman, until 1988. At Princeton, Bowen was involved in the decision to admit women to the university and recruit more minority applicants and faculty, and his 1998 book, “The Shape of the River,” co-written with the former Harvard University president Derek Bok, was the first extensive study of affirmative action in university admissions.
Bowen will be releasing another book this fall with new research into equity and access in American higher education. We sat down in his office at the Mellon Foundation on Wednesday morning. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
You became president of Princeton University, in 1972, at the same time Sonia Sotomayor arrived as a student. Do you remember her?
Oh, very well. I remember her extremely well. The reason I remember her extremely well is, first, she was a presence. Not in the sense that she was someone who pushed herself on you, which she never did—it’s not her character at all—but just because of what she did, how accomplished she was. You couldn’t help but notice a student that exceptional.
She was chosen—I was one of the people who did the choosing—as the Pyne Prize winner in her class. That’s the highest prize Princeton bestows on undergraduates, given to a student with a record of excellent academics. But you can’t be considered for the Pyne Prize unless you’re more than that. It’s for leadership, it’s for being a responsible citizen of the university community, and she had it all. She had, as they say these days, the full package. And so we chose her and I presented the prize to her at alumni day and she was a great recipient.
About halfway through her time at Princeton, she filed a petition to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. What was it?
It was a complaint that the university was not doing enough to hire and advance Latino and Hispanic faculty members, and to recruit students. That was, I’m sure in some respects, true, and she, as a student, wanted things to happen faster than in fact it was possible for them to happen. All of this takes time, and patience, and effort, which on some level she certainly understood.
But I’m sure she felt, as others did, Let’s put a little pressure on the system and see if we can’t get things to move faster. And someone observed that the university did quite a bit better—in fact, a lot better—along these lines before the petition was ever actually reviewed or handled in the government.
Critics of Sotomayor have made a couple of complaints about her Princeton years. One is that she got preferential treatment, and the second is that she showed all of this resentment toward the institution and focussed on the negative, even though she eventually joined Princeton’s board of trustees. What’s your response to that? And why do you think there’s been such an intense focus on a fifty-four-year-old’s experiences when she was in college?
Well, I think she has said, correctly, that her move from Cardinal Spellman High School to a different environment was a formative experience. I think that she grew considerably during her undergraduate years. They changed her, just as she changed the institution, so in that sense it’s appropriate for people to look back on those days.
But I think the criticisms that you identified are entirely off-the-mark. This is a woman of enormous ability. She was going to succeed and going to thrive wherever she was, in any setting. And she did. She accomplished what she accomplished because she was good! I mean, not only was she incredibly smart, as I think there’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate, but she was ... very steady and mature. Remarkably mature. That’s one of the things I remember about her.
And so she put her talents to very good use, to very constructive use. Now on the question of resentment, I don’t think she resented the university at all. I think she saw the university as an excellent university, but she thought it could be better! And it needed to be better. So did I.
She worked very purposefully, but always constructively, to take a good place and make it better. When she received the Pyne Prize, she was certainly very gracious and very generous in her response. I think she’s stayed involved in Princeton over the years because she cared about the place.
If Sotomayor was going to succeed no matter what, then what role do affirmative-action programs play for people like her?
Well. There are not that many Sonia Sotomayors in the world. There just are not. The whole purpose of affirmative-action programs isn’t to find the one-in-a-thousand Sonia Sotomayor, but to diversify campus communities and to identify people of promise who would do well, but who didn’t necessarily have all the qualities and characteristics that she had.
I think the book that Derek Bok and I wrote demonstrates empirically how well the minority students who were recruited to these selective universities performed. And how well they performed after college.
One of the striking findings in “The Shape of the River” is that the civic contributions and engagements of the minority graduates of these selective universities were far greater than the civic commitments and contributions of their white classmates. Now that was in part, of course, because there was a need for them. American society needed a wider array of talent and they have, in remarkable measure, met that need.
What would you say is the one misconception that you keep on encountering when you look at the current debate over affirmative action?
One lesson that I have derived from participating in this debate, for heaven knows how many years, is the simple-minded assumption that you either deserve to be there or you don’t. There isn’t just one index of merit, and the point of admissions is not to bestow gold stars on people who’ve done well before, to predict the future. It’s to choose students to invest in who are going to make the university better and are going to make society better. Those are bets on the future.
In the introduction to the paperback of “The Shape of the River,” Glenn Loury wrote that the debate over affirmative action revolves around two competing claims: the procedure-based morality of “color neutrality” and the outcome-oriented morality of racial justice.
The way many Americans learn about civil rights—the way I learned about Rosa Parks in second grade—very much focusses on color blindness. The idea of racial justice often coexists uneasily with that basic narrative. In a recent Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative-action programs for some school districts, John Roberts reflected the opinion of many conservatives when he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” What’s your response to that?
You might find interesting the last speech that Lyndon Johnson ever gave, right before he died. I won’t get the quotation exactly right, but it’s worth getting right, because it’s a great quotation.
He said, Yes, today blacks and whites do stand more or less on a level playing field, but they’re not in the same place. Whites see the world from the mountain place, blacks see the world from the hollow of history. It’s a great phrase: “from the hollow of history.”
It affects the way the world works today. You can’t just be ahistorical and forget all of that, and think that you’re going to get the best outcomes. I think the real answer to the quote that you gave me from Roberts is, “Yes, the way to end discrimination is to not discriminate, that’s true, but it just doesn’t go far enough.”
I think the Sandra Day O’Connor opinion in the Michigan Supreme Court cases was really extraordinarily powerful and really broke new ground. It was very different from the Powell opinion in the earlier Bakke case, because she pointed out that for the country to succeed, to achieve all it wants to achieve, you need to have—it is desirable to have—people of a variety of backgrounds, appearances, and persuasions in visible roles.
I think that’s right, and that’s one of the reasons the army is a great example. You don’t want all white commanders and all black soldiers. That’s really not a good idea!
One of the good outcomes of the O’Connor decision was the rejection of quotas and just giving points because you were black or whatever. The University of Michigan was told that, at the undergraduate level, you can’t do that. That’s wrong. I agree! That is wrong because it fails to capture what the whole portfolio of the person looks like.
Now did this require Michigan to spend more money on admissions? Absolutely, it required them to spend more money on admissions! You couldn’t look at applications in such a simple way, and I think that’s all to the good.
Can that be overdone? Of course. Anything can be overdone, but it is worth investing resources in allowing yourself, your system, to make thoughtful judgments. You need to have the right metrics when you judge outcomes. One of the aspects of our current research is that we think much more emphasis needs to be put on graduation rates, not just access. Getting through, finishing—and finishing well.
Basically what you’re saying is that fostering diversity or providing racial justice does not end at the point of selection. It requires work and time and practice.
When we first aggressively recruited different people who had not even been in the applicant pool, we thought that putting them on the campus would be enough. Wrong. It wasn’t enough. You had to do a whole lot of things—thinking about the counseling you provided and so forth.
This work we’re doing right now is a great example of what we’re talking about. When you look at the college choices different groups of students make, large numbers of highly talented minority students do not go to programs for which they’re really qualified. Why? Often, they don’t understand it’s important to do that, and they don’t have the help in completing the financial-aid forms and the applications that, as a parent, I was able to do for my own children.
So being in the white upper-middle-class brings its own systemic advantages.
Huge, huge. The research we’re about to publish next September is just a dramatic confirmation of what you have just said. The differences in college-going patterns and college-completion patterns by socio-economic status, forget about race, are huge.
You mentioned socio-economic status. What do you say about the argument that we’ve over-focussed on race and we should focus more on class-based affirmative action?
I think that we do need to do more in focussing on socio-economic status and we argue that in the “Equity and Excellence” book. But it’s not a substitute for race-sensitive admissions because, again, if you look at the data, you find that if you focus just on socio-economic status you’re not going to begin to address the disparities in outcomes by race that we see in America today.
One critique from the left of O’Connor’s decision is that the idea of fostering diversity is a gauzy notion. They argue that affirmative action should be explicitly focussed on addressing disparate outcomes. They ask: Who is diversity for? A white person gets to meet a black person for the first time?
My answer to that question is that it’s society being served. I don’t think of it as conferring benefits on this group or that group to the exclusion of some other group.
One of the other telling findings in “The Shape of the River” was that the alumni of the selective institutions that we studied, including those white alumni who didn’t get into their first-choice school, were still strong supporters of affirmative action. You might have thought that, well, to their way of thinking, they might have lost out to some minority candidate. But overwhelmingly they thought these were the right policies.
I’ve always thought that was very interesting. The extent of support for affirmative action among student bodies—the graduates of the places like Michigan, like the Ivy League, like good liberal arts colleges—is very strong because I think they see the broader benefit.
What would you say to people who ask, “If a black man can get elected President, why do we need affirmative action?”The answer is the same as the answer to the Sotomayor question: How many Obamas are there in the world? The fact that you have one success story is terrific, wonderful. But it doesn’t mean that the same outcomes or the same opportunities are going to be there for everyone else. They’re not.