Thursday, January 24

Submission: Lawsuit against the UC is about advocating for data transparency


A few weeks ago, the Asian American Community Services Center and I filed a petition in state court, seeking an order that the University of California disclose anonymized data on undergraduate applicants and students at the University’s nine undergraduate campuses, starting with the admissions cycle of 2007 and continuing to the present.

The UC Office of the President had disclosed to us an almost identical database 10 years ago covering the admissions cycles from 1992 through 2006 – data that has proven invaluable to many scholars studying higher education. Much of this research documents benefits resulting from race neutrality at the UC mandated by Proposition 209 since 1998.

But internal UC reports indicate the University has reinstituted preferences and discrimination in admissions. We want to assess how widespread this might be, and what its effects have been .

The Daily Bruin published an opinion column by Arthur Wang on Nov. 28 discussing my suit. While Wang seemed genuinely torn on the pros and cons of greater transparency, he had no doubts that my concerns that large admissions preferences could hurt minority students – often known as the “mismatch” issue – were bogus. Almost everything he argued or implied about the mismatch issue misrepresents me and the meaning of my work. I try to correct the most serious of these errors in this piece.

Wang implies in his argument that I and other mismatch scholars believe students who receive large admissions preferences do not and cannot succeed. This is an unsubtle effort to portray me as a bigot who believes that some students – or even categories of students – are inherently unable to cut the mustard. It’s thoroughly false. My whole interest in higher education research originated in the 1990s, when I did pioneering research on academic support programs at UCLA specifically aimed at helping struggling students succeed. Derek Bok, a longtime president of Harvard, described my work as a seminal contribution to the field of academic support.

My writing about affirmative action and mismatch regularly emphasizes that individual outcomes can’t be predicted. In the opening pages of “Mismatch,” Stuart Taylor Jr. and I write, “We cannot reiterate too often: The vast majority of students who are admitted with large racial preferences are talented people who are well-equipped to succeed in higher education. The issue we examine is … which college environment will best promote their success. ”

Wang goes on to argue that my claims that mismatch could affect UC undergraduates are wild extrapolations from my research on law schools. This is untrue. Using the data that I helped obtain from UCOP 10 years ago, many labor economists have studied the impact of Proposition 209 on undergraduate achievement at the UC; their findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals. While peer review does not guarantee accuracy, it tends to mean that results have survived some careful vetting and been deemed a significant contribution. In 2014, the IZA Journal of Labor Economics published a paper titled “Affirmative action and university fit: evidence from Proposition 209 ” which found that “Prop 209 led to a more efficient sorting of minority students, explaining 18% of the graduation rate increase in our preferred specification.” It goes on to state, “Further, there appears to have been behavioral responses to Prop 209, by universities and/or students, that explain between 23% and 64% of the graduation rate increase.”

In 2016, the American Economic Review – one of the top journals in all of social science – published a paper titled “University Differences in the Graduation of Minorities in STEM Fields: Evidence from California.” According to the abstract, this paper examined “differences in minority science student graduation rates among University of California campuses when racial preferences were in place.” Its authors wrote, “We find less-prepared minority students at top-ranked campuses would have higher science graduation rates had they attended lower-ranked campuses. Better matching of science students to universities by preparation and providing information about students’ prospects in different major-university combinations could increase minority science graduation.” One of the authors was the former chair of UCLA’s economics department.

Wang contends that Proposition 209 produced “precipitous” declines in UC minority enrollment, partly “mitigated” by admissions changes starting in 2001. In reality, the number of UC freshmen from underrepresented minority groups was already higher in 2000 than it had been in 1997, the year before Proposition 209 went into action. The number of underrepresented minority groups graduating from the UC – arguably a much more important measure – went up immediately upon the proposition’s implementation.

Wang also maligns my work on law school mismatch as discredited and untenable. His sources include Richard Lempert, a professor of law emeritus, and William Kidder, an administrator at Sonoma State University. Lempert and Kidder have made an avocation of attacking mismatch research, but so far as I know, none of their critiques have made it into peer-reviewed social science journals. Early on in the debate, they withdrew a number of claims after I showed them to be factually untrue. These days, they just ignore refutation. But consider: There are now six peer-reviewed articles, by a variety of respected scholars finding strong evidence of law school mismatch, versus none which find it “untenable.”

The petition for data from the UCOP put forth by me and the Asian American Community Services Center raises important issues about whether the university is treating Asian-Americans fairly, about transparency and about the wisdom and efficacy of Proposition 209. I very much welcome a serious debate about these issues, and I hope the Daily Bruin will sponsor such an event.

But given the emotions that surround many racial issues, it is particularly important to pay attention to facts, avoid ad hominem attacks and be civil and measured in our discourse.

Sander is a professor of law at the UCLA School of Law.

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  • Hillary’s Taint

    Affirmative action is about liberal white guilt, not helping underprivileged students. Of course it doesn’t work, but saying so makes you a bad person.

  • garyfouse

    I taught part-time at UC Irvine from 1998-2016. The student body is somewhere around 50% Asian-American. That was one of the nicest things about the campus. Without stereotyping, they tend to be serious students who know why they are in college-to get a serious education. If Asian-Americans are running circles around the rest of us academically, it behooves us to emulate them not try to reduce their numbers. I believe in meritocracy. All this hand-wringing by the UC administrators about the prevalence of Asian-Americans is unhealthy and divisive.