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Independent reviews dispute Sander report on admissions

By Alexia Boyarsky

Jan. 28, 2013 12:10 a.m.

This article was updated on Jan. 28 at 3:20 p.m.

The original version of this article contained multiple errors and has been changed. See the bottom of the article for additional information.

Independent reviews, commissioned by a UCLA professor on behalf of a group of faculty, identified errors and discrepancies in a controversial report claiming that the university’s holistic admissions system illegally considers the race of applicants.

The report, which was released by law professor Richard Sander in October, presented data analysis that claimed black and Latino applicants with low holistic scores had significantly higher chances of being admitted than white applicants with similar scores. Additionally, the report said the percentage of admitted black students increased after the implementation of the holistic process, while the percentage of admitted Latino students decreased.

In his report, Sander used this data to argue that the UCLA Admissions office was deliberately using race as a factor in the admissions process. This would constitute a breach of Proposition 209, a 1996 law that made it illegal for public universities in California to take race into account in the admissions process.

The release of the report prompted many negative responses on campus from faculty and students, and resulted in a rally put on by several student groups, as well as a forum where students asked admissions officers questions about the admissions process.

Because the Sander report raised many questions about the admissions system at UCLA, faculty members felt it was important to get independent reviews of the report to determine the validity of the accusations, said Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. Hunt is a former member of the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools and commissioned the peer reviews on behalf of a group of faculty members.

Hunt said the group included members of the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools and other faculty, including those who signed an opinion submission critical of Sander’s report published in the Daily Bruin.  The Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools is composed of faculty members and sets UCLA admissions policies.

“This issue may come up again, and it is important to be able to counter what we feel are inaccuracies being portrayed about the admissions system,” Hunt said.

In an email statement, UCLA Admissions said, “Admissions is aware of (the reviews), but there have been no discussions on how to use these documents in any specific ways.”

Peer reviews are traditionally required in academia to establish a paper’s credibility before it is published, but in this case faculty commissioned the review for private use. Sander said his original report was not formally peer-reviewed because it was not published in a journal.

UCLA faculty asked two professors outside of UCLA to review the report because of their familiarity with admissions research, Hunt said.

While the two professors worked independently from one another, both found significant discrepancies in the report and privately relayed their findings to the admissions office.

Currently, there is no plan to make the reviews public because they will primarily be used internally, Hunt said. The Daily Bruin was provided copies of both reviews by Hunt.

Sander has not seen the reviews of his report because they are private, but he said they may have raised valid concerns that he will look into.

Richard Lempert, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Michigan, reviewed the report and said it contained no evidence that UCLA Admissions was breaking the law.

Lempert was chosen to review the report because of his combination of legal and statistical knowledge, Hunt said. The Michigan professor is also familiar with Sander’s research on affirmative action and admissions, and has refuted his findings in the past.

While the Sander report does not explicitly identify the algorithms or data used, Lempert said he found some discrepancies in the data that were not clarified in the report.

For example, the Sander report does not state whether or not athletes were removed from the admissions data, Lempert said.

Students are admitted to the university based on a “holistic” process, which was adopted in 2006. The process takes into account 14 different categories of attributes for every student, including non-academic categories like whether an applicant’s parents went to college, family income and whether they had “difficult personal or family situations.”

Athletes, however, are admitted to the university based on criteria outside of this normal admissions system, which could lead to some problems in Sander’s data analysis, Lempert said.

“If Sander’s data set includes athletes – and it does not say they are excluded – his results would be substantially skewed by the lower academic credentials that athletes often present,” he said.

Kevin Reed, UCLA Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs, said in an email that Sander requested all data for accepted freshman applicants, which included athletes.

Sander said he has begun to research whether athletes are included in the data he used in his report, which the UCLA admissions office provided him after a public records request. He thinks his study accounted for athletes by not including them in the algorithms, but he said he is now working to confirm that information.

Another problem Lempert cites in his analysis is the failure of the Sander report to accurately reflect the different stages of the admissions process.

An applicant may go through several review processes prior to being admitted – each of which may give the applicant a different holistic score. The Sander report, however, dealt only with the original score and the admitted outcome, and did not note whether applicants had gone through these additional admissions processes, he said.

David Stern, a professor emeritus in education at UC Berkeley who reviewed the Sander report, also said Sander’s analysis was not as detailed as it needed to be to substantiate his claims against UCLA Admissions. Stern, who is a former member of the UC-wide admissions board, was involved in implementing the holistic admissions system at UC Berkeley.

Applicants admitted to different colleges within UCLA must go through separate review processes that do not always follow holistic scores assigned by the admissions readers, Stern said. For example, students admitted for art or performing arts degrees must submit portfolios and audition as part of the admissions process.

This may mean applicants with low holistic scores are accepted based on their additional information or talent. Similarly, applicants with high scores may be rejected if they don’t meet a certain department’s criteria.

Sander’s report, however, did not separate applicants based on the college to which they were applying, Stern said.

Sander plans on reviewing and updating his report in the coming months, and including explanations of potential problems raised about his report, he said. The updated version of his report will likely be peer-reviewed, he said.

“I consider the current report a first draft, and with any kind of academic report, the process of revision is intrinsic,” he said.

One finding of the Sander report Lempert did not refute is the possibility that Asian applicants are being discriminated against during the holistic admissions process.

In the data presented in the Sander report and other reports on the UCLA Admissions process, a smaller percentage of Asian applicants with similar or identical holistic scores as white applicants get admitted.

“There is a potentially serious issue here,” Lempert said. “UCLA should take another look at its admissions system to see why this is happening.”

Although Hunt, upon the recommendation of other faculty members, chose Lempert because of his familiarity with the legal aspects of admissions, the University of Michigan professor has also has a history of disputing Sander’s research, Hunt said.

Lempert included a caveat in his review that he has publicly supported affirmative action in the past and has been a vocal critic of Sander’s previous work.

“I believe that I have reviewed Professor Sander’s work in a professional fashion and that my judgments of what Professor Sander has and has not shown are not biased by my support for affirmative action,” stated Lempert in his review.

Hunt and Lempert assert the report’s review was objective, but Sander said asking Lempert could be a deliberate attempt to discredit his work.

“(Lempert) has a track record of going after me in a very aggressive way,” Sander said. “It’s reprehensible that they selected someone like him as opposed to an unbiased person.“

Those involved with the reviews have not published them. But if more questions are raised during this year’s admissions cycle, they may be made public, Hunt said.

Email Boyarsky at [email protected].

Correction: Darnell Hunt commissioned the peer reviews on behalf of a group of UCLA faculty members. UCLA Admissions is aware of the reviews, but did not commission them.

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