Monday, September 26, 2011

The Republican Students' Bake Sale. As American As Apple Pie?

Here's a fun idea for a cookie sale:
UC Berkeley student senators voted Sunday to condemn discriminatory behavior on campus - even if done in satire - in response to a Republican student group's plans for an "Increase Diversity Bake Sale," with pastries labeled according to race and gender.
The 19-0 vote, with one absence, came during a special meeting of the Associated Students of the University of California, as the debate over affirmative action reignited in Berkeley.


The bake sale - which the Berkeley College Republicans still plan to hold Tuesday - is an effort to denounce a bill now on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk that would allow the University of California and California State University to consider race, ethnicity and gender in student admissions.


The Republicans' posting describes five price levels for their bake sale, with pastries described as "White/Caucasian" going for $2, "Asian/American American" for $1.50, "Latino/Hispanic" for $1, "Black/African American" for 75 cents, and "Native American" for a quarter. A 25-cent discount is offered for women.
"If you don't come, you're a racist," the post declares.
Hmmm. Here are my most obvious thoughts on all this:

First, explicit consideration of gender in admissions would probably benefit men, not women, if such considerations are applied to general admissions. This is because women are currently the majority in the university system. That suggests the 25-cent discount should be given to men.

Second, the White/Caucasian category actually benefits under the current admission policies. If the policies were based on nothing but test scores and grades, the California higher education system would take in more Asian-Americans and less from all other ethnic groups, including whites. I grant that most people don't know that whites benefit under the current admission rules. Nevertheless, the price for Asian-Americans should be higher than the price for whites.

Third, what about all the other groups who get "preferential" treatment in admissions? What about athletes, with their scholarships? What about children of the alumni? What about the so-called development cases, the children of very rich parents? How much would they pay for their pastries at this bake sale? A few in these groups get free lifetime pastries.

Finally, and most importantly, comparing higher education admissions to buying pastries fails on several levels.

The most obvious one is that in terms of that bake sale some buyers only have 25 cents, some only have a dollar, and so on. If all the pastries are priced at 2 dollars, then only those who have 2 dollars can buy them. This could be handled through considerations of family income in admissions.

But acquiring a college education is not like eating a pastry. We can all do the latter. Universities test people to see if they can do the former. It's more like selecting people to BAKE the pastries and THEN eat them, and what is used as the signals of the students' abilities ARE affected by their past training.

That, in turn, is affected by their family background, the quality of their schools and their family income. Ethnicity and race, when used in combination with income measures, can capture some of those past training differences. Ignoring them completely will make the system give precedence to those who had most help earlier on, even if their future potential is limited.

One might also argue that having a diverse student body has wider societal benefits. It's a bit like trying to avoid a world where bakeries have nothing but apple pie on their shelves.
I have not read the new bill so I cannot comment on the changes it proposes. This post is about the bake sale, not about the bill itself.