- Ethics Home Page
- Focus Areas
- Contact Us
- Site Index
May the Best Man or Woman Win
Establishing Fair Criteria for College Admissions Tests Our Intelligence
An old teacher of mine used to claim he graded our papers by throwing them all up the stairs and giving A's to the ones that landed on the top step. Now, there was a case of someone treating every student equally.
Although this example is obvious reductio ad absurdum, it serves to demonstrate an important point: Equal is not necessarily fair. That principle is worth reiterating in any discussion of affirmative action in college admissions, which often boils down to a controversy over fairness. While people may argue that everyone should be treated exactly the same, the truth is that we all favor some sorts of criteria. The ethical trick is to make those criteria morally relevant.
If you think this is an easy matter, consider legacy admissions young people who get into a school because their parents are alums. According to a report from U.C.-Berkeley's Institute for the Study of Social Change issued in 1991, more legacy students were admitted to 10 of the country's most elite institutions than the combined number of all African Americans and Chicanos admitted under affirmative action programs.
Many people defend legacy admissions as acceptable because they help to ensure the financial continuity of the institution, without which no one would be able to enter the university. But such a rationale can be a slippery slope. Indeed, the hypocrisy tweakers had a field day recently when the Los Angeles Times reported that several of the U.C. regents who had voted to abolish affirmative action had themselves pulled strings to get relatives, friends, and the children of business associates into UCLA.
Morally Relevant Criteria
One justifiable criterion might be ability: May the best man or woman win. While there may be general agreement on the relevance of this determinant, there is much less agreement on a fair way to measure it. On the surface, it might seem logical that the people with the best grades and scores should get the college slots. Indeed, this argument is at the heart of several cases, such as Bakke vs. Regents of the University of California, which have challenged affirmative action in the courts.
Although we might conclude that grades and scores are the most objective criteria we can come up with to assess ability, there are more than a few reasons to question our moral certainty about the justice of this system. First, standards of grading vary enormously from school to school; an A from one might be a C from another. Such variability was behind the creation of standardized tests like the SATs, which were supposed to provide a single measure for students across the country.
But these tests have been accused repeatedly of bias against minorities. In 1990, a national commission sponsored by the Ford Foundation found that the differences in test scores between minority and majority test takers were typically larger than the differences in their grades or job ratings. "We must stop pretending that any single standard test can illuminate equally well the talents and help promote the learning of people from dramatically different backgrounds," their report concluded.
Flutists and Football Players
Athletic prowess, musical talent, and unusual community service have all been defended as morally acceptable considerations for college admissions because they add to the well-roundedness of the student body. If these attributes can be considered relevant to admissions, why not race?
Of course, there is nothing inherently edifying about attending school with people who have different physical attributes. Introducing more redheads into a student population would bring about no discernible benefit. But, in this country, having a different skin color means having a different life experience. Bringing that difference into the mix at our universities can greatly enhance the quality of the dialogue that goes on there.
On the larger stage, our society is enriched by the many different backgrounds and traditions of its members. For example, as a woman, I know I benefit from the increasing numbers of female health practitioners, who have brought women's health issues such as breast cancer to the fore-front of national consciousness. It does not surprise or even anger me that male doctors did not pursue these issues more forcefully they lie outside menÕs personal experience but I do want my experience to be represented.
Similarly, I have to confront the needs and perspectives of other members of my community, which I might ignore, however unwittingly, were they not represented in our universities and in the larger public discussion.
|Issues in Ethics - V. 7, N. 3 Fall 1996|
|Demonizing Our Opponents|
|on the one hand|
|May the Best...Woman Win|
|The Common Ground Project|
|a case in point|
|The Sole Remaining Supplier|
|Responses to the Case of the Long-Distance Cancer Treatment|
|Responses to the Case of Maria Elena|
|a good read|
|A Testament to Ethics|
|Another Kind of Justice: SCU Trip Spurs Ethical Reflection|
|letters to the editor|
|Immigration Threatens California|
|Close the Back Door|
|Is Defense of Wife Abuser Ethical?|
|Uelman Piece Thought-Provoking|
|A Perfect Resource|
|scholars at work|
|Marilyn Edelstein: Love, Literature, and Morality|
|Dennis Moberg: Employee Virtue, Employee Vice|
|at the center|
|Strategic Plan Takes Us Into 2001|
|Presidential Professor William Spohn|
|Ethics, Courts, and the Mass Media|
|issues in ethics tools|