Conservative publisher criticizes affirmative action

Ron Unz castigated current admissions practices, including the use of affirmative action, for being oversimplistic.
Ron Unz castigated current admissions practices, including the use of affirmative action, for being oversimplistic. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Before a full Sudler Hall last night, American Conservative publisher Ron Unz called for Ivy League universities to admit 80 percent of their students randomly and eliminate undergraduate tuition — all in an effort to remedy an “outright corrupt” college admissions process.

The Yale Political Union hosted Unz, who has publicly criticized racial quotas in college admissions, to debate affirmative action processes in American colleges. Unz decried what he described as the subjectivity in admissions to elite American universities, adding that admissions officers today work to fulfill two conflicting goals: meritocracy, which prioritizes ability with no regard to background, and diversity, which priotizes ethnicity and aims to fill racial quotas. Unz’s arguments were met primarily by hissing from members of the YPU, who said they found his statements controversial and radical.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘how do we select students without inherent favoritism?’” Unz said. “My plan would replace the pseudo-diversity enforced by a small group of people sitting in a room behind a closed door with actual diversity based on random selection.”

Unz proposed that universities should admit 20 percent of students on purely meritocratic grounds, and randomly select the remainder of their students from the entire pool of applicants. Unz argued that under his proposed system, students who have a chance at making the top 20 percent would work very hard, but the majority of students would be able to spend high school exploring their extracurricular interests rather than chasing after a 4.0 grade-point average or a perfect SAT score.

He added that the modern system of affirmative action creates “pseudo-diversity” by ignoring the diversity that exists within broad racial categories. African-Americans whose parents were once slaves have a different experience than Africans who have very recently immigrated to the United States, he said, but affirmative action overlooks this complexity and arbitrarily groups individuals together. A random admissions process is more likely than affirmative action to produce a “truly diverse student body representative of American society,” he said.

Unz said the second prong of his plan, which proposes that college be free of charge, would encourage students to apply to schools they would otherwise not consider because of high tuition fees. At schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, “endowments are so enormously large that admissions are a tiny fraction of one percent of the existing endowment,” he said, adding that endowments exist primarily to help with tuition.

Members of the YPU said they disagree with Unz’s claim that affirmative action is inappropriate for American society. While Unz said he believes affirmative action makes “negative factors a prevalent force in deciding admissions,” several audience members said they think affirmative action is a positive policy.

“I would love to tell you that all the scars of American history have been healed, but I can’t,” Ugonna Eze ’16 said. “One day affirmative action will be irrelevant, but as of now it’s not.”

Eight of 12 audience members interviewed after the debate said they think affirmative action positively contributes to Yale’s culture.

Unz published his most comprehensive argument against affirmative action, an article titled “The Myth of American Meritocracy,” in The American Conservative in November 2012.

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