The Yale Political Union invited conservative political commentator Heather MacDonald ’78 to discuss holistic college admissions and affirmative action policy in its first debate of the semester, “Resolved: Reject Holistic Admissions,” on Tuesday night.

The debate, which drew around a hundred people, comes about two months after the conclusion of a federal trial against Harvard for alleged discrimination against Asian Americans in its admissions process, and four months after the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education have opened an investigation into Yale’s admissions process to probe for potential discrimination against Asian Americans.

During her speech in Sudler Hall, MacDonald — author of “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture” — condemned affirmative action policies and advocated for quantitative admissions standards instead of holistic evaluation. She also called for increased transparency in the admissions process if it remains holistic, including requiring universities to publish performance statistics of admitted students by race. After attendees listened to seven YPU member responses and some final thoughts from MacDonald, the resolution to reject holistic admissions came to a vote. It failed to pass, with 12 members voting in its favor, 50 opposing it and six abstaining.

“The most compelling reason to reject holistic review is because it is just a euphemism for racial preferences,” MacDonald said. “Whether you call it holistic review or racial preferences, the result is the same: unfairness to disfavored groups and a competitive disadvantage placed on preferred groups once they enter college.”

In her speech, MacDonald defended her position by citing the “mismatch effect” that she said occurs when students with lower levels of academic preparation relative to their college peers attend elite universities.

To illustrate this effect, MacDonald introduced a hypothetical: What if she, as a female who scored a 650 on the math section of her SAT, were preferred for admission at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over males with 800 scores in an effort to boost the school’s gender diversity?

“What would happen in my first year? I would struggle to keep up at the very best,” MacDonald said. “The teaching in freshman calculus would be fit to the average preparedness of my peers — as it should be — not to me. I might decide that I was not cut out for a career in STEM and switch majors or drop out of school entirely.”

Throughout her speech, MacDonald stressed that she and other critics of holistic admissions do not wish to bar or discourage minorities from attending college or professional schools, but rather to push for admissions policies that will cause those students to end up in schools that “fit their academic profiles.” She condemned the elitism of those who believe Ivy League admission is the only key to success.

Following MacDonald’s remarks, members of the Party of the Left, Liberal Party, Conservative Party and Party of the Right responded with their takes on the issues, which ranged from condemning legacy admissions to proposing class-based affirmative action.

In his response, Jason Contino ’21, a member of the Party of the Left, said that denying that race, class and gender affect the way people are perceived and treated in society is “a farce,” so discounting those factors in the admissions process would be unfair. He added that it is unrealistic to discount the importance of Ivy League institutions like Yale in providing upward mobility for individuals from racial and socioeconomic minority backgrounds who graduate.

“This place produces the American aristocracy, and to pretend that it doesn’t is disingenuous,” Contino said.

Jules Manresa ’22, a member of the Party of the Right, called the concept of preferring certain groups in affirmative action practices “dangerous,” and argued for a class-based affirmative action system rather than a race-based system. He said such a system would do a better job at targeting the source of struggle for many applicants.

In interviews with the News following the debate, YPU and individual party leaders said that the debate was rigorous and interesting.

Tory Party Chairman Chloe Heller ’21 said that since the debate was the first of the year for the YPU, it drew a larger crowd and was “more spirited than usual.” Heller added that this dynamic gave rise to a more interesting debate and “questions that probed a bit further than what we’re used to seeing at Union.”

YPU President Elliot Setzer ’20 said he thought the debate was “respectful,” and students on both sides of the disagreement delivered their arguments “forcefully.”

Meanwhile, Party of the Left Chairman Isabel Johnson ’21 said she was surprised that the debate “was not more offensive.”

“I’m glad we made it through this,” she said.

The Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard trial lasted 15 days and concluded on Nov. 2, 2018.

Asha Prihar |

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.