Preferences, Principles, And Hypocrisy In Higher Education

One of the most corrosive effects of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination was the hypocrisy they required of those who practiced or benefitted from them while still professing a commitment to the principle of equality. The most famous example of this glaring inconsistency is, of course, the slave-owing author of the Declaration of Independence, but lesser versions of his hypocrisy were a staple of American, particularly Southern, life for generation upon generation.

Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 classic An American Dilemma chronicled the tension caused by this hypocrisy better than anyone before or since, and he predicted, accurately as it turned out, that the power of what he called “the American creed,” the belief that individuals should be judged “without regard” to race, religion, or national origin, would eventually discredit and undermine the discriminatory practices that contradicted it.

Myrdal did not foresee, however, the emergence of a new set of discriminatory practices marching under the banner of “diversity” that would become so pervasive that they in turn would threaten to discredit and undermine the very creed that ended segregation and enshrined the fundamental principle of non-discrimination into law. The conflict over preferences in which we are now engaged, in short, will determine whether the principle of non-discrimination is so deeply embedded in our core values that it will eventually overthrow the regime of racial preference, or whether the practice of preference has itself become so entrenched in American life that it will succeed in substituting a new, multicultural principle of proportional representation in place of the old “without regard” creed.

My sense, based on survey and polling data and the few votes that have been taken (plus a large dollop of unsupported hope), is that a substantial majority of Americans still adhere to the “without regard” principle, but that that principle has been largely rejected at the upper reaches of our society — in higher education, corporations, large media, and in the leadership rungs of the Democratic party. At the moment the outcome of the ongoing conflict is too close to call.

Matthew Arnold (I think) (No, a reader points out it was Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld) defined hypocrisy as the tribute vice pays to virtue, but it is also the tribute paid to a widely shared principle by those who routinely violate it in practice. Today the epicenter of this new hypocrisy can be found in the university.

Just about any university, but the more selective and elite the more blatant the hypocrisy is likely to be. Take, for example, the University of Pennsylvania. Here are the key passages of its Policy of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action and Nondiscrimination:

Penn adheres to a policy that prohibits discrimination against individuals on the following protected-class bases: race, color, sex (except where sex is a bona fide occupational qualification), sexual orientation, religion, creed, national or ethnic origin, age (except where age is a bona fide occupational qualification), disability (and those associated with persons with disabilities), or status as a special disabled, Vietnam era veteran or other eligible veteran.


Penn is committed to ensuring that all academic programs (except where age or sex are bona fide occupational qualifications), including social and recreational programs, and services are administered without regard to an individual’s protected-class status.

Penn is also committed to ensuring that its personnel and other employment decisions are made without regard to an individual’s protected-class status. [Emphasis added]

Penn not only affirms its commitment to the nondiscrimination principle but also affirms, through the mission statement of its Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs, that in its activities

[t]he University of Pennsylvania does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, or status as a Vietnam Era Veteran or disabled veteran in the administration of educational policies, programs or activities; admissions policies; scholarship and loan awards; athletic, or other University administered programs or employment

It would be hard to find better statements of fealty to the fundamental principle that individuals should be treated “without regard” to their race, sex, ethnicity, or religion, but it would be equally hard to find evidence that Penn actually adheres to this policy in practice.

Not only does Penn ignore its own policy in practice, but it proudly announces that it does so. Thus there were two separate Penn briefs supporting the University of Michigan’s use of race in admissions, and Penn itself, as Lee Stetson, the director of admissions told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999, practices race conscious admissions. “We continue to be committed to affirmative action in admissions,” he said, “what we prefer to call being conscious of the background the student comes from.”

It is impossible, of course, to practice race-conscious admissions while remaining faithful to the official policy that requires all university decisions to be made “without regard” to race.

Let me hasten to add, however, that in accusing Penn (and similar institutions) of hypocrisy I am not making a legal argument. I am all too well aware that in the hands of a willful Supreme Court the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws” is almost limitlessly elastic, and that the Supremes have (mistakenly, in my view) declared that the perfectly clear language of Title VI (of the Civil Rights Act) prohibiting federal funds to institutions that discriminate is redundant because it means no more or less than what “equal protection” means, which is whatever the Court says it means.

Still, the fact that, alas, Penn may well be acting under the color of law when it violates its own stated policy and principle does not shield it from the charge of hypocrisy. Dropping its pretense of promising to treat people “without regard” to their race, ethnicity, etc., is the only way to do that.

Let me also add that one does not have to be a Philadelphia lawyer

Philadelphia Lawyer: A lawyer of great ability, especially one expert in the exploitation of legal technicalities …. A shrewd or unscrupulous lawyer.

— to argue that race preferences are good and wise and even a compelling governmental interest. Many decent and reasonable people believe that, some of whom used to be (and one or two still are) my friends. But even the battalions of Ivy League Philadelphia Lawyers at Penn cannot pound the square peg of “race conscious” into the round hole of “without regard” to race.

Penn’s violation of its own “without regard” policy is bad enough, but it has actually gone well beyond “taking race (and sex, etc.) into account.” As we saw here over a year ago, and as Erin O’Connor has amply documented (here, here, and here), the president and provost at Penn have promised to provide “incentives for departments to hire and promote women while creating disincentives for them to hire and promote men.” Penn’s policy on “gender equity” indicates that this promise has been kept.

Thus Penn not only violates its stated “without regard” policy with its “race conscious” admissions, it actually rewards departments that violate it and punishes those that don’t.

Given Penn’s behavior, it’s interesting that its formal policies haven’t been revised. I suppose we should take some small solace from the fact that even people and institutions who don’t believe in the “without regard” principle are reluctant to admit it. That’s the “tribute” their discriminatory behavior pays to their abandoned principle of non-discrimination.

Say What? (11)

  1. Richard Nieporent February 8, 2004 at 6:33 pm | | Reply

    [t]he University of Pennsylvania does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, or status as a Vietnam Era Veteran or disabled veteran in the administration of educational policies, programs or activities; admissions policies; scholarship and loan awards; athletic, or other University administered programs or employment

    Wouldn’t it be simpler and more honest if Penn and other universities changed the above statement to read: We discriminate only against white males.

  2. David Nieporent February 8, 2004 at 11:26 pm | | Reply

    Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue was actually a French quote. Francois, duc de

    la Rochefoucauld.

  3. Edna Welthorpe February 9, 2004 at 6:36 am | | Reply

    I was a little confused by your recent anatomizing of the “hypocrisy” of the University of Pennsylvania.

    You seem to deplore affirmative action as an imposition by an elite. Or at least that’s what I made of the reference to your “sense, based on survey and polling data and the few votes that have been taken (plus a large dollop of unsupported hope), is that a substantial majority of Americans still adhere to the ‘without regard’ principle, but that that principle has been largely rejected at the upper reaches of our society — in higher education, corporations, large media, and in the leadership rungs of the Democratic party.”

    That’s a rather jaunty pseudo-populist note you struck, John. Yet you don’t deplore elites in principle. You just deplore the fact that the current elite–the “upper reaches of our society”–has, in your opinion, abandoned its “commitment to the principle of equality”.

    In my experience, most people who fret as much as you do about the “principle of equality” become radical egalitarians, and are more concerned about the existence of elites at all than they are about the ethnic mixture of one in particular.

    In fact, just to shove you into the four-poster with some strange bedfellows indeed, it’s worth mentioning that these radical leftists deplore affirmative action with as much vigor as you do–only they attack it from the left.

    These radicals believe that affirmative action is fundamentally a tactical response to conditions of inequality, which seeks merely to adjust how inequalities are distributed, but which never attacks the matter of inequality at its root. They’d tell you that equal opportunity still encourages individualistic competition and perpetuates divisions between the successful and unsuccessful, which is to say, affirmative action acts against the basic principles of egalitarianism, on the grounds that winning its own smaller battle is, tactically speaking, more important than any attempt to wage the larger war.

    But I don’t suppose many people like that read your little echo-chamber-of-a-weblog, do they? And in any case, theirs is not your approach in the slightest. I’d wager that you, John, define yourself as some sort of libertarian meritocrat, and what worries you most about elites is that they are (in your view) hypocritically bending their stated principles, and admitting the wrong people to their elite universities–a top graduate school that accepts a black B-student but passes over your daughter, despite better grades, just because she’s (technically) white.

    In that case, you might want to recall what Michael Young, who coined the term “meritocracy”, had to say on the matter. I quote from Christopher Lasch’s _Revolt of the Elites_ (1994):

    “As [Michael] Young describes it, meritocracy has the effect of making elites more secure than ever in their privileges (which can now be seen as the appropriate reward of diligence and brainpower) while nullifying working-class opposition. ‘The best way to defeat opposition,’ [Young] observes, ‘is [by] appropriating and educating the best children of the lower classes while they are still young.’ ” (p43)

    In other words, John, these elites that bother you so much (higher education, corporations, large media, the Democratic party) are simply *acting like elites*–they are co-opting any potential future opposition to their power, solely to secure their own continued existence.

    Now in your view, these elites are exercising their power irresponsibly. To which one can only ask (rhetorically): isn’t that what elites always do? Let me quote from Christopher Lasch once again:

    “Meritocracy is a parody of democracy…Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit. It merely strengthens the likelihood that elites will exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead. Their lack of gratitude disqualifies meritocratic elites from the burden of leadership, and in any case, they are less interested in leadership than in escaping from the common lot –the very definition of meritocratic success.” (p 41)

    So yes. These elites have demonstrated “no gratitude” towards you, your daughter, or the hordes of middle-class whites who consider themselves to be radically disenfranchised by a few piddling quotas here and there.

    And why have they turned their back on you? Because they are an elite. I quote from Lasch a final time:

    “An aristocracy of talent — superficially an attractive ideal, which appears to distinguish democracies from societies based on hereditary privilege — turns out to be a contradiction in terms: The talented retain many of the vices of aristocracy without its virtues. Their snobbery lacks any acknowledgement of reciprocal obligations between the favored few and the multitude.” (pp 44-5)

    I can understand your resentment, John. It’s terribly unfair to comfortable well-upholstered white guys like you.

    But to those of us who have read John Rawls, we know that any commitment to a princple of fairness — or any larger definition of justice which pays proper attention to the idea of fairness–needs to be based not on half-baked meritocratic principles like yours, but a recognition of the need for wholesale redistribution in American society at large.

    And if you had read John Rawls, maybe you’d be a little less bitter about the “hypocrisy” of the University of Pennsylvania, and a little more attentive to the hypocrisy of a man who fulminates against judicial or legislative impositions from above as the action of an irresponsible elite, while at the same time evincing the most craven lickspittle desire to be part of some irresponsible elite himself.

  4. Anonymous February 9, 2004 at 9:36 am | | Reply

    Gee Edna, I think you should click on over to erin o’connor’s blog and read the posting “Academic as troll”. Recognize yourself?

  5. Insufficiently Sensitive February 9, 2004 at 10:40 am | | Reply

    How can anyone endure the gaseous eruption from the volcanic Edna, long enough to figure out where it’s coming from? Spare us! Try brevity, try concise clarity, maybe someone will be able to grasp the ideas (if any) in that bloviation without wearing a hazmat suit.

  6. Sage February 9, 2004 at 10:50 am | | Reply

    Well, Edna, I’ve read Rawls, and I’m still unconvinced. But then, I don’t believe everything I read. Do you? Or do you just agree with Rawls where he agrees with you? If so, why the stuffy note of condescention? Your assumption that anyone who has read what you have would think as you do is the very definition of the elitism John’s complaining about.

    Incidentally, I’m not comfortable or well-upholstered, but I am white. I’m presently paying five times the amount in tuition I should be, because the university in my home state practices affirmative discrimination. It now appears I may never actually finish school, because the out-of-state tuition is simply breaking me. This isn’t made anymore just by your self-righteous posturing or your snotty tone, which I’ve come to realize is all you have on offer.

    You can’t justify my situation so you belittle and mock it, insinuating that it’s exactly what I deserve. Rather than actually set about justifying the principle of collective guilt that has to be invoked in order to explain why my circumstance is fair, you’re more content to demonize me for not being gracious. Amazing.

  7. Jane February 9, 2004 at 1:17 pm | | Reply

    Haven’t read Rawls but have read Lasch. My take on Lasch is not quite the same as Edna’s. REBD “…the most important choice a democratic society has to make: whether to raise the general level of competence, energy and devotion -‘virtue’, as it was called in an older political tradition – or merely to promote a broader recruitment of elites. Our society has clearly chosen the second course. It has identified opportunity with upward mobility and made upward mobility the overriding goal of social policy. The debate about affirmative action shows how deeply this pathetically restricted notion of opportunity has entered the public discourse….Both sides see careers open to talent as the be-all and end-all of democracy when in fact, careerism tends to undermine democracy by divorcing knowledge from practical experience, devaluating the kind of knowledge that is gained from experience, and generating social conditions in which ordinary people are not expected to know anything at all.” In his chapter on Academic Pseudoradicalism (REBD), Lasch noted,”The children of privilege are urged-even required-to learn something about’marginalized, suppressed interests, situations, traditions,’ but blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities are exempted from exposure to ‘otherness’ in the work of ‘Western white males’. An insidious double standard, masking as tolerance, denies those minorities the fruits of the victory they struggled so long to achieve: access to the world’s culture. The underlying message that they are incapable of appreciating or entering into that culture comes through just as clearly in the new academic ‘pluralism’ as in the old intolerance and exclusion; more clearly, indeed, since exclusion rested on fear more than contempt.”

  8. On The Third Hand February 11, 2004 at 4:47 am | | Reply

    Carnival of the Vanities #73

    Being the erudite folk you know us to be, we chose a literary theme for categories, some of which may

  9. On The Third Hand February 11, 2004 at 4:50 am | | Reply

    Carnival of the Vanities #73

    Being the erudite folk you know us to be, we chose a literary theme for categories, some of which may

  10. James August 26, 2004 at 11:52 pm | | Reply

    A simple question for John Rosenberg. Any thoughts on age discrimination in admissions.? As a 46 your old white male applying to masters in Social Work Programs, I was stunned to find out that any experience earlier than ten years past is ignored in the admissions process. My 20 years of experience is spread over 28 years time, so I am not so pleased. Needless to saymy application to the University of Michigan program did not get any extra attention despite the highly underrepresented status of midgle aged men admitted to their program.

  11. […] as treating individuals “without regard” to their protected characteristics. In “Preferences, Principles, And Hypocrisy In Higher Education,” I discussed similar language at the University of Pennsylvania nearly fifteen years ago.   […]

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