SFFA v. Harvard College: Biased Chronicle

[NOTE: This post has been UPDATED … Twice]

In my recent essay on Minding The Campus, “Education Journals Show the Flag for Harvard in Lawsuit,” I criticized the problem of bias in the specialized education industry press. I was especially hard on Inside Higher Ed, but there is no better example of bias than the distinctively different ways the Chronicle of Higher Education covered the testimony of the dueling expert witnesses in Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard College over the past few days.

First, since you won’t get a clear picture from the Chronicle, let me not so humbly recommend that you look at my discussion, “SFFA v. Harvard College: The Guts Of The Case,” in order to get a handle on the arguments of the two economists — Duke’s Peter Arcidiacono for the plaintiffs and Berkeley’s David Card for Harvard. 

Now look at the coverage in the Chronicle. Its report on Prof. Arcidiacono’s testimony, “The Lawsuit Against Harvard Admissions Turns Into a Courtroom Battle of Economists,” was, as its title aptly conveys, not really about Arcidiacono’s testimony. There were, to be sure, a few brief comments about his conclusions, such as ““there is a penalty against Asian-American applicants” and “two-thirds of African-American admits are admitted as a result of racial preferences and roughly half of Hispanics.” 

There was no discussion in the article, however, of his analysis or discussion of the data that led him to those conclusions. Thus there is mention of the fact that “A main difference between the two economists’ analyses is which types of applicants they included,” but then refers only to the fact that “Arcidiacono excluded recruited athletes, the children of alumni, the children of Harvard faculty and staff members, and students on a “Dean’s List” made up partly of children of donors” without providing any of his testimony explaining that decision. (For more on this disagreement, see my earlier linked “Guts of the Case” piece.)

A reader of the Chronicle article would come away with essentially no understanding of what Arcidiacono argues and why he argues it. Instead, there is only a link to another article in the Chronicle, which itself has no discussion of his argument, though it does provide access to both his and Card’s voluminous reports (though not to Arcidiacono’s equally important Rebuttal to Card). 

Although there was no room in the article for a fair presentation of Arcidiacono’s position and the data on which it is based, there was plenty of room to report what Harvard thought about it. In fact, most of the article is devoted to presenting why Harvard disagreed, including some disagreeable insinuations from Harvard lawyer William Lee’s cross examination. 

For example, as I discussed here,  the Chronicle quoted Lee observing  that “Students for Fair Admissions and Arcidiacono himself had received funding from the same source, the Searle Freedom Trust, a libertarian-leaning foundation that supports conservative causes.” For some people the fact that a scholar received funding from “a libertarian-leaning foundation” is enough to discredit his conclusions, but it is odd if Harvard believes scholarly conclusions always mirror the politics of foundation and other donors.

In any event the great bulk of the Chronicle’s article about Arcidiacono’s testimony consisted of various objections to it from Harvard officials.

Now look at the Chronicle’s report on the testimony of David Card, Harvard’s expert. It begins: “David Card didn’t mince words. In testimony here in federal court on Tuesday, the economist from the University of California at Berkeley answered technical questions about his analysis of Harvard University’s admissions process and used words like ‘nonsensical’ to describe another economist’s analysis.”

That lede was actually the most objective, fair and balanced commentary in the entire report. The rest is simply a platform for Card to repeat his own conclusions and “elaborate” on them, with no critical responses offered, and for references to others who support his conclusions. No objections from the plaintiffs are presented. There is not even a reference to Arcidiacono’s devastating Rebuttal to Card’s report.

The Chronicle’s coverage, in short, is all Harvard, all the way, all the time.

Unfortunately, when it comes to controversial issues such as race preference, the higher education specialized industry press is as much a mouthpiece for the industry it covers as any captive industry journals.

UPDATE (Nov. 1)

Having given myself a day to cool off after being perhaps a bit too hotly disappointed with the Chronicle’s coverage of the dueling experts’ testimony, I’ve just reread what I wrote … and concluded that my criticism of its unprofessional, irresponsible bias is too mild.

As I mentioned above, the Chronicle recognized, in this article, that “[a]  main difference between the two economists’ analyses is which types of applicants they included. Arcidiacono excluded recruited athletes, the children of alumni, the children of Harvard faculty and staff members, and students on a “Dean’s List” made up partly of children of donors,” but despite at least three articles referring to or purporting to summarize his testimony (linked above), Chronicle reporters and their editors could find no space to explain — as Prof. Arcidiacono no doubt did on the stand and in voluminous detail in his Rebuttal reportwhy he excluded those applicants and why Prof. Card was wrong to include them, as well as massive numbers of applicants who were uncompetitive, who  had no realistic chance of admission.

There was one reference in one article to one reason Prof. Arcidiacono excluded those applicants, but it was wrong. “Though the total number of [applicants Arcidiacono excluded from his pool] represents a small fraction of the applicant pool (5 percent),” the Chronicle reported here, “they account for a large proportion of accepted students (29 percent). That high acceptance rate, Arcidiacono said, made those applicants difficult to compare with others.” That description of Arcidiacono’s reason for excluding them is incompetently incomplete. The reason they are “difficult to compare” is that race played no part in the decision to admit them. As explained at length in my “guts of the case” post, his task was to determine the role race played in the admission or rejection of Asian applicants, and it played no role in the rejection of clearly uncompetitive applicants or applicants who received a massive admissions boost because they were recruited athletes or legacies or favorites of large donors. Thus, Prof. Arcidiacono charges, by including those applicants in his pool Prof. Card purposefully minimized the significant role race does play in the decisions about competitive applicants.

The Chronicle reports, sympathetically as usual, that “Card seemed perplexed by the decision to omit a sizable chunk of the pool. ‘Ignoring this highly competitive group seems completely nonsensical to me,’ he said.”

I don’t think Prof. Card was “perplexed” at all, though it is easy to imagine that Chronicle reporters were, and Prof. Arcidiacono’s decision to exclude perfect rejects and perfect admits from his pool will probably seem nonsensical to many Chronicle readers, because the Chronicle reporters negligently neglected to explain it.

UPDATE II (later Nov. 1)

The Chronicle’s long coverage today, “Harvard’s Star Witness Testified All Day. Here Are 4 Moments That Mattered,” is more, in fact much more, of the same. Card’s argument is repeated, at great length. The article did at least note that “Card got an earful of tough questions” from the plaintiffs’ lawyers and that some of those questions “seemed to fluster Card, who paused several times before answering his questions.” But as for the substance of those questions, absolutely nothing at all.

Say What?