An editorial in The Hoya from Oct. 20 urges Georgetown to cease “the practice of race-based affirmative action” and “evaluate applicants on their merit alone.” The editorial board claims that Georgetown admissions “discriminates against particular demographics” and “specifically against fully qualified Asian students,” while also perpetuating “racist attitudes towards Asians.”

Having served many years as a faculty member on undergraduate admissions, I know those charges are disturbing and false. Admission to Georgetown already depends on merit. What I experienced as a member of admissions committees is passionate commitment to reaching out to all demographics and finding superb and meritorious candidates, including those who might otherwise have been overlooked because of geographic and socio-economic status or ethnic, sexual and religious identities.

Judging by the content of the editorial, I gather its authors conflate “merit,” or at least “academic merit,” with high SAT or ACT scores. Yet surely they know the research: According to The Washington Post, students with family incomes over $200,000 are likely to have SAT scores more than 300 points higher than those of students from families earning $20,000 to $40,000 — and more than 200 points higher than those of students with family incomes of $40,000 to $100,000. Moreover, according to College Board, female SAT scores better predict subsequent academic excellence in college work than male SAT scores.

Are we sure, then, SAT scores reflect academic merit?

The admissions committees I have served on bring a comprehensive understanding of merit to each applicant’s dossier.

Consider a candidate whose school in an underserved community cut Advanced Placement classes from the curriculum for budget reasons. She recruited classmates to form a study group and teach themselves the AP curricula. When this same candidate earns 4’s and 5’s on her AP exams, I definitely credit her with academic merit — and with meritorious initiative that contributes to the common good.

When I evaluate two school newspaper editors with comparable and strong GPAs, I look further into their files. One may have worked on the newspaper, outside school hours, for four years, rising through the ranks, while maintaining a superb academic record. The other may have enrolled in journalism classes all four years, earning credits and grades included in the GPA, preparing the newspaper during class time as an assignment. In evaluating the two, I consider the possibilities that the first editor may have carried a greater burden overall in working on the newspaper and that journalism grades may have inflated the second editor’s GPA.

And, yes, when I learn an applicant worked twenty hours a week during the school year, and more than forty hours during the summers, to help meet family costs like rent, while still maintaining high grades, I find great merit in that applicant.

The editorial says that “lifting up some minority groups by disadvantaging others does not achieve the idea of racial justice” affirmative action set out to accomplish. This claim is fallacious. It also undefended, since the editorial never stipulates the goal affirmative action programs aim to achieve.

Hamilton Holmes, who later became a neurosurgeon, was valedictorian of his Atlanta high school; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who became an internationally renowned journalist and Doctor Honoris Causa at Georgetown, was third in that same class and editor of their high school newspaper that served as the main news source for the entire black community in Atlanta.

These two were not permitted to even apply to the University of Georgia or, at least, have their applications considered. When the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia ordered the university to admit them on the merits, they were not permitted to register for classes. When the court then ordered the university to let them register, their professors ignored them in class. They were not permitted to live in the residence halls or eat in the dining hall. Although all Georgia freshmen were required to take and pass a swimming test in the university pool, they were not permitted to swim in that pool.  This is the kind of systemic and long-term racial injustice against black people have faced for decades that affirmative action policies were meant to redress.

But that does not mean that affirmative action policies were designed to disadvantage applicants from non-oppressed groups. Exaggerating for effect, I can assure the editorial board that, after affirmative action, the University of Georgia did not forbid white students to apply, or, if admitted, to live in the residence halls. But if Georgia began to receive more applications from valedictorians and newspaper editors because affirmative action required them to consider applications from black students, perhaps fewer white applicants would be admitted overall.

The applicant pool was larger, and there might have been more meritorious candidates, so some applicants who hoped or expected to be admitted might well be disappointed.

Hypothetically, suppose two valedictorian applicants, one white and one black, apply to the same college.

If the white student is not accepted, when the black student is, would this necessarily mean the white one is a victim of discrimination? Perhaps the white student’s application essay showed sloppy thinking — or the transcript records a pattern of early withdrawal from classes not likely to yield an A. Perhaps the black student had to travel across town each day to take a calculus class at the nearby community college?

Suppose further that the SAT score of the black valedictorian is considerably lower than that of the white valedictorian. In that case, is the white applicant necessarily discriminated against if not accepted, when or because, the black valedictorian is accepted?

Should the factors of “sloppy essay” or “daily cross-town commute to Calculus class” play no role in an admissions decision? What does it mean, in this hypothetical, for an admissions team to decide on the merits?

Fully qualified Asian-American applicants may not be admitted to Georgetown, but this does not mean admissions discriminates against them. Many wonderful and fully qualified applicants are not admitted. Class size is limited. Among all applicants, Georgetown seeks to create an entering class with all kinds of excellences and merit across the spectrum, a class that together enables and comprises the rich diversity that a national and global university — not to mention a Jesuit university — demands in 2017. Otherwise the quality of education offered at Georgetown suffers, and the university does not fulfill its obligation to contribute to the common good.

When I was a graduate student at Princeton University, the department secretary shared with me that she had been admitted, in her senior year of high school, to the prestigious Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School. At that time, women were not considered for, or permitted to pursue many, careers. A diploma from Katharine Gibbs was the path to a well-paying job as an administrative assistant or executive secretary. Just before this woman was to enroll in Katherine Gibbs in September, she received another letter revoking her admission. The letter explained that the school had not realized she was Jewish, and the class already had its quota of Jews. That is discrimination.

If the editorial board has evidence admissions committees anywhere are pursuing policies designed to exclude, or set quotas, for Asian-American applicants, as happened historically to blacks, Jews and women, I hope The Hoya calls out such practices as discriminatory and unjust.

But if admissions committees, including Georgetown admissions, employ a comprehensive understanding of merit as they go out into the highways and byways to seek out candidates whose merit has previously been unidentified, unencouraged and unrecognized by admission to college, then more power to them. Our society benefits.

Marilyn McMorrow

Director of Undergraduate Studies, Government Department

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11 Comments

  1. I admired your writing but disagree with your opinion:
    1. Family income vs. SAT: Do you want to punish the kids whose parents made more money, or punish the kids who earned higher SAT Score? Any ethnic group has high income and low income people. Race should be not in the picture.
    2. Regarding two examples you provided “She recruited classmates to form a study group” and “two school newspaper editors with comparable and strong GPAs”. These kids can be from any race.
    3. Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault attended college in 1960s, over 50 years ago. Today, have you heard any college do not permit kids from any race to apply? Are you asking Asian-American kids to pay for any wrong doing 55 years ago?
    4. The example in your paragraph stars with “If the white student is not accepted”: Not only white student’s application essay could show sloppy thinking, kids from any ethnic background can show sloppy thinking. Race should not be in the picture.
    5. “daily cross-town commute to Calculus class” can happen to kids from any ethnic background. Race should not be in the picture.
    6. If Fully qualified Asian-American applicants are not admitted to Georgetown, under-qualified kids from any other ethnic group should not be admitted to Georgetown. Race should not be in the picture.
    7. “…are pursuing policies designed to exclude, or set quotas, for Asian-American applicants”. I believe many elite university set quota for Asian-American Applicants. Look at university who use color blinded admission and Asian-American students are much higher. They still consider the social-economic background in their admission process.

  2. you said “Among all applicants, Georgetown seeks to create an entering class with all kinds of excellences and merit across the spectrum, a class that together enables and comprises the rich diversity that a national and global university”

    so basically skin color matters. am I right?

  3. Your definition of merit, while certainly more expansive than mere SAT scores, also misses the point—nothing about what you said regarding overcoming adversity, demonstrating initiative, etc. implicates a particular race at all. A white student is as able as a black student and an Asian-American student to have overcome enormous adversity and achieved in the face of significant obstacles.

    The question at hand is then, after accounting for all those personal intangibles, are certain students more likely to get in by their race alone? The answer necessarily is yes: every applicant to Georgetown takes the SAT or ACT, rich, poor, legacy alike. If the average score for Asian and White admitted students is higher, the only justification must be that we are implying that Asian and White students are astoundingly less likely than Black applicants to have demonstrated initiative and overcome adversity or “commuted across town to a Calculus class.” That doesn’t strike me as likely, since, again, there’s nothing inherently racial about the ability to overcome obstacles. And if it is true, then why not directly control for that? Give poorer/disadvantaged applicants a leg up in the admissions process for being disadvantaged, not for being black.

  4. It’s also purposefully deceptive to consistently draw the dichotomy between a hypothetically privileged white applicant and a disadvantaged black one. The editorial you responded to wasn’t defending “reverse-discrimination” against white applicants, it was targeting the very real discrimination against Asian ones. At least have the decency to address Asian students by name when explaining why you don’t value their contributions to this school’s “rich diversity.”

  5. I respect this professor, but we could get a student body every bit as diverse, meritous, and gritty if we factored in socioeconomic status instead of race.

    I don’t know if she knows this, but there is a vibrant black middle and upper class in America, so the example of a struggling student taking the bus to calculus class she implicit equates with blacks can in fact be someone from any race. To reference The Economist, it is hard to see how the son of black millionaires has a tougher path to college than the daughter of white opioid addicts.

    But if we took socioeconomic status into consideration, it would still more often than not play into the favor of disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics and correct societal wrongs of the past.

    Also, something the author does not address— every single black graduate of a prestigious school has to live knowing that others think they got in just because of race. SES based instead of race based affirmative action would correct that.

    • Darrel Harb says:

      SES is highly correlated with intelligence. There are exceptions of course, but not enough of them to get the “target diversity” using SES alone. For the most part, the students with the highest merit will come from high-merit families, and have corresponding wealth. Do we really want to punish successful families in every generation. Is our goal to lift up economically disadvantaged people so that they can be successful, and then have their children punished for their success?

      • Totally agree. We should never punish successful families or individuals, no matter it is financial success or intellectual success.

  6. “If the editorial board has evidence admissions committees anywhere are pursuing policies designed to exclude, or set quotas, for Asian-American applicants, as happened historically to blacks, Jews and women, I hope The Hoya calls out such practices as discriminatory and unjust.”

    The evidence exists in the admissions office, but the administration keeps it secret to show discriminatory admissions is against people who aren’t black or Latino. If the administration was not discriminatory they would have no problem being transparent and releasing the statistics showing applications and admissions percentages based on race.

    Also, as said before, a disproportionate share (someone mentioned a majority in the comments in The Hoya editorial you’re responding to) of blacks at Georgetown are not even American, but from the Caribbean and Africa. Or they’re the children of rich blacks and not the poor, inner city black you hold up as the example of why affirmative action is necessary.

    And let’s be honest, if you were building a diverse class you would be bringing in people with more viewpoint diversity. Why is it that we have fewer poor Whites or evangelical Christians or rural folks compared to their numbers in society? Obviously you don’t care about diversity except for your mascot groups who you act like a savior for or so you can status signal to everyone else.

    Answer me this question though: I read Jews are 2% of American society yet 10% of the student population at Georgetown (it’s on the GU website). So why do they have a 500% disproportionate presence when other groups (blacks/latinos/men) aren’t present on campus to their percentage of the population.

    Is that you displaying an expansive view of merit?

    Is that and example, as you write, of “Georgetown seek[ing] to create an entering class with all kinds of excellences and merit across the spectrum, a class that together enables and comprises the rich diversity that a national and global university — not to mention a Jesuit university — demands in 2017.”

    Is that fair?

    By the way, Marilyn, if you really believe in diversity you should quit and give your job to a black or latino. But you wouldn’t do that, because that would require you to actually live out your principles instead of making other people suffer for them.

    I’d bet 20 to 1 you live in an all White neighborhood, but if some poor White migrated from a mostly minority neighborhood to improve their own lives or those of their children you would call them bigoted.

    Shame on you! You’re a hypocrite.

  7. Quite simply this is a shameful attempt by Professor McMorrow that, intentionally or not, justifies racism.

    Of course I believe that disadvantaged applicants should receive a second look. But disadvantaged does not equal black. Why then do we not look at income and responsibilities rather than color?

    Her anecdotes from the 1950s and her childhood are of little relevance to today’s policies and context.

    The Hoya should have exercised greater editorial discretion by severely editing Professor McMorrow’s letter, or it should have published someone else’s. Failing that, her lack of serious arguments in favor of institutional racism in 2017 is in itself a good argument against it.

  8. Great responses so far! HOYA: you should compile the wisdom from all the commentators and put it into one article.

    This letter accurately displays the hypocritical nature of the people who are in power in today’s universities that has implemented the racist admission policies for over 30 years.

    To get everything straight, and silence any debate on this issue: all top colleges, publish your admission data for the past 20 years. That will prove whether you have been using a “fair” policy with no racial discrimination on Asian American applicants — or otherwise.

    Why not only use social-economic status as a factor for favorable admission policy? That will cover all races and all who really need the help.

    Race based admission is racism itself. It is time to adopt race-blind and color-blind policy.

    Before this is achieved, STOP boasting or self-deceiving yourself what a noble/honorable person you are — whether you are a professor, administrator, alumni or incoming student.

  9. What is diversity? Is diversity only by skin color? What about diversity of viewpoints?

    Have today’s college students had independent, logical thinking over issues or are they mostly been taught the same social political views and lack of courage to speak up and face the truth? Even on the plain reality that their Asian American peers being severely discriminated against in college admission process, how many of them dare to face the truth and advocate against such racist policy?

    No family or student should be punished based on their skin color when they apply for college. Asian American families value education and sacrifice hugely as a group to get their kids into good schools, and this is not a “SIN” to be punished by society in the name of faked “justice”. This is the biggest injustice there is!

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