Robert Zelnick

Tenure decisions can’t remedy racial imbalance

By Robert Zelnick
February 28, 2010

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NOT TOO MANY years ago the dean of an Ivy League college described a no-holds barred battle at his institution over tenure for an African-American candidate.

“He tried once before and didn’t come close,’’ my friend said. “This time he’s screaming discrimination, racism, God knows what else.’’

“Will he make it?’’ I asked.

“I doubt it. We’re talking tenure, not undergraduate admissions. There’s a world of difference.’’

There certainly is and anyone offering an assessment of the so-called “under-representation’’ of tenure track minorities at leading institutions of higher learning should understand that, while most professors are committed to student diversity and support the affirmative action admissions practices needed to achieve it, many will fight against making race a “plus factor’’ in tenure situations. Here the “publish or perish’’ mandate is as essential as it is race neutral.

The reasoning is simple: An undergraduate is gone in four or five years and few, no matter how talented academically, leave a body of work behind capable of influencing the school’s standing or reputation. But a professor granted tenure at, say, age 30, will remain on the faculty for perhaps the next 35 years. His or her scholarly research and writing will influence the reputation of the department over a period of many years, attracting or repelling other young scholars wishing to enter the same academic field.

Meanwhile, the term “under-representation’’ suggests that different ethnic groups have some inherent right to proportional representation in student bodies or tenured faculty positions and that this right is somehow transgressed when their numbers are too low. Like most who have been involved with university admissions issues, I think we need to deal effectively with the daunting array of social and educational problems that limit the pool of available minority academic talent. But what we see too often instead is a frantic quest to sign up the lonely black scholar before he or she is inked by Harvard, MIT, or some other prestigious institution.

Affirmative action policies with respect to undergraduate admissions do little in the long run to address the shortage of tenured minority scholars. One can browse through research material on SAT scores, for example, and find differences of 100, 200 or more SAT points between students admitted because of traditional attributes suggesting success and those accepted solely under an affirmative action regime. Historically these “beneficiaries’’ of affirmative action wind up at or below the 25th percentile of their classes, while students pursuing careers in academia tend to come from the upper strata of academic performance.

A 2004 study sponsored by UCLA Law School followed minority law students who took advantage of affirmative action to attend schools to which they would otherwise have failed to gain admission, and other minority students who rejected affirmative action and attended schools that were somewhat less prestigious but more reflective of their academic qualifications.

The surprising results: The students who rejected affirmative action got better grades, graduated in greater percentages, repaid student loans faster, and passed bar exams more often than the affirmative action beneficiaries. If we really care about having more tenured minority academicians down the road, should we be granting tenure today to the lesser qualified - providing a sort of cradle-to-grave life of affirmative action - or holding their scholarly work to standards which must be earned?

Some problems of under-representation barely concern us. Whites in the NBA, for example; ditto with blacks in the Metropolitan Opera, or for that matter, the Grand Old Opry. The paucity of tenured minority professors is more serious because it reflects such underlying causes as single heads of households, social influences, and the quality of local elementary education. But it is certainly not a problem to be cured at the tenure track level through the hocus-pocus of racial numbers games.

Robert Zelnick is a professor of journalism at Boston University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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