Thursday, April 4, 2013

You Say "Satire," I Say "Grow Up"

Ok, Wall Street Journal, I get it - you have a real problem with legal, race-based affirmative-action (but you never have a problem with the other forms of non-academic merit-based preferences given to legacies and recruited athletes in higher ed admissions  - more on that after the jump) and you wish to belabor this point ad nauseum at this critical moment, when the Supreme Court has before it two affirmative-action cases. 

Maybe that's why you published this horrid, openly racist opinion piece written by Suzy Lee Weiss, the younger sister of one of your former editors (and oh, by the way, I enjoyed the photo house tour of the Weiss family home you also published two years ago.) But why not drop the nepotism next time and branch out from your odd obsession with The Weisses of Pittsburgh, maybe give some others the page space to speak to their own experiences, too? Might I suggest someone who appears to have done even the slightest bit of research into elite college admissions criteria these days? 

One of the first reactions to Ms. Weiss's painfully-inaccurate piece many seemed to have this week was - oh, that's awkward... and "That has got to be satire." Then Ms. Weiss herself decided later that yes, it was satire. So, if it's "just satire" then, sure, why not just relax already! Have a sense of humor about it! I mean, do we get this worked up about what they publish in The Onion? Ever read Jonathan Swift? Because who in their right mind would really write such racist and homophobic drivel for publication in a major newspaper? Plenty of people, that's who.

There's a lot more in there I could critique, (and Gawker already did that quite handily), however I'll simply note that Ms. Weiss was too clever by half. She was just sneaky enough not to openly satirize African Americans, or Jews, or Latinos - no snarky talk of donning an afro, yarmulke, or sombrero - because even your Average White Person knows that's no longer ok to do. Native Americans, however - well, feel free to attack members of that racial minority with impunity! Suggest they don't even actually exist! Right on - so says the WSJ because they edited and published these words. Members of the LGBT community? Go ahead and insist they're all just padding their college resumes with their dubious personal identities, too.

No, no, I don't think the piece was satire, though I wish it were. Claiming after the fact that racist and homophobic statements are "satire" does not magically transport them into some protected confine of legitimate, proper expression fit for a newspaper that nice people supposedly read. Calling this satire is another way to avoid taking responsibility for her hurtful, racist words, though. Since Ms. Weiss has a clear habit of blaming others for her failures, perhaps the shoe fits. Nice try. What this was, unfortunately, was a child's regrettably permanent attempt at mourning a loss with some self-deprecation while trying to be funny, but which actually revealed some troubling, misplaced rage directed at marginalized groups. Which is disappointing, but apparently enough people feel the same way so the WSJ signed off on it.

But enough about that. The rest of this looong post will focus on what Ms. Weiss's analysis failed to comprehend: what elite college admissions criteria these days are generally, and how the criteria have shifted away from the "well-roundedness" ideal that was predominant when Gen Xers like me applied to colleges back in the day. Then I'll finish with my thoughts on why nobody ever gets an op-ed published critiquing legacy and recruited athlete admissions, despite the actual stats showing that's where the lion's share of admission preferences are bestowed.

Insert disclaimer here: Getting a degree from one of the top 27 or so US colleges or military academies that are the hardest to get into is not the end all, be all of life; it is certainly not some guarantee that your life will turn out the way you want it to be; there are many various definitions of success, you'd do well to avoid acting like yet another risk-averse lemming who is forever maximizing options according to external standards that may not actually work for any given individual; results are not typical** etc. Yes, to all of that. Now, on to how it's done. 

First of all, the admissions process is still the same crapshoot it always was ever since the late 60s/early 70s when they began to stop de jure discriminating against women, Jews, blacks, and other racial minorities, but it is certainly not like 1990 anymore. Being "well rounded," in the boring ways Ms. Weiss cynically enumerates, in addition to having test and GPA numbers solidly in the target school's range, used to work out fine enough - but that is no longer an effective strategy. Applicants need even better numbers now, and they have to reach deeper. Forget being Secretary of French Club and Treasurer of Model UN plus a few sports and an instrument - these days, folks need to have a demonstrated focus on one or two things that they find truly interesting. Go read Cal Newport's "How to Be a High School Superstar" (do less, win accomplishments that are hard to explain, but not necessarily hard to do, and be interesting and passionate). 

For someone from a privileged background like Ms. Weiss's, so chock full of social capital that she gets to be published in the WSJ as a teenager, it shocks me how could she honestly not know all of this by now.

Secondly, before you blame all the Indians and the gays for your own failure to work smart and have more reasonable expectations, Ms. Weiss, for heaven's sake, do your research! Start with "A is for Admission" by Michele A. Hernandez (former admissions director at Dartmouth), and you'll quickly discover that the people you presume to have so much unfair advantage over you do not even begin to constitute the real cohort of applicants who actually are given an unfair advantage over you:

"At all the Ivies, legacies [now pretty strictly defined as the sons or daughters of undergrad alums only] are accepted at twice the rate that everyone else is (not as high as athletes, I might add). At Dartmouth, the legacy acceptance rate is around 40%, as compared to the overall rate of around 15-20% [year 2009 figures]... Remember that Dartmouth and Princeton still reject 60-70% of all legacies, a statistic that does not make the alumni very happy.... Is it fair to give legacies a leg up? In my opinion, a small boost is fair, but the Ivies are going too far with legacy acceptance rates two to three times above the general acceptance rate."
The trouble is, opinion pieces such as Ms. Weiss's too often focus only on the vaunted 'unqualified/lying racial minorities and gays who always seem to be getting admitted' instead of considering the *actual groups* who are given the lion's share of Ivy admission preferences despite slightly lower numbers: legacies and recruited athletes. On the statistical insanity that is Ivy athletics admissions, from Ms. Hernandez:
"Recruited athletes comprise only 2.5% of the applicant pool at Dartmouth, but they are accepted at a roughly 62% rate - much higher than the overall acceptance rate of 20%... Princeton..historically admits 60-70% of its recruited athletes (1979-1994). Except for football, most coaches at Princeton are limited to 10 or so on their list, in order to keep the academic standard high."
Hoo boy, how sweet it is to be a recruited athlete for one of the all-male Ivy "money teams" (football, men's basketball, and ice hockey)! Is the sexism not obvious here? Even with Title IX, the most athletic women, unlike the benchwarming Ms. Weiss, still don't get the kind of admissions boost that male football players do. Frankly, I'm surprised the Ivy League manages to recruit any decent athletes at all, because they are prohibited from giving them full athletic scholarships like pretty much every other school in the US can, so they lose a lot of athletic talent to other academically excellent schools like Stanford, Duke, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Rice, etc.
Finally, given these problematic numbers, why is it that nobody ever gets an op-ed published critiquing legacy and recruited athlete admissions? Why do we instead insist on blaming the Indians and the gays? My guess is, a lot of people on the right have a misguided, faux meritocratic sense of "earning it" that allows college athletes a pass, since arguably their "work" in sports happens to possibly raise money for the school. The same might be said of trustee/development cases, where a family gives a large sum of money and their children are admitted. (I had a classmate like that at college, she was actually a sweetheart and never acted like the kind of person who has a multi-million dollar facility named after her dad.) Legacies from families who don't donate millions of dollars to the school, however, I am at a total loss to comprehend. Where's the actual value-add there? Apparently, Yale has done the math and figured this out, and has recently granted admission to only 13% of its legacy applicants - a much more reasonable figure than 40% I suppose.
And of course, nobody on the right or the left wants to implement an admissions system based on "pure merit" because those on the right are afraid of the Asian-American students who will quickly fill 75% of the classes, like the mostly-Asian-American student body at the excellent, public Stuyvesant High School in NYC, where admission is granted only to the highest test scorers. Those on the left are afraid the other minorities will continue to be left out (see the NYPS admissions test lawsuit). Yes, there's that Model Minority stereotype again - the bias against Asian-American students in admissions is so well-documented that Asian-American applicants are being coached to hide their racial identity on their applications.
I'm dying for someone who is thoughtful about race and class issues to step up and express in the mainstream press the frustration I often feel that the college admissions and affirmative-action debate fails to take into account how the conventional "merit-based" criteria that we assume to be fair systematically exclude poor and working-class people of every racial group, including whites. But alas, if such a person is not the younger sister of a former editor, and if that person's childhood home was not previously featured in the paper, I guess they simply need not apply.


Got It, Ma! said...

I promise a more thoughtful response in the near future when I'm able to string more than a handful of words together before some household system breaks, leaks, or requires several hard blows with a hammer (Really, that's my f***ing week). But the short version is this. The WSJ gives me indigestion.

Great, great, great piece. Thank you.

nicoleandmaggie said...

As soon as I saw that someone was suggesting it was satire, I checked the date. March 29th. Did you know that April 1 was a Monday this year? Seems to me that waiting a business day would have been the intelligent thing to do were this satire.

I also have a lot of thoughts on admissions (and we have a tangential post that mentions research on legacies in a month or two), but I cannot brain enough to write them now. After a full day of work including a great talk and a lovely dinner with an expert on education policy...

I will say that I hate Rupert Murdoc.

the Frugal Ecologist said...

Wow! Great analysis - I do not normally read WSJ but I did read this. It struck me as sour grapes but not much more, so it's great to read your take on this. I am a product of gargantuan state schools so I don't have the background to dissect all of this, but, YES.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Another note: I'm reminded of all those so-called "nice guys" who wonder why hot girls don't go for "nice guys" like them. Whereas in reality, if they were really "nice guys" then the hotness of the girl would be irrelevant.

Elite schools can only accept so many folks. There are plenty of schools that accept mediocre lazy students who did ok, but apparently she doesn't want to go to them. Apparently she does not want to belong to any club that she is good enough to get into.

nicoleandmaggie said...

A fun link:

Pamela said...

Two fun facts about satire:

1) People have repurposed the word to mean "something I call my horrifically bad jokes to cover for the fact that I've been an unoriginal jackass who plays into tired old tropes"

2) No one who claims their piece was satire actually knows what satire is.

hush said...

@Got It, Ma! - Thanks and hang in there!

@nicoleandmaggie - Nope, no April foolin'. Looking forward to your future post.

@The Frugal Ecologist - Welcome, and thank you for commenting.

@nicoleandmaggie - Ha! "Nice guys" are the perfect analogy. Great link!

@Pamela - Welcome. Amen - couldn't agree with you more.

Laura Vanderkam said...

There was a hilarious moment during one of my graduation events (at Princeton years ago) when a young Asian American man won the Woodrow Wilson award for something, and Bill Cosby, who was speaking, could not let this go. Ol' Woodrow would have been rolling in his grave! Anyway, there are some who would be fine with a 75% Asian American enrollment at elite schools, but not, seemingly, the people who run these schools. I'm not sure that splits left or right, it's just that some people have a certain image of what a graduate of an elite school looks like, and it's not that. The preferences given recruited athletes at Ivy schools -- particularly in sports like football -- is one of my big gripes. After all, they tend not to be that good. The first football game in Princeton's new stadium 13 years ago featured a 6-3 win over Cornell. No one scored a touchdown. It was really that bad. The architecture was more exciting than the football. Why waste the admission spots on mediocre teams?

hush said...

@Laura Vanderkam - Bill Cosby, too funny and true. I saw his stand-up recently, and he's still got it. Brought the house down.

The people who run the schools would privately say they don't want their handful of older rich white male alums who make very significant financial donations to visit campus and get alienated because they think the place looks "too Asian." Ugh. I mark that preference as being on the right vis-a-vis it represents a wish to return to the way the student body looked circa 1965. Heaven forbid an elite school test that theory, and let the cream rise to the top and then see if the money actually dries up? Anyway, I'm surprised there has not been a successful class action lawsuit.

Maybe there is some cultural value to a school like your alma mater having even a subpar a football program, and I'm just not understanding it. Princeton does have a respectable baseball program; a number of MLB players are alums.

I was reflecting upon some of the people I've met in the last few years since we moved from the big city, and where they went to college. There is a small handful of Ivy + Stanford alums in my area now: 5 total. They're all white (shocker I know). Four were recruited athletes (Stanford, Princeton, Stanford, Penn), and 1 is a double legacy (Harvard). Hmm...

Wendy said...

Nice post.

I interview potential students for my alma mater (an Ivy League university) and two years ago I had a kid who'd pretty much already been accepted. S/he was a swimmer.

It was a college-wide joke that players on the Big League Team at our university were almost all business majors.

hush said...

@Wendy- Welcome! I have a similar tale about an ice hockey all star, and I thought to myself at the time, Why am I wasting my precious time interviewing this kid? He's already been admitted and this acceptance is his to lose only if he basically murders someone - and is caught!

Cloud said...

Good post.

I've been thinking a bit about education this weekend (I almost typed "a lot" but I was at Disneyland this weekend, so mostly I was thinking about how to get "It's a Small World" out of my head). There's another dust up underway about whether or not graduate school is worth it. I guess Slate published someone's essay arguing that it isn't.

I still haven't got my thoughts all sorted out, but I think a lot of the trouble people have about education is in their expectations. If you expect an Ivy and end up in a good school that isn't an Ivy, then you're disappointed. I ran into a lot of people like that during my college days at the University of Chicago. They were shocked when they heard that I hadn't even applied to any Ivies. I had the grades and the scores to give it a shot- but they didn't appeal to me. The U of C was a perfect fit for me, and I am very glad I went there. But... if I hadn't gotten in there, I had several other options- including my state school. A friend of mine who went there is a tenured professor at a hot shot school now. There are multiple paths forward. The important part is to learn and grow. The credential is supposed to show that you've done that work- it is not supposed to be the goal unto itself. And yes, I know the alumni network, the people you meet, yadda yadda yadda. Maybe that is true- but you can do well enough with out it, too.

And then, thinking about grad school, again I think that some people have unrealistic expectations, and place too much emphasis on the credential and not enough on the process. I don't regret my PhD even though it is not always strictly required for jobs I have because I considered the process of getting a PhD a very valuable one. Of course, I didn't have to go into debt for my PhD, but even if you do have to go into debt, I think a PhD can be a fine thing to do, as long as you aren't expecting those three letters to work some sort of career magic.

I'll stop rambling. I haven't read most of what people have written about the latest PhD flap, and my thoughts on the college admissions thing are basically "why didn't her friends and family stop her from making an ass of herself?" So not very insightful.

hush said...

@Cloud - Amen. What a messed up country we live in when folks think U of C is "not as good" as some Ivy, which includes Penn and Cornell, and sorry to be so crass, but I've known enough U of C grads (and Williams grads and MIT grads) to know they could run intellectual circles around certain "Ivy" grads! I just had to get that off my chest. Anyway... yes, it's all about expectations.

"And yes, I know the alumni network, the people you meet, yadda yadda yadda. Maybe that is true- but you can do well enough with out it, too." Yes. And I'll note that in practice "the alumni network" tends to operate in favor of extroverted white men over other groups; and in favor of people employed in BigLaw, finance, management consulting, and big business over other fields.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. And the comments are great. The conventional wisdom re admissions is so misinformed. I feel so bad for kids going into crazy debt for school. The education is invaluable, but the prospects and costs are so different than 20 years ago. My parents always said if I got into a great school like an ivy, a Williams or some special program--journalism at Syracuse, eg--they'd figure out how to help pay for it. Otherwise, state school. And I'm lucky they paid for most of it. I worked, and borrowed--debt was $50/mo for 10 years. The message to my kids will be community college first, then transfer. Until retirement is secure, we're not funding college. Sorry for tangent.