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Affirmative Action and Minority Enrollments in Medical and Law Schools.

Affirmative Action and Minority Enrollments in Medical and Law Schools. By Susan Welch and John Gruhi. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. 221p $39.50.

I assumed this book would be yet another in the growing collection of texts that weigh in on the controversy over affirmative action. Ten years ago, a small stream of books, mostly polemical ones written by academics or public intellectual types, railed against preferential policies. As national controversy over affirmative action mounted throughout the 1990s, the stream widened considerably. There are now lots of works that examine affirmative action and higher education, and virtually all are motivated by partisanship, ultimately adopting a case for or against racial preferences. The books by Herrnstein and Murray (The Bell Curve, 1994) and Bowen and Bok (The Shape of the River, 1998) are two of the best known and exemplary texts that take anti and pro stances, respectively.

What sets this volume apart is its focus on an empirical research question about the effect of the Bakke decision. To my knowledge, while there have been anecdotal accounts here and there, no one has undertaken a scholarly evaluation of how Bakke affected university admissions. At first blush, it may seem pass[acute{e}] to revisit the decision, especially in light of its eclipse by Hopwood. Yet, the authors find that while Bakke helped legitimize affirmative action, it cannot be held accountable for the level of resentment and furor found in contemporary debate about affirmative action. Welch and Gruhl, in a refreshing departure from the main currents of popular rhetoric about the issue, offer a discussion that is more analytic than political, more thoughtful than rhetorical.

The legal terrain of race and university admissions is defined by two landmark court decisions: Bakke v. University of California (1978) and Hopwood v. University of Texas (1996). In Bakke, the Court allowed that race could be considered one among several factors used in admission decisions. Almost twenty years later, a federal district court ruled in Hopwood that the use of race at the University of Texas Law school violated the plaintiffs' civil rights. If Bakke left the door open on the use of race in admissions, Hopwood seemed decisively to close it.

This data-driven book was researched in the aftermath of Bakke but written and published in the era of Hopwood. The authors pose the straightforward question: What has been the actual effect of Bakke on affirmative action? Their answer, which will surprise many, is that at best it had a tiny effect on minority enrollment in law and medical schools. This finding is surprising on two counts. First, if anything, there is reason to expect that Bakke may have had a negative effect. The Court's ruling invalidated the UC Davis medical school 16-slot set-aside for minority students. That decision could have prompted admissions officers to be extra wary of any racialization of recruitment and admissions policies. Second, rather than limit minority enrollment, it is plausible that the decision could have dramatically increased it. Justice Powell's often cited opinion in Bakke that race could be one among many factors in university admissions may have been interpreted as the green light on minority recruitment. Indeed, in the wake of recent popular antiaffirmative-action sentiment, we could reason retroactively that minority enrollment must have skyrocketed from the 1980s to the 1990s.

Neither of these possible effects materialized. Enrollment figures show that the impact of Bakke might best be characterized as much ado about nothing. This finding is especially significant in the context of current debates. As the authors point out, affirmative action is more a symbol than a major impetus to change.

The centerpiece of the book (chaps. 3, 4, and 5) is an analysis of perceptions of Bakke, its effect on the applicant pool, and its influence on admission decisions. The authors draw on multiple sources of data for these discussions, the most important of which are original survey data (including a 1989 survey of medical and law school admissions officers conducted by the authors) and aggregate national data on admissions and enrollment. Welch and Gruhl tour us through a methodical analysis of possible ways to assess the effect of Bakke, drawing on both qualitative and quantitative analysis. The conclusion of these chapters can be summarized as follows: Bakke did not significantly alter admissions officials' perceptions of their policies, the applicant pool, or enrollment. More to the point: "The overall growth in minority enrollments in the typical medical or law school between 1978, the time of Bakke, and 1987 was extremely small--less than .5% in the case of black medical students, nearly 1 percent for His panics, and close to 3 percent for both groups in law schools. Stasis rather than change characterizes minority enrollments during this period" (p. 131).

Does this mean Bakke was irrelevant? The authors say "no," demonstrating that the legal decision served to institutionalize existing patterns and practices. Schools with sizable minority enrollment before Bakke tended to have a similar pattern a decade later; schools with low minority enrollment continued to have low enrollment a decade later. Welch and Gruhl note, drawing on their own survey information from admissions officers, that the Court decision helped institutionalize and legitimize, for example, recruitment of minority candidates for professional schools.

There are many other interesting and useful findings. For example, Welch and Gruhl note that while university officials had ample information about Bakke, few could give an accurate rendering of the decision. A "fully accurate" understanding was defined by the authors as knowing that Bakke invalidated quotas and validated taking race into account in admission decisions. Less than half of admissions officers in medical or law schools could give a fully accurate explanation of the decision. Also, the authors found that perceptions of admissions officers about the quality and quantity of black applicants was related to increases in black enrollment, but this did not hold for Hispanics. Clearly, racial differences within overall trends in minority enrollment patterns is a subject that deserves further study.

The two opening chapters offer, in turn, a discussion of the historical legal context for Bakke and a longitudinal look at the demand for increased minority enrollment. As the authors point out, affirmative action should be seen as part of a series of legal understandings about race in America, from the "separate but equal" doctrine of the 1896 Plessy ruling to the nondiscrimination embodied in the 1954 Brown ruling, as well as ensuing efforts toward desegregation and a civil rights political agenda.

The next chapter zeroes in on the historical context for Bakke. Two important changes set the stage. First, the press of baby boomers at the gates of professional schools in the early 1960s led admissions officers to raise entrance requirements. Whereas average grades were sufficient for admission to law school during the 1950s and early 1960s, higher and more competitive GPAs became the norm in the fifteen years preceding Bakke. Also, such standardized tests as the LSAT, which had been optional or semioptional, became required, and more competitive scores were needed for admission during the 1960s and 1970s. Second, as entrance requirements stiffened, public demand for social responsibility and awareness of diversity also increased. From the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the widespread demand for ethnic and racial diversity led medical and law schools to step up recruitment and retention efforts aimed at minority students.

As Welch and Gruhl show, the clash between admission criteria and racial and ethnic diversity was manifested in the popular belief that minority enrollment compromises meritocratic standards. Racial differences in standardized test scores continue to be a difficult issue today, whether one wants to explain the origins of the differences or examine how score differences, if they are, are related to academic performance, achievement, or intelligence. The authors wisely refrain from entering the debate on the differences between average black and white test scores, but they make the important statistical point that average differences mean many whites fall below the black average score, and many blacks stand above the white average score. Welch and Gruhl's discussion of the pre-Bakke context--increased reliance on standardized tests and changing historical understandings about minorities--sets the stage for conflicts about university admissions. Their research focuses on medical and law schools, but it is clear that this context applies as well to general undergraduate admissions. One of their points is that the use of standardized tests is a relatively recent innovation in professional school admissions. Contemporary discussions of such tests as the SAT, LSAT, MCAT, and GRE tend to reify these scores as measures of intelligence or achievement. Welch and Gruhl usefully remind us that such measures were institutionalized as a selection tool to help admissions officials deal with the crush of new applicants.

The closing chapter examines minority enrollment and the courts. The authors move some distance beyond their research on the effect of Bakke to consider the trajectory of symbolic politics over affirmative action. They address a melange of issues, including a review of the legal retreat from affirmative action, affirmative action in contexts other than higher education (e.g. business, public attitudes, government), problems in defining race identity, affirmative action for women, and the prospects for reform. I found the discussion broad-ranging but not very elucidating. In particular, I had hoped they might say more about Asian American students, who have been key figures in both conservative and liberal discourses aimed at reforming affirmative action. They, like many authors, have a tendency to fall back on the black/white paradigm. With regard to reform, Welch and Gruhl weigh two competing futures: the substitution of class for race in preferential policies versus the retention of some form of affirmativ e action. Abandoning race in favor of class preferences, they argue, misunderstands the persistence of racial discrimination in the present. In the end, they favor a continuation of affirmative action, at least for blacks, on the grounds that racial prejudice and discrimination are alive and well.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Takagi, Dana Y.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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