There will be a debate tomorrow about affirmative action and college admissions at Williams. I sometimes think that it would be fun to live in Williamstown so that I might take in events like this. Then I realize, Duh!, I have two small children. I don’t do evening events.

My own preferred solution to the issue is not so much to practice affirmative action at places like Williams or to make it illegal to do so (my betting on how the Supreme Court will decide). My preference (thinking as either a college administrator or as a federal regulator) would be to make it illegal and/or unseemly to count by race or ethnicity. The federal goverment certainly has no business asking my daughters what “race” they are. And Williams, as a private institution, should be able to let in whoever they want, but they shouldn’t be able to quiz people about their background or to publish statistics on what percentage of the student body is this, that or the other category.

Perhaps the best parallel would be religious background. No one knows (I think) what percentage of Williams students are Baptist or Catholic or Jewish or whatever. The College would probably think it unseemly to even ask such a question. Why should they care? Of course, an applicant whose life is centered around her Baptist faith might very well discuss this on her application and, to the extent that the College feels (correctly) that having a mix of religious and non-religious students at Williams improves everyone’s education, she might benefit in the application process from this. That is, there is nothing wrong with the College accepting a very religious Baptist over someone with slightly better high school grades and recommendations and standardized test scores for the sake of improving everyone else’s education.

The same, obviously, applies to race, class and all the other attributes on which applicants differ. But I would be more trusting of the process — more ready to believe that the admissions department was weighing the trade-offs “correctly” — if the College couldn’t brag that 23% (not 22% or 24%) of the students were “US minority” (an interesting terminology that). However, in a world in which the College likes to trumpet things like:

February 9

The Boston Globe reported that Williams ranked second among national liberal arts colleges in percent of black students in the first-year class and in black student graduation rate.

The Boston Globe reported that Williams College was ranked second, after Amherst College, in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education rankings of 24 selective institutions. The rankings looked at the percentage of African-Americans within the student body and the graduation rate of these students.

I worry that the college playing a numbers game. Maybe Williams has the highest proportion of German/Irish/Jewish/insert-your-favorite-group-here students of any school in the country. Maybe it has the lowest. The critical issue is the quality of the education that the students who are there receive. I find it hard to believe that that quality can be measured by ethnic box checking.

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