The process of racial classification at Williams is endlessly fascinating (see here, here and here). In a previous thread, I was struck by this comment from fellow EphBlog author Reed Wiedower ’00.

As I pointed out during Winter Study, I’m still curious as to why the college keeps lying about the racial question.

Many people my year refused to answer the question, especially those of mixed heritage. Many so called “whites” were equally dismissive of it.

I think that removing oneself from racial aggregate data is statistically a good move. Why? Because it forces the administration to take a look behind the numbers at what is going on.

I should have challenged Reed at the time on his use of word “lying.” First, there is the issue of the anthropomorphizing the “college” — a sin of which I am regularly guilty. The college doesn’t lie (or talk or tell the truth). Individuals at the College do. Second, the honest and hard-working Ephs at the College who are actually responsible for these statistics are doing the best that they can given the constraints that they face.

In fact, Chris Winters ’95, Director of Institutional Research (and the man whose name appears on these documents), was kind enough to explain the mechanics of what happens. Endless details below the break.

Winters writes:

Like all colleges and universities Williams is required to submit reports to the government via the IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) system. Below is probably more than you ever wanted to know on the subject, pasted from the IPEDS website .

Method of collection – The manner of collecting racial/ethnic information is left to the discretion of the institution provided that the system which is established results in reasonably accurate data, which may be replicated by others when the same documented system is utilized. One acceptable method is a properly controlled system of post-enrollment self-identification by students. If a self-identification method is utilized, a verification procedure to ascertain the completeness and accuracy of student submissions should be employed.

Assignment to categories – For the purpose of this report, a student may be included in the group to which he or she appears to belong, identifies with, or is regarded in the community as belonging. However, no person may be counted in more than one racial/ethnic group. Racial/ethnic designations are requested only for United States citizens, resident aliens, and other eligible non-citizens. (See definitions below.)

Racial/ethnic descriptions – Racial/ethnic designations as used in this survey do not denote scientific definitions of anthropological origins. The categories are:

  • a. Black, non-Hispanic – A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa (except those of Hispanic origin).
  • b. American Indian/Alaska Native – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North America and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition.
  • c. Asian/Pacific Islander – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, or Pacific Islands. This includes people from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippine Islands, American Samoa, India, and Vietnam.
  • d. Hispanic – A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central, or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.
  • e. White, non-Hispanic – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East (except those of Hispanic origin).

Other descriptive categories

  • a. Nonresident alien – A person who is not a citizen or national of the United States and who is in this country on a visa or temporary basis and does not have the right to remain indefinitely. NOTE – Nonresident aliens are to be reported separately in the places provided, rather than in any of the five racial/ethnic categories described above.
  • b. Race/ethnicity unknown – This category is used ONLY if the student did not select a racial/ethnic designation, AND the postsecondary institution finds it impossible to place the student in one of the aforementioned racial/ethnic categories during established enrollment procedures or in any post-enrollment identification or verification process.

    As you can see from the last paragraph the government is clear that use of the “unknown” category is to be considered a last resort and not used as a convenient punt.

    At Williams the racial classification begins with the box that is checked by the student on their common application for admission. Most students will self-designate at this point. A small number do not and some will choose multiple boxes. Once students matriculate, the Registrar’s office makes every effort to assign that matriculant to one of the race classifications as defined above. Students are given the final say however, in that the Registrar’s office then contacts every student informing them of the racial assignment they have on file, and explaining the IPEDS requirement for racial assignment, and the official definitions of those race classifications (as above). The student is asked to inform the Registrar if they wish to change the classification to which they have been assigned. In practice, very few students request changes.

    This is the process used at Williams. This process has been designed to achieve the best results given the sometime competing objectives of:

    • maximizing compliance with IPEDS
    • maximizing data accuracy
    • minimizing student discontent
    • minimizing administrative burden

    Thanks to Chris for taking the time to clarify these issues. Comments:

    1) It is a pleasure to interact with someone like Chris who takes the time and trouble to explain things to interested alumni. Although many/most college officials (Dick Nesbitt, Jim Kolesar, Jo Proctor, to name just a few) are similarly helpful, not all are.

    2) It seems to clear to me from the above that the College is not “lying” about anything. People like Chris are doing the best they can given the constraints that they face.

    3) It would be interesting to learn more details about how the office of the registrar “makes every effort to assign that matriculant to one of the race classifications as defined above.” We have at least one description of this process from Jonathan Landsman ’05.

    Early freshman year, I received a letter from the Admissions Office. It stated that I had declared myself a minority on my application, specifically Puerto Rican. It asked if I still wanted to be considered so, and if not, to contact them and say otherwise.

    Sounds like the Admissions Office does its best to classify people and then passes the baton to the registrar. But how, exactly, does the registrar have a classification “on file” if the student did not check any boxes on the Common Application or if she checked more than one? On the one hand, the “best” description — or at least the most sociologically accurate one — for any student who checks white and some other box is probably white. So, perhaps the Registrar/Admissions Office puts all such multi-box checkers in the white category. On the other hand, there is a lot of pressure on the College do be as diverse as possible, so why not minimize the use of the white box by following a policy of classifying students in the most diversity-increasing manner possible?

    4) I have no opinion on what is the “right” answer here. I just want to better understand how the process works. If a students checks both the Asian and white boxes (as my daughters might) on the Common Application, what happens at Williams?

    5) It would be great fun if a member of the class of 2010 were to make trouble about all of this, either for ideological or entertainment reasons. Surely, there are a couple of Young Republicans out there! Simply insist to the Registrar that you want to be categorized as “Race/ethnicity unknown.” Demand that the College supply evidence for any other classification that it might want to make. Inform the Registrar (in writing!) that you will be checking the College’s common data set to ensure that your classification is correct.

    6) There is an interesting Record article to be written about this topic. Who will write it?

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