[I posted this yesterday but, as Rory and Sophmom pointed out, the topic was hardly in keeping with the spirit of such an historic inauguration. So, I removed the post. Let’s have the discussion today instead.]

A student writes:

I think the following two facts account for a good portion of the reasons Ephblog never manages to have constructive dialog on diversity issues:

Well, I think that many of our discussions are productive, but they could always be better. I appreciate this student taking the time to contribute such a thoughtful comment and wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention. Would this student like to join us as an (anonymous or not) author? The best way of creating a constructive dialog is to bring together open-minded Ephs with differing views. Please join us! We would love to feature your thoughts on the front page, which gets many more readers than our comment threads. [I also encourage other authors to pull good writing out of the threads and give it prominent placement on the main page, either with or without additional commenting.]

1. Every so often, DK says something really stupid, or at least very poorly expressed so as to seem stupid, and then spends a lot of words on disingenuously defending himself rather than admitting his mistake.

Guilty as charged! I hope that I did this less often in 2008 then in 2004. I thank Sophmom, JG, Rory and others for (trying to) help me to express my opinions in a more productive fashion. My motto for 2009? No more disingenuous defenses!

2. As a result of (1), people tend to interpret all of DK’s statements in the worst of all possible lights, even though the vast majority of said statements are both true and well-intentioned.

Indeed! I am often sad when Professor Sam Crane does this, especially since there is so much we agree on with respect to other topics. Indeed, given how much I defended/supported his point of view during our debates over athletic admissions several years ago, I would have expected at least a charitable reading from him.

But I also suspect that this student underestimates the antipathy of many members of the Williams community (Not Sam!) toward truth-tellers on this topic. Imagine that someone without my history made the same sorts of statements about the relative academic qualifications of different groups of Williams students in, say, the Record. She would meet with as much vitriol there as I do here.

For example, I honestly see nothing remotely offensive about stating that in order to maintain reasonable diversity, Williams is currently forced by the nature of its applicant pool to accept black students that it would not accept if they were Chinese-American (i.e., Williams has lower standards for admitting black students than students of other races). It’s a simple truth.

Correct. And when was the last time that this truth was expressed in the Record? Or by a member of the faculty? There are some simple truths which are not spoken at Williams.

The dilemma that I face (and it would be nice to get some advice) is how to express this simple truth without sounding “insulting.” Recall Sophmom’s comment from the same thread.

If you don’t get how this is insulting to the african american students that are accepted at Williams, and more importantly, how DK’s exact same point could have been made without a comment like this, then far be it from me to explain.

I honestly don’t know how I could make the points that I want to make (or how this student would have made the point he makes above) and not be perceived as “insulting,” at least by some members of the Williams community. I think that this is a real problem. I don’t deny that some Ephs (not necessarily speaking of Sophmom or anyone else in particular) find these words insulting, I just don’t know how to express the same thoughts without being so perceived.

I believe that Professor Crane (and many others on the Williams faculty) think that the answer is that no one should ever write or say (or think?) these thoughts, at least in public. Even though the truth is that Williams admissions standards for African-American applicants are significantly different then for Chinese-American applicants, we are not allowed to discuss/debate this fact. Sophmore makes a similar point when she writes:

I don’t want to hear any facts and data about test scores and dissatisfied students. I read the reports, and I absolutely will not argue about it. Please. That stuff should be used to make things better for future students, not insult past or present ones.

This is a perfectly reasonable point of view and one consistent with Sophmom’s position on athletic tips: we should not discuss the actual facts in public. It is pointless and, often, needlessly painful and insulting.

And, yet, though I respect this viewpoint, I must disagree. Who is accepted and who is rejected by the Admissions Office is one of the most important policy questions that Williams College confronts. Even if we refuse to discuss it, refuse to reveal to outsiders the actual standards, those decisions are made, that policy is implemented. Someone becomes an Eph and someone else — someone we will never get the chance to know, someone who might have contributed much to the Williams community — is rejected. In the context of what Williams is and what Williams will become, there are few more important topics. As long as there is an EphBlog, I will do my best to a) Accurately describe the College’s policies and b) Offer my opinion on them.

How different are the admissions standards for Chinese-American and African-American students? Well, needless to say, the College refuses to answer that question. Race and Class Matters at an Elite College reports that the average SAT scores (math plus verbal) in the Amherst class of 2009 are 1469 for whites and 1272 for blacks. (Page 197, footnote 23.) That roughly 200 point difference is about what you would find at Williams as well. [Recall this discussion from last year.]

Now, Williams is not Amherst and white students have different average SAT scores than Chinese-American students. But this is the order of magnitude of admissions preferences that we are talking about. Similar differences exist in terms of high school grades, other standardized tests and so on. Moreover, these differences are still very large even when we adjust for things like school quality, parental education, socio-economic class and anything else that you would like to name.

Consider two high school students who are identical in most every way except for race. Both go to Milton (or a lousy public high school). Both have fathers and mothers who are doctors (or are raised by unemployed single moms). Both excel in student government (or work part-time). The Chinese-American applicant needs to score around 200 points higher on her Math + Verbal SAT score to be competitive with the African-American applicant, and have similarly higher grades and other achievement test scores.

As always, reasonable Ephs will disagree over whether or not this is a good policy. I, personally, think that these differences are too large and lead to all sorts of unfortunate effects on campus. That’s one of the reasons why I propose using Tyng Fellowships to convince more 1500-scoring African-American students to choose Williams over Harvard.

But, obviously, we can’t even begin to have a conversation about what the Williams admissions policy should be until we can honestly discuss what the current admissions policy actually is. Does today mark the beginning of that conversation?

See below for the rest of the student’s excellent comment. Read the whole thing.

Blacks admitted to Williams are, on average, less qualified academically than the rest of the student body (of course they may be better qualified in other ways – life experiences and so forth). Since, all other things equal, Williams admits students with higher academic qualifications over students with lower qualifications, it follows that if in the future more blacks with higher qualifications applied to Williams, others with lesser qualifications who are currently accepted would not be (although that was your phrasing, not DK’s, and it seems to me a little shaky because it assumes that Williams has already hit an upper bound on the number of black students it’s willing to admit, making black admissions a zero-sum game). But barring the last, these statements are not controversial, and I honestly can’t imagine how any of them can be legitimately seen as offensive (I know that they are seen as offensive by some, but I can only chalk that up to either confusion or false indignation).

To offer a personal analogy, my home state is not known for having great schools, and on average, students from my state score relatively quite poorly on standardized tests. Yet it doesn’t offend me when someone mentions that fact – I don’t take it personally just because I happen to be a member of a group which is below-average overall. Similarly I can’t see how a black Eph could take any kind of offense when someone points out that black Ephs are, in general, academically below-average (albeit not hugely so). Statements about the general properties of a group are not personal attacks on individual members of that group, and shouldn’t be interpreted that way unless you have good reason to believe that it’s really the intent of the person making the statements. In this case, I see no reason to believe that DK has anything personal against black Ephs (if anything, the opposite – he’s proposing to give them more money!).

My issue with Prof. Crane was similar. DK was making a fairly reasonable, and probably true, technical argument about how Williams over-reports diversity numbers, and instead of engaging the argument, Prof. Crane saw fit instead to attack DK as not liking, wanting, or understanding diversity, based presumably on some of his past statements (although having read Ephblog for the past few years, I personally have not gotten that impression, which makes me think that again this is an issue of interpretation and of impugning the worst possible motives based only on a few stupid statements). I really don’t see why it’s so hard to just engage the arguments actually being made, rather than dredging up old debates and making personal accusations (in Prof. Crane’s case) or taking offense where almost certainly none was intended (in the case of this thread).

The problem is that this discussion causes real pain. People are offended and insulted. My intent, although non-malicious, is irrelevant to how some members of the Williams community perceive my writing. This saddens me. I am not sure what to do about it. But I insist on continuing the conversation. There is no higher value in an academic institution than open-minded inquiry.

I interpret Sophmom’s position (corrections welcome!) to be that we should avoid these sorts of admissions-related discussions, whether the topic be preferences for athletes or African-Americans. That is a reasonable view. Much less defensible, however, is Sam Crane’s position (and, again, apologies if I a misconstruing it) that discussions about athletic preferences are fine but affirmative action is sacred. Consider Sam’s comments (links above) about tips.

So, I run into a new faculty member at the coffee shop yesterday. This is her first spring teaching here. I ask her how it is going. She says she is surprised how, in one of her classes, a significant portion of the class – a portion that is disproportionally made up of athletes – is so willing to shirk their academic work. She is new here and had believed all the stuff about how extraordinary Williams students are and, in that context, she is simply shocked at how mediocre a certain number are. Later in the day I run into a colleague, who has been here five or six years, and knows the ropes well. She says her classes are going well. In one, virtually all students are in the game, doing the reading, thinking things through. In another, there is a knot of students – again, athletes (how does she know? Their attendance is the worst because they bug out for practices and games), who are slacking. Her answer: ignore them! If they are unwilling to take class seriously, she will not take them seriously and just give out the Cs and Ds at the end of a semester. Not much different than community college.

I hear these kinds of stories often. I have experienced it myself. Are the slackers tips? Who knows. But let’s, at least, back off the inflated rhetoric about how great we are and how exceptional Williams is. It is not. It is just like every other college, where underachievers weigh down the intellectual seriousness of certain classes.

We have gone too far. The only thing scaling back (cutting in half?) tips would do would be to increase the losses of our sports teams. Maybe a little adversity would be good educationally!

I would not deny that there are, among Williams students, some extraordinary intellects. I am not speaking about all Williams students. Rather – and I base this on my own experience with some very unintellectual students (no, Aidan, not intellectual in some other form, but just straight out slackers) and from conversations with some remarkably bright and accomplished students who sit in my office and complain about “Williams culture” – I am pointing to an anti-intellectual strand of student culture that seems to loom fairly large here.

Why is it important that we “compete with any other teams in Div III”? If athletics have any importance at Williams, it would seem to me to be a matter of what they do for individuals who compete (sound mind, sound body and all that). Whether we can beat schools from New Jersey or Wisconsin (full disclosure: I am a Badger), seems wholly immaterial to the mission of the college. We do not need to win at sports to be a great liberal arts college. (Please note: I am not anti-sports, just anti-obsession-with-sports-to-such-a-degree-that-it-undermines-the-academic-mission-of-the-college). We do not need tips to do what we do best here. Tips simply allow us to beat other teams. And, on the downside, they keep “walk-ons” from attaining the full benefits of the athletic experience (or so some have argued here). Let’s just chop them in half to start, and go from there….

Just imagine a Williams professor making exactly the same comments about African-American students.

And, of course, the punchline is that the preference for African-American students is about twice as large as that for athletes. Not that there is anything wrong with that!

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