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March 14, 2013 Articles

Book Review: Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It

This may be one of the most important books published this year.

By Dennis Owens

Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr.
Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It
Basic Books

This book is unexpected. It may be one of the most important books published this year. Professor Sander was a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side and a civil rights activist. Trained in economics, he now teaches law at UCLA. His article in the Stanford Law Review on this topic caused a sensation. Mr. Taylor, who was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, is a contributor to the National Journal and a fellow at the Brookings Institute.

The premise of the book is set out concisely in its subtitle. This is no polemic, no partisan salvo. The authors are serious scholars and talented writers. They have lauded the goals of affirmative action, but after years of studying the results of racial preferences in academic admissions, they conclude that minorities are more hurt than helped by them. At the heart of this failure is a phenomenon the authors describe as “mismatch.” The authors explain:

The mismatch effect happens when a school extends to a student such a large admissions preference—usually, but not always, because of the student’s race—that the student finds herself in a class where she has weaker academic preparation than nearly all of her classmates. The student who would flourish at, say, Wake Forest or the University of Richmond, instead finds herself at Duke, where the professors are not teaching at a pace designed for her—they are teaching to the “middle” of the class, introducing terms and concepts at a speed that is challenging even to the best-prepared student. The student who is underprepared relative to others in that class falls behind from the start and becomes increasingly lost as the professor and her classmates race ahead. Her grades on her first exams or papers put her at the bottom of the class. Worse, the experience may well induce panic and self-doubt, making learning even harder.

When Proposition 209 mandated color-blind admissions at the University of California, administrators devised schemes to circumvent that rule. When a faculty member of the admissions committee at UCLA asked for data on admissions, he was denied access to the information. Eventually, color-blind admissions took hold. The authors conclude: “The elimination of formal racial preferences led to increases—not decreases—in the numbers of blacks and Hispanics earning bachelor’s degrees at the University of California and even more dramatic increases in the numbers earning bachelor’s degrees on time.”

The presidents of Harvard and Princeton wrote an influential book, The Shape of the River, in favor of racial preferences. But they refused to reveal the methods or raw results of the research that was the basis for their book. There is a pervasive secrecy concerning how racial preferences work and what their effects are. It involves deception, lack of accountability, and the targeting of critics and those just trying to find the truth. Underlying this is an unwillingness to face awkward facts and to undertake the required changes.

When the University of Michigan lost its case on racial preferences in undergraduate admissions, its president announced the next day that the university would not be deterred by the Supreme Court ruling. The authors have studied Michigan’s subsequent admissions patterns. They conclude that it is “simply continuing to use unadulterated racial preferences” and that the data is “strong enough to sustain a suit against the university.”

The authors propose as an alternative to affirmative action a race-neutral system of preferences based on socioeconomic factors.

This book is lucidly written. It is both scholarly and accessible. This is really saying something, because it is data-rich and reflects extensive research. (Nothing is more sullied with esoteric jargon than much of sociological research. But not here.) The clarity of the authors' thought and language helps make their analysis and conclusions that much more convincing.

In October 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. If the petitioner or amici curiae brought this book to the court’s attention and if the justices read it, it will be much more likely that the court will hold that the Constitution’s guarantee of the equal protection of the law really means something and that college admissions are no exception to that guarantee. This is a gutsy book, well worth your time.

Keywords: litigation, appellate practice, affirmative action, Fisher v. University of Texas

Dennis Owens practices appellate law in Kansas City, Missouri.

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