I have been a bit surprised at how surprised some observers are about Jennifer Delahunty Britz’ op-ed piece in the New York Times regarding the role of gender in the admissions process at many selective private colleges and universities.
Britz revealed that Kenyon is forced to turn away a disproportionate amount of qualified female applicants in order to achieve an approximate balance between male and female students in their admitted class, due to the fact that a higher number of qualified women apply than men. Some of the angry responses, such as Katha Pollitt’s in The Nation, attack Kenyon directly as if their policy is an offensive aberration that needs to be opposed. Unfortunately for anyone who objects to this approach, it’s actually pretty common.
In fact, this approach is part of a wide range of attributes that the logic of selective admissions favors in similarly unbalanced fashion. Better to be from Alaska than New York City. Better to be a first-generation college student–or a legacy. Better to be a person of color, unless you’re of East Asian descent. Better to have a highly anomalous talent or background than be a valedictorian and student body president. And so on. Anybody who reads Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, on a single year’s admissions process at Wesleyan, will get a fairly good sense of the complicated, sometimes almost absurdly intricate, ambitions for a range of identities, experiences and aptitudes that go into composing an ideal class at a selective institution. (Pollitt especially should read it, since she frets about whether Wesleyan does what Kenyon does. Answer: yeah, probably.) Of course, this is also just highly selective private institutions we’re talking about here: major public institutions are another matter, as are less selective private ones.
There’s a hubris involved in the whole process, a kind of social engineering that is sometimes bizarrely fine-grained when you get down to the readings that particular admissions officers offer of particular dossiers. None of these schools are admitting true wild cards: there is a pretty narrow respectable range to the “diversity” they seek. On the other hand, all of them could probably fill an entire class with nothing but highly accomplished white men and women from upper middle-class backgrounds whose main declared educational ambitions would be to major in economics or biology. They don’t primarily because they feel that this would ultimately harm the appeal of their educational program to future applicants and negatively affect the overall health and vigor of the institution. Hence the disproportionate desire to admit students from South Dakota, Native American students, students who’ve spent their spare time in high school fighting Guinea worm in Nigeria or breeding champion pigs in Nebraska–and men, when the applicant pool is strongly tilted towards women.
If you don’t like this approach when it comes to gender, then arguably you don’t like it when it comes to race, ethnicity, geographical origin, and even accomplishment when accomplishment is not directly connected to probable academic success. If you think this is valid on everything but gender (as Pollitt seems to), I’d like to hear how you see the difference. I think you could make a good argument for simply randomizing the admissions process at most selective universities and colleges (e.g., set a high minimum range of admissions criteria and leave it at that), but that would be a big change–I have a colleague here who has seriously advocated that shift. That would probably leave you with a student body that was as much as 60% women and other demographic shifts as well. You’d lose the ability to try and ensure a balance of academic interests and plans among your admitted students as well, with some likely consequences. There might be other ways to make the admissions process more difficult to game and less engaged in trying to micromanage a range of perceived attractive attributes. For one, I wish all the selective colleges and universities would drop the personal essay in favor of a more rigorous essay that asked for analytic or intellectual responses to an ambitious or challenging prompt.
But if you see any legitimacy to weighting in favor of students from Pitcairn Island and students who are world-class kazoo players, then the only way you can differentially object to the pursuit of a fifty-fifty gender ratio is that only this objective is unimportant in trying to engineer heterogeneity in an admitted class, that a 60-40 ratio is no different than a 50-50 ratio in its effects on the culture and life of a selective college campus. That’s possible, but I do think there’s probably a tipping point where that gender ratio really would begin to affect the pervasive feel or character of a college or university. It’s also possible that those who object to this approach might discover in their objection that they object to “affirmative action” in college admissions across the board when the goal of such action is about trying to engineer diversity or pluralism in an admitted class. I’d at least like to see some of the people with the strongest reactions, like Pollitt, show some awareness of the nature of the minefield they’re careening into.