Last week I traveled to Washington, D.C. with President Fenves, student leaders, and other supporters to hear oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the case of Fisher v. The University of Texas. It was a momentous day as we defended the educational benefits of diversity and our holistic admissions policy at our nation’s highest court.
Unfortunately, much of the great discourse was overshadowed by a set of remarks made by Justice Antonin Scalia. “There are those that contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.” Continuing, he would later assert that based upon a brief filed in the case, Black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas and that they come from lesser schools where they aren’t in classes that are “too fast for them.”
As you can imagine, and have likely read, his comments have drawn national attention. Although he makes no direct mention to it, his queries appear to allude to a concept known as the mismatch theory. The mismatch theory argues that non-academic preferences, such as extracurricular activity, socio-economic status, and race, harms the beneficiaries, as they would be better served to attend a less selective college on par with their academic performance.
Although this theory on its face seems plausible, the research used to make the assertion has been invalidated by dozens of social scientists. And not only that, research has proven that in reality, the exact opposite is true – that minority students who attend more selective universities earn higher grades and leave school at lower rates than others.
On the UT campus, our Gateway Scholars Program is a perfect example of this achievement. The program, which is made up of approximately 600 students mostly from low-income and first generation college backgrounds, have an average first-year GPA of 3.24 with a first-year retention rate of 96.4%, higher than the university overall.
Furthermore our Intellectual Entrepreneurship pre-graduate internship program, which pairs undergraduates with a graduate student and faculty mentor, illustrates that succeeding at research and gaining admittance to highly selective graduate schools is also attainable for students from all backgrounds. In recent years, more than 75 African-American IE program alumni have enrolled and graduated from the likes of Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Stanford, schools no one would deem “less advanced.”
The brief Justice Scalia cites also makes mention that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) produce a high percentage of African-Americans graduating with natural science and engineering degrees, theorizing the reason being that students are not grouped at the bottom of their classes, as they would be at more selective universities. This ignores the history of HBCUs, which have been graduating Black scientists and engineers since the late 1880s. Many students that are accepted into our nation’s most selective universities choose to attend Howard, Spelman, Prairie View A&M and others because they understand they’re entering into a legacy that no other research institute in the nation could match.
It also ignores the fact that the nation’s top 50 universities producing African-American science and engineering doctorates is comprised of either top research institutes or HBCUs – there is no “lesser school” in the list. And if you dig deeper, when examined proportionately, some of our nation’s top research institutes including Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, as well as UT Austin – which falls in the top 50 and has its own proud legacy of producing some of the nation’s prominent African-American scientists including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephanie Wilson, the second African-American woman to go into space – lead the nation in producing African-American scientists, further debunking Justice Scalia’s statement.
Earlier in the hearing, Chief Justice John Roberts questioned the benefit of having a minority perspective in a physics class. Like the remarks made by Justice Scalia, not only are they incorrect, but I believe they can be chilling. If we begin asking our students to justify their presence, be they admitted due to academic performance, athletic or musical talent, or even superior civic leadership, we are failing them. As educators we cannot adhere to theories that conclude that our students would rather drop out or prefer less-advanced schools, rather than persevere, just as we cannot favor one student over another due to institutional bias. No matter how slow we roll forward, we must never roll back.
Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement
Professor of Law
W. K. Kellogg Professor of Community College Leadership
Dr. Vincent is preparing a longer scholarly article to more fully address this issue.