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Dequantifying diversity: affirmative action and admissions at the University of Michigan

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To explore the limits of quantification as a form of rationalization, we examine a rare case of dequantification: race-based affirmative action in undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan. Michigan adopted a policy of holistically reviewing undergraduate applications in 2003, after the US Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional its points-based admissions policy. Using archival and ethnographic data, we trace the adoption, evolution, and undoing of Michigan’s quantified system of admissions decision-making between 1964 and 2004. In a context in which opponents of the system had legal avenues to engage a powerful outside authority, we argue that three internal features of the University’s quantified admissions policy contributed to its demise: its transparency, the instability of the categories it quantified, and the existence of qualitative alternatives. Our analysis challenges the presumed durability and inevitability of quantification by identifying its vulnerabilities and suggests that quantification should be understood as a matter of degree rather than a simple binary.

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  1. This formulation is modeled after Gresham’s Law, an economic principle dating back to the sixteenth century that states “bad money drives out good.”

  2. On actor-network theory, see Latour 2007.

  3. Following Goffman (1974), science studies scholars sometimes refer to this process as framing (e.g., Callon 1998).

  4. This usage contrasts somewhat with the economic, cultural, and semiotic understandings of valuation present in the literature (Graeber 2001; Lamont 2012).

  5. Categorization and classification are common social processes and they take place even without valuation. For example, in a taxonomy of species, the archetypical categorization (Foucault 1994; Bowker and Star 2000), no species is explicitly “more” or “less” than any other.

  6. Public colleges and universities are subject to the Fourteenth Amendment’s ban on discriminatory government action. All colleges and universities that receive federal funds (and most do) are held to prohibitions on racial discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

  7. Annual Report to the Regents, pp. 71–72, September 1959, folder “Regents,” box 14, University of Michigan Office of the President (hereafter Hatcher papers). Bentley Historical Library.

  8. Annual Report to the Regents, September 30, 1963, folder “Speeches,” box 57, Hatcher papers. Bentley Historical Library.

  9. Ralph Gibson’s report to President Robben Fleming and SACUA, December 30, 1968, folder “Steering Committee on the Development of Academic Opportunities,” box 1, John Chavis papers. Bentley Historical Library.

  10. “Need to recruit poor cited at U-M,” Ann Arbor News, 1/11/67.

  11. Opportunity Award Program establishment memo, April 22, 1970, folder “Opportunity Award Program,” box 15, University of Michigan Office of the President Papers (hereafter Fleming papers). Bentley Historical Library.

  12. Vice President for Academic Affairs papers, various memos dated May, 1963 through August, 1964, box 1, VPAA papers. Bentley Historical Library.

  13. “Answers to some Frequently-Asked Questions about the expanded Opportunity Award Program at the University of Michigan.” University Relations Office memo, April 28, 1970, box 15, Fleming papers. Bentley Historical Library.

  14. From $980,000 in 1970 to $3 million in 1973–1974. Admissions Office budget data, 1972 and 1973 reports. Archives of the Office of Budget and Planning, University of Michigan Office of the Provost.

  15. Letter from Jack Meiland, Associate Dean of LSA, to Vice-President for Academic Affairs Billy Frye, June 25, 1984, folder “Admissions Office, 1983–1984,” box 152, VPAA papers. Bentley Historical Library. See also: letter from Robert Holmes, Associate Vice-President for Academic Affairs to Billy Frye, December 10, 1984, folder “Admissions Office, 1983–1984,” box 173, VPAA papers. Bentley Historical Library.

  16. “Report from the Task Force on Undergraduate Admissions,” written by John Chamberlain, July 21, 1986, folder “Admissions Office,” box 214, VPAA papers. Bentley Historical Library.

  17. Letter from Billy Frye to Robert Holmes, June 4, 1984, folder “Admissions Office,” box 152, VPAA papers. Bentley Historical Library.

  18. US News and World Report, “Sat’s, School by School,” October 26, 1987, page 90. US News and World Report, “The Best Big School,” October 10, 1988, page C6.

  19. This entire paragraph derives from the 1995 admissions policy (1995 SCUGA) in the Admissions Lawsuit Collection, folder “Defendant Motions,” box 14. Bentley Historical Library.

  20. 1995 SCUGA p. 2.

  21. “It is expected there will be no more than 20 to 30 students who would qualify for a “U″ factor.” 1995 SCUGA p. 3.

  22. C. Sjogren, “Additional Measures in the Admissions Process.” Paper presented to the College Board meeting, June 1986.

  23. E.g., University of Michigan, Proceedings of the Board of Regents, Mar 1987:1096

  24. Flint Journal, “Top Flint-area students find UM doors closed,” June 11, 1987, page A1.

  25. Ann Arbor News, “At U-M, getting in gets harder for in-staters,” June 7, 1987, page F1.

  26. Carl Cohen, Naked Racial Preference: The Case Against Affirmative Action. 1995.

  27. C. Cohen. Racial Discrimination in Admissions at the University of Michigan. p. 3. See also interview with Carl Cohen.

  28. C. Cohen. Racial Discrimination in Admissions at the University of Michigan. p. 10.

  29. Interview with Curt Levy.

  30. Interview with Carl Cohen.

  31. Deposition of David Hunter.

  32. For details, see “1998 Guidelines for the Calculation of a Selection Index for all Schools and Colleges Except Engineering,” Admissions Lawsuit Collection, Box 14, file: “Defendant Motions”, Bentley Historical Library.

  33. As well as 5 points for men in nursing, and 20 points for a somewhat mysterious “Provost’s Discretion” category.

  34. Interview with Chris Lucier.

  35. See Seltzer Deposition, Spencer Deposition, and the Joint Summary of Undisputed Facts.

  36. Plaintiff’s Brief, p. 21.

  37. Bakke, 438 U.S. at 318.

  38. Brief for the Respondents, Gratz, p. 11.

  39. Quotations from the Gratz oral arguments are not footnoted. Quotations from other documents in the Gratz litigation are listed in abbreviated format.

  40. None of the plaintiffs’ attorneys went so far as to argue that race was socially meaningless and should therefore be ignored altogether, as that was not the question before the Court. This rejection of any race-conscious decision is an argument made by some opponents of affirmative action and one that has been increasingly accepted by conservative judges.

  41. Brief for the Respondents, Gratz, p. 25.

  42. Brief for the Respondents, Gratz, p. 11.

  43. Archival records seem to contradict Payton’s claims. At least through the mid-1990s, the University’s undergraduate admissions policy seems explicitly intended to admit all qualified minority students. See “Admission Policy for Minority Students.” University of Michigan Vice Provost for Academic and Multicultural Affairs. Box 20, file “Affirmative Action Ad Hoc Committee 1995–1996.” Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

  44. The Supreme Court’s decision in Gratz upheld the finding of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan that the SCUGA policy was unacceptable. It overturned the District Court’s finding that the points system was acceptable.

  45. Gratz Majority Opinion, p. 23.

  46. Grutter Majority Opinion, p. 4.

  47. Gratz Majority Opinion, p. 4.

  48. Ginsburg’s Dissent, p.8.

  49. Some defenders of affirmative action later derided Scalia’s statement as a racist, demeaning view of people of color as unintelligent. Brown-Nagin (2005, pp. 804-805) observed that Scalia “uncritically accepted the plaintiffs’ simplistic views of merit and their corresponding narrative of entitlement to admission.”

  50. Ginsburg’s Dissent, footnote 5.

  51. It is an argument that defendant organizations avoid, as it requires the organization to accept culpability for discrimination.

  52. Brief for respondents Kimberly James, et al., p. 5.

  53. Note: The authors of this article are members of two of these organizations.

  54. . Accessed June 4, 2015.

  55. On trained judgment as a form of objectivity, see Daston and Galison 2007.

  56. The Gratz decision did not require the elimination of the Selection Index, but rather the elimination of the quantification of racial categories. For example, we could imagine the University creating a review process that scored applicants’ contribution to diversity on a scale from 0 to 20, and otherwise relying on all of the other, uncontested, quantifications in the Selection Index. Inside the University, however, such a move does not appear to have been considered: the University interpreted Gratz as saying that race could only be considered in a holistic framework, and there was not a major push to abandon race-conscious admissions.

  57. We thank our anonymous reviewers for several helpful suggestions relevant to this discussion.

  58. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Gratz suggests a more nuanced reading of the importance of transparency. Ginsburg explicitly argued that Michigan’s transparency should be praised (as opposed to achieving the same effect through “winks, nods, and disguises”). But Ginsburg also supported a remedial justification for affirmative action, which the majority rejected. Thus, we see here transparency only served to weaken Michigan’s policy in the face of criticism.


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We thank Emily Bosk, Jamie Budnick, John Carson, Tony Chen, Russ Funk, Gabrielle Hecht, Steve Hoffman, Greta Krippner, Kathy Lin, John Mohr, Jason Owen-Smith, Michelle Phelps, Rachael Pierotti, Elizabeth Young, and audiences at the Economic Sociology Workshop and the Science, Technology, and Society Colloquium at Michigan, the Society for Social Studies of Science in Cleveland, and the American Sociological Association in Denver for helpful comments on earlier versions of this work. This work was supported by the American Bar Foundation, the National Science Foundation [Grant No. 0418547], the Northwestern University Center for Legal Studies, and the Northwestern University Graduate School.

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Hirschman, D., Berrey, E. & Rose-Greenland, F. Dequantifying diversity: affirmative action and admissions at the University of Michigan. Theor Soc 45, 265–301 (2016).

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