January 24, 2003
A Boy and His Benefits
n the coming battle over affirmative action, we might reflect on a case where the system worked just as it is supposed to — the case of a boy named George applying to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
It was a stretch for George to get into Andover, which then accepted only 20 percent of applicants over all, and fewer than half even of applicants whose fathers had attended. Inauspiciously, George had already been rejected by St. John's, a private school in Houston.
(While writing about Mr. Bush — for of course it is he — during the 2000 campaign, I heard from his family friends that he had been turned down by St. John's, so I asked him about it. He indignantly denied the story. A few days later an aide called and said that Mr. Bush had checked with his parents and that it was true. I found his willingness to confirm this unflattering detail an impressive example of his political integrity, and it was this kind of honesty that won Mr. Bush the respect of many journalists who were covering him.)
Andover ended up admitting young George for a couple of reasons. It wanted Texans to diversify its student body, which was heavily from the Northeast. In addition, using just the kind of point system that Mr. Bush now derides as quotas, Andover gave George three extra points on a 20-point scale for being the son of an alumnus. That's a higher percentage than a Michigan applicant gets for being black.
Instead of mocking Mr. Bush for hypocrisy, though, we should focus on something else: The affirmative action succeeded. If he was in part a diversity candidate, so what? He flourished at Andover, and classmates remember that he enlivened the academy by teaching them about drawls, scorpions and exuberance. Eventually he returned to his roots, cross-fertilizing both New England and west Texas.
A few years later, in gaining admission to Yale, Mr. Bush also enjoyed special preferences. He had never made honor roll at Andover (unlike 110 others in his class, according to his high school yearbook), and his SAT's of 566 verbal and 640 math were far below the median scores for students in his Yale class: 668 verbal and 718 math. But in the end, having a Yale pedigree, a grandfather on the Yale board and a Texas background bounced him into the entering class.
Affirmative action is a tough issue because it reflects the collision between two aspirations — diversity and meritocracy — all in the hyper-sensitive zone of race. But this spring as we debate the cases before the Supreme Court, it would be a mistake to consider preferences for blacks in isolation. How can we evaluate the justice of preferences that favor blacks without considering preferences that benefit whites (legacy), athletes (football players), the wealthy (children of donors), and farm kids from Oregon (me when I applied to colleges)?
I admit it: I benefited from affirmative action. Pretentious East Coast colleges wanted the occasional country bumpkin, and I milked this by larding my application essay with scenes of me vaccinating sheep, harvesting strawberries and competing in the Future Farmers of America. If I'd been just another applicant from the Bronx High School of Science, I wouldn't have had a chance.
It also made sense to accept me over a more qualified applicant from Bronx Science: It's good for colleges to have hicks from the sticks, to tease city slickers and coach them on the differences between a gilt, a barrow and sows that farrow. And it's even more important to have black students in those late-night dorm discussions; how can college graduates understand the world and have intelligent views on racial matters (such as affirmative action) if they've never mixed with people of other races?
The University of Michigan system promotes diversity of many kinds. It gives points to applicants from underrepresented counties (mostly white), to athletes, to poor applicants, even to men who seek to study nursing — as well as to children and grandchildren of Michigan graduates. Each reflects a retreat from pure performance criteria, and one can argue about the wisdom of each trade-off. But it seems deeply unfair for the White House to jump up and down about the injustice of preferences for blacks while acquiescing in preferential admissions for jocks, rich kids, Oregon farm boys — and yes, Texans with names like Bush.