Intelligence Squared debates (a series on public policy topics broadcast by NPR and funded by the Rosenkranz Foundation) have been called the “intellectual equivalent of a pro-wrestling smackdown.” They feature spirited exchanges and a clear winner (based on before-and-after voting by the audience).
On Feb. 27 a capacity crowd at Harvard Law School witnessed an epic smackdown of two Ivy League law professors who entered the arena in defense of affirmative action: Harvard’s Randall Kennedy (author of For Discrimination; review here) and Columbia’s Theodore Shaw (former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund). (For general background see pieces by Prof. Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz and the Harvard Crimson.)
They contested this proposition: “Affirmative action on campus does more harm than good.”
Their opponents — law professors Gail Heriot (member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights) and Richard Sander (author of Mismatch; synopsis here) — tag-teamed in presenting an array of statistics drawn from peer-reviewed studies showing that affirmative action as currently practiced horribly backfires. It has devastating effects on its supposed beneficiaries due to the “mismatch” effect: administrators focused on meeting cosmetic “diversity” goals, so as to avoid adverse publicity, admit students with academic skills placing them near the bottom of their class, even though this makes it far less likely that they will ultimately achieve their career goals.
Heriot and Sander demonstrated that affirmative action on campus routinely involves not a thumb on the scale to give underrepresented minorities a leg up, but instead massive preferences that significantly impair their ultimate prospects. For example, underrepresented minorities having a straight “B” (3.0) average are admitted on par with Asians and whites having an straight “A” (4.0) average; those receiving large preferences on admission to college are 50% to 75% more likely to drop out of a science career, and will often drop out of college entirely; the median African American student at an American law school has credentials lower than 99% of the Asian and white students; and underrepresented minorities admitted to law school based on a large preference are 2-3 times more likely to fail the bar exam.
As Professors Heriot and Sander explained in detail, the empirical evidence (which has not been rebutted by even a single peer-reviewed study) proves that due to the “mismatch” effect inherent in using such large preferences, affirmative action has significantly reduced the number of African American scientists, doctors, lawyers, and professors that would exist absent such large preferences — it is an “epic policy failure,” as Heriot put it.
Remarkably, in their opening statements, Professors Kennedy and Shaw left this empirical evidence unrebutted, even though it was the sole reason offered by Heriot and Sander for why affirmative action on campus does more harm than good. Here are representative excerpts from the opening statements (the full video of the debate, running 90 minutes, is available here):
Even after the moderator (John Donvan) pointed out that Kennedy and Shaw had not addressed the main point raised by Heriot and Sander, the point was left uncontested. Indeed, Kennedy said he was willing to stipulate to this empirical evidence, and turn to the question: So what? Why all the effort “to save African Americans and Latino students from getting the invitation to selective institutions?” After all, he observed, “no one is forcing anyone to attend these institutions.” “Why would we not allow people the opportunity to advance themselves if they so desire, and if these institutions believe that it is in their interest — their institutional interest — to invite these students to come?”
Kennedy’s question led to a dramatic turn in the debate. In response, both Heriot and Sander made clear that the key reason affirmative action on campus does more harm than good is that currently students are not in the position to make an informed choice about whether to accept the opportunity. Heriot and Sander stated they would embrace a compromise, and drop all objections to affirmative action, on one simple condition: that when universities accept someone for admission, they must give the student a detailed statement of how that student’s credentials predict his or her performance — that is, they must transparently disclose the past record of students with identical credentials who have attended that school, and in particular disclose what percentage of such students ultimately achieved their career goals.
The main problem with affirmative action, and the central reason it currently does more harm than good, Heriot and Sander emphasized, is that schools do not provide this information. Instead, they pretend that everyone admitted is equally qualified and has the same chance of success, which is “manifestly untrue.” In fact, they actively conceal this critical information, resisting all efforts to uncover it. After some discussion of this point, and questions from the audience, Professor Kennedy belatedly thew in the towel (reminiscent of Rocky Balboa in Rocky IV), and agreed with the compromise suggested by Heriot and Sander: “I think that the point about disclosure is a fine point.”
The video of Randall Kennedy’s argument getting bodyslammed is truly epic (reminiscent of Hulk Hogan bodyslamming Andre the Giant):
At the close of the debate, each debater summed up, the audience voted, and Heriot and Sander were declared the winners. Here are video excerpts:
The audience vote confirmed what is depicted in the above videos: an epic smackdown of affirmative action at Harvard, even before a heavily liberal audience. The audience members voted via keypad both before and after the debate. Among those expressing a position (9% remained undecided at the end of the debate), support for the position argued by Heriot and Sander rose by nearly a third — from 31% before the debate (22 of 70) to 40% after the debate (36 of 91). Support for affirmative action dropped inversely — from 69% before the debate (48 of 70) to 60% after the debate (55 of 91).
Finally, here’s a short bonus video. During the question-and-answer segment, an Asian American graduate student at Harvard’s education school asked the debaters about the harm affirmative action does to Asian Americans, who (like minorities benefited by affirmative action) have also faced significant racism.
Professor Sander answered that the “large racial penalty for Asian Americans” is “really repugnant” — Asian Americans are being “treated the way we used to treat Jewish Americans.” Professor Kennedy did not contest that affirmative action harms Asian Americans. When the moderator asked whether he cared, Kennedy’s answer was, basically, no. According to Kennedy, the harm done by affirmative action to Asian Americans is no more troubling than the harm done to a taxpayer who objects to the federal government aiding flood victims.