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Father John Brooks died last week. He had been president of Holy Cross college in Massachusetts and been the prime mover of its affirmative action efforts, starting in 1968. He started recruiting African-American students before he became college president, on his own initiative and originally his own dime:
Father Brooks, a theology professor, began driving up and down the East Coast in search of qualified black high school students to recruit to the college, which the Jesuits founded in 1843. Initially he was on his own, paying his own expenses.
Then he got the college president's backing, and went on to become president himself and to begin admitting women to Holy Cross. If these were simply good deeds, Father Brooks did a great many of them.
But the real shocker is how his first class of recruits to Holy Cross did:
Among the 20 students Father Brooks recruited that year were Clarence Thomas, the future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; Edward P. Jones, who would win the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; Theodore Wells, who would become a successful defense lawyer; and Ed Jenkins Jr., who wears a Super Bowl ring that he won as a player for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins team before going on to become the chief civil rights officer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
That would be a terrific haul of alumni for any admitted class. Having a future Supreme Court justice and a future Pulitzer Prize winner start school the same fall would be a huge success for any college. Having those two students in the same batch of twenty is just phenomenal. And again, those are just the results from Father Brooks's first year.
Father Brooks did Thomas, Jones, Wells, Jenkins, and their classmates a good turn when he recruited them for Holy Cross. But he also did Holy Cross a good turn, too. Those aren't just some of the most successful black alumni at Holy Cross. Those are some of Holy Cross's most successful alumni, period.
But this just illustrates, in a particularly focused way, what affirmative action at colleges and universities have always been about. They often get discussed as charity programs. But these programs, like all university admissions policies, are very much in the schools' self-interest.
Colleges and universities do not look favorably on qualified minority applicants because they are do-gooders ready to sacrifice a bit of the institution's prosperity on the altar of political correctness. They seek out minority applicants because they believe, on the basis of actual evidence, that those applicants will help their schools prosper. It is not so much charity as strategy.
I don't have time to get into the reasons in detail, but there are at least two basic explanations. First, many minority students have more raw academic talent than might appear on their record. A hypothetical white kid who grew up speaking standard English in a middle-class home but whose academic qualifications looked identical to Clarence Thomas's would not be as smart as the actual Thomas, who had grown up speaking a dialect called Gullah and had some serious outside pressures on his education. Second, if the goal of selective college admissions is to select a group of students who will become leaders some day, the people likely to become leaders of various ethnic groups certainly count. Admitting a student who will someday be a leading African-American businesswoman makes sense for the same reason that admitting a prep-school WASP born to influence does; colleges want to have prominent alums in both groups. And every nationally-ranked American university has always emphasized geographical diversity in their admissions, because if you want to have successful alumni in Boise and Tallahassee and Omaha, you'd better make sure you admit some students from Boise, Tallahassee and Omaha.
If the Clarence Thomas example is not to your liking, consider Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Valedictorian of a Catholic high school in the Bronx, admitted to Princeton when admitting kids from Catholic schools in the Bronx, let alone Latinas, was not yet really Princeton's thing. Sotomayor not only goes to graduate summa cum laude, but to win the Pyne Prize, Princeton's top award for a graduating senior. I'd say Princeton did itself a solid right there: going outside their traditional admissions comfort zone got them the top student in that year's class. And frankly, any summa cum laude student you admit looks like a big win to me. (But of course, I'm faculty, not development office, and naturally tend to focus on classroom success.) If Sotomayor just gone on to be a well-respected federal judge, affirmative action worked out pretty well for Princeton in that case. When she got tapped for the Supreme Court, their affirmative action bet turned into a jackpot.
Colleges and universities look for minority students for the same reason they look for athletes, legacies, and budding cellists. They believe that it serves the school's interest to do so. Admitting those students isn't alms for the poor. It's an investment, just like every admissions decision is. And successful American colleges make those investments very shrewdly.