Today, I dropped by the office of my ophthalmologist. Although my eye glasses were broken, the first thing I asked the receptionist was: “Well, how did it turn out?”
She shook her head. “Wait-listed,” she said. Her daughter—soon to graduate from a top public high school, with outstanding academic credentials, athletic ability, and creative interests—had been committed enough to Brown University to attend its summer program last year.
On March 31, Brown posted offers of admission to 2,919 students who could join September’s class of 2020.
My receptionist friend immediately pointed out that a high percentage of those offered admission to Brown are “students of color.” Her daughter is colorless, white. She grimaced. She and I knew that Brown did not identify the academically best-prepared applicants, with the best test scores, teacher recommendations, or any other semi-objective criteria of judgment and then discover that 47 percent of that group happened to be “of color.” Brown’s recent news release on its admissions decisions reports that this is the highest percentage in Brown’s history.
How many whites and colored?
The first thing to acknowledge here is that a lot of parents, including this woman, are disappointed, and probably resentful, at Brown’s decisions. An Ivy League institution, Brown is among the most highly selective in the country. From the largest pool of candidates in its history, Brown was able to offer admission to only nine percent. That leaves nine out of ten applicants, and their parents, disappointed.
All right, just under half of those offered enrollment are “of color.” “People of color” usually means non-whites. While sometimes “whites” includes white Hispanics, Brown leaves them out.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines some 73 percent of Americans as “white”—not “of color.” That means that if Brown had admitted students without regard for “color,” or lack of color, we would expect more than seven out of ten of those offered admission—assuming white students offer academic potential no better or worse than the average of all applicants—to be white. Instead, five out of ten are white.
Achieving this result required Brown’s admissions office to actively discriminate in favor of applicants of color; by mere arithmetic, that entails actively discriminating against white applicants. It also means that Brown is very affirmatively discriminating against Asian candidates, who typically must present much higher rankings on all academic measures to have a chance of admission equal to that of an African-American applicant.
My receptionist friend is correct; Brown is practicing racial discrimination against white students like her daughter, but also against Asian-American students of color. Brown’s statement about this year’s admissions process—nobly envisioning the class of 2020 as a mix of exciting individuals as diverse as America—is false. Brown is envisioning its next class of freshmen in terms of its racial composition. The majestic “tapestry” to which Brown colorfully refers is a weave of collectivities, not individuals.
But “discrimination” is a neutral term. Discrimination is required every day of our lives. The most active the intelligence, the most discriminating. The question, always, is what principle should guide our discrimination?
Brown is discriminating in favor of African-American students. But what principle requires a private university, privately supported, to embrace such discrimination based, for example, solely on individual characteristics such as academic potential, high-school record, character, and other achievements—ignoring all others? What about historically black colleges founded, built, and funded to help African-Americans since the Reconstruction Era succeed? What about Catholic colleges? If 85 percent of their applicants with the highest test scores are Buddhists, must they accept them all in the name of “non-discrimination?” I would say: of course not. The charter, the alumni, and the financial supporters of a private institution determine its educational goal and so its admissions policy
Brown’s guiding worldview
Brown has a policy or at least a worldview to guide its discrimination and it is difficult to deny that its discrimination in admissions is guided by the goal of racial balance. Brown denies this. In its “answers to frequently asked questions” about admission, the answer about “quotas” is brief: no quotas. But if not by quotas, how does Brown arrive at half a class “of color” in a nation three-fourths white?
But quotas are coming. Brown’s President Christina Paxson stated in the March-April Brown Alumni Monthly that Brown’s goal over the next few years is to double the percentage of its faculty who are African-American.
Brown is understandably vague about admissions standards, suggesting that a subtle, complex assessment of achievements, abilities, talents, accomplishments, and “identities” of every applicant takes place. Note that a student’s “identity” means sexual or racial identity.
Out of all the verbiage Brown devotes to “diversity” the underlying message is that no component of a “diverse” class is more important than race.
Brown has stated its justification for discrimination: to increase the number of “historically unrepresented” groups—and that means, above all, African-American students. In recent years, Brown’s undergraduate enrollment of African-American students has run around six to seven percent—half of their “representation” in the U.S. population. In an article in the March/April 2016 Brown Alumni Monthly, Brown confessed shame—yes, guilt and shame—that during some half-a-century of vowing to achieve full “representation” of African-Americans, the job had not been done. I would like to believe that Brown still has the integrity not to admit obviously unqualified African Americans to “show the numbers,” then watch their dreams crushed as they fail academically. Highly academically qualified African-American students are the rarest applicants on the U.S. college scene; all top universities offer them gold-plated financial aid.
Postmodernist rejection of reality
If you wish to understand why Brown is committed to the priority of race in the composition of its classes, you must look into the philosophy of “postmodernism” that dominates American higher education, especially in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. For postmodernists, there is no objective truth, no “reality,” and no knowing “facts.” For postmodernism, “truth” is entirely relative to political and economic power: specifically, the group wielding that power. There is no justification for trying to teach Brown students some reasoned “truth,” or “the facts.” That is merely a compost of rationalizations for the existing power structure. The task of postmodern philosophy is to “deconstruct” power’s claims to “truth,” to expose their inevitable expression of racial, sexual, economic, political, and cultural dominance. Hence the endless quips about the ideas and standards of excellence in literature of “dead white European males.” The postmodernists mean it.
For postmodernism, the notion of seeking “truth” and “the facts” is a relic of modern philosophy. A student must “identify” with his or her racial, sexual, cultural, or other group—and acknowledge that everything he thinks proceeds from that identity.
The core “logic”—sorry, for postmodernists an old-fashioned term—of postmodernism requires that an educational institution like Brown focus on “power relations” among “identity” groups of students and faculty. White faculty cannot represent African-American identity. White students cannot provide the vital experience of African-American identity. Ideas and attitudes are inseparable from race, “gender,” and other collective identities. You will see, soon, agitation at Brown to “represent” gay, lesbian, and transgender identities among students and in the faculty.
That is why so many Brown alumni perceive their alma mater as obsessed with race, “minorities,” and “balance.” And why we read apologies from Brown for not living up to its “promises of diversity.”
Lack of diversity in “diversity”
The wicked joke is that the “diversity” that Brown pursues is skin-color deep. How diverse are Brown students—and faculty—intellectually, politically, culturally? The answer almost certainly is not diverse at all.
How far from the postmodernist orthodoxy does the faculty stray? I challenge Brown to commission a poll on this by an outside firm. Are students urged to question the postmodernist catechism? The liberal-left orthodoxy of the ever-growing interventionist-welfare state? Economic class warfare? To reduce the issue to a prime-time sound-bite: What percentage of Brown students and faculty in the humanities and social sciences support outright socialist Bernard Sanders for President? Oh, well, at least there is a spectrum of skin colors.
Today, Brown’s administrators don’t see students as young men or women seeking a challenging education; they are “identities” on the postmodernist grid of power relations. My receptionist friend’s white, middleclass, well-educated daughter offered Brown an “identity” that did nothing to advance power relations. An applicant “of color” fulfilled that role far better.
At least, there is good news for her. She chucked Brown’s offered “wait listing” to accept Tulane University’s offer of a full, four-year academic scholarship.
My moral dilemma
And I? I must decide whether or not to attend my 50th Brown class reunion. I loved Brown. I never did do well on those damned standardized tests. Like many fellow freshmen, I was convinced I had been admitted under President Barnaby Keeney’s “Tom Sawyer” program, a remnant of students admitted for “something special”—I was an avid poet, essayist, editor, and even editor of prize-winning anthology of poetry.
My brother and one of my sisters attended Brown, as well. And I worked at Brown as “Director of Foundation Relations” in the early 1970’s. As a foundation executive at The Commonwealth Fund, I helped to land a nice grant for Brown’s innovative medical school.
There is much room for fine-tuning a university’s admissions. Creativity is reliably measured by no known instrument. Nor is entrepreneurial drive or intellectual passion. Today, an education that fails to include experience of global realities is sadly lacking. And yet, Brown opened the mind of this New England farm boy to other races, religions, and nationalities. But all of this is consistent with a philosophy of individualism; there can be no alleged benefit that justifies racial discrimination because its fundamental standard of deciding among individuals—for admission to college, for example—is meaningless and pernicious.
My receptionist friend said, “You should boycott your reunion, Brown doesn’t deserve it.”
I am Brown. As much as any administrator, faculty member, or seven-figure contributor, I am Brown’s memory, Brown’s achievement, Brown’s body.
Brown taught me to think critically, maintain context and perspective, look at the facts, and adhere to principle. I owe Brown my best thinking on its present crisis—as I see it—and its future.
If I am wrong, I hope other Brown alumni will step forward to challenge my views. If I am right, I trust other Brown alumni to accept what for all of us is a painful truth and act to correct Brown’s course, to redeem our alma mater.
Walter Donway was a founding trustee of The Atlas Society and serving on it board of trustees for many years. He is author of books of poetry, four novels, and nonfiction including Not Half Free, essays on capitalism and investment with an introduction by David Kelley. His essays have been published by TAS and elsewhere on the Web, including "Savvy Street."
Stephen Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. October 2010.
Stephen Hicks, “Free Speech and Postmodernism.” June 21, 2010.
William Thomas, “Defining Postmodernism.” February 26, 2011.