It might be thought of as unwise to base a tenet of one’s life philosophy on a comic strip, but when the comic in question is Calvin & Hobbes and the author Bill Watterson, I think that an exception should be made. Throughout the comic strip’s history, Calvin’s father would answer his son’s incessant questioning about why he had to do something unpleasant with the phrase, “it builds character.” Don’t want to shovel the driveway? Do it anyway, it’ll build your character. You hate eating slimy boiled broccoli? Don’t worry, it’s good for you. It builds character. You’re telling me you have no desire to read the extended sports metaphor that’s about to come in the next paragraph? Tough shit, it’ll build some character in you. Okay, so that last one was mine, but you get the idea. It’s an ethos that comes from the old, “it’ll put some hair on your chest” school of parenting that was in vogue when kids were still allowed to strike out during Tee-Ball and not everyone got a trophy at the end of the season. As George Carlin once said, if every child is special, then every adult special, and if every adult is special, then we’re all special and the idea loses all its fucking meaning!
Every year, Joe Lunardi and the college basketball fanatics over at ESPN create a list of the last 4 in and the last 4 out in the coming selection for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The list is fluid and changes over the course of the year based on a number of factors ranging from overall record and strength of schedule to a team’s number of “quality wins”. Analysts like Lunardi have their tounrament predictions down to a science, their reliability mitigated only by the capacity for variability and bias in the opinions of the members of the NCAA selection committee. In each tournament field of 68, 31 of the teams are automatically admitted by virtue of winning their conference tournament, while the remaining 37 teams are selected as “at-large” bids. The last 4 in represent the 4 weakest teams to make the tourney, while the first 4 out find themselves unwilling entrants into the NIT tournament for misfit athletes.
In 2012, the last team invited to the big show was the Iona College Gaels, while the last team kicked to the curb were the Dragons of Drexel University. Looking at the resumes of the two schools, you would be hard pressed to find anything resembling a meaningful difference between them. Drexel had a slightly better record, but Iona had a stronger RPI and strength of schedule. Both teams were Mid-Majors who lost games in their conference tournaments that they should have won on paper. The choice of one over the other was based as much on gut instincts and immeasurable qualities as anything else. The fact that Drexel was on the outside looking in while Iona got their ticket to dance punched is slightly unfair, but not outside the realm of expected variation. Get a new group of people together and the decision would be just as arbitrary and the result just as subject to caprice. It may seem paradoxical and convenient to say after the fact, but if Drexel had truly deserved to be in the tournament, then they would have won their conference tournament or compiled a more impressive resume.
This brings me back to the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, which was brought before the Supreme Court back in October and is likely to decide the fate of affirmative action in America when a decision is sent down this coming spring. The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, has brought forth a suit against The University of Texas at Austin for denying her admission to their undergraduate program based on her race. Abigail Fisher is white and contends that the University of Texas willfully discriminated against her by including race as one of a range of mitigating factors in determining which applicants were deserving of admission. The district court in Austin and the 5th Circuit Court of Texas have both ruled in favor of the University, expressing their opinion that the school has acted within the boundaries put forth by the Supreme Court’s last affirmative action made in 2003.Therefore, by taking her case to the Supreme Court, Ms. Fisher is challenging the national legality of affirmative action as opposed to the constitutionality of the University of Texas’s program in specific.
However, it is the University of Texas’s admissions program in particular that concerns me with regards to the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament selection process. You see, in Texas, a state law was passed in 1997 that mandated that the Top 10% of every high school in the state be granted automatic admission to any Texas state university. This law was passed in response to a decision that banned the use of affirmative action in college admissions (a ban which was repealed with the Supreme Court decision in 2003) as a back door measure for increasing minority enrollment. While it did have limited effect on minority admissions, it was only when affirmative action was reauthorized in 2003 that minority enrollment at Texas state universities began to see significant gains. But, the Top 10 Law had been successful enough that it was kept in place and was is still being used to this day.
In 2008, the year in which Abigail Fisher was denied admission to UT-Austin, over 72% of that year’s freshman class consisted of students admitted under the Top 10 Law. Meanwhile, of the remaining 28%, a demographic analysis of the “at-large” admissions shows that whites were accepted at a higher rate than they had been in Top 10 Law admissions. While whites made up only 48% of Top 10 admits, they consisted of a full 60% of at-large admissions. Every single minority saw decreased admissions percentages1 when the comprehensive, individualized selection process that considered race was used, with Hispanic admissions being slashed in half. To maintain that the University of Texas’s admissions process is unfairly balanced in favor of minorities is to ignore the tangible results of that process.
Abigail Fisher finished 82nd in her class of 674, with a GPA of just under 3.6 and an SAT score of 1180, which is below the range usually favored by the University of Texas at Austin. She was not an automatic qualifier and she was not an exceptional student. She was a bubble applicant that could have been accepted or denied with a similar degree of confidence. In short, she was unremarkable except for her desire to proclaim her perceived persecution to the world, reality and diversity be damned. Fisher ended up going to Louisiana State University and, upon graduation, landed a job as a financial analyst in Austin. The only real damages she is seeking is the refund of her $100 application fee. I was denied acceptance to two of the colleges I applied to when I was in high school and somehow I managed to not create a national incident out of the matter that effectively neutered the ability of institutions of higher learning to promote diversity. I went somewhere else. I moved on with my life. I built character. Abigail Fisher tried to tear the character of others down.
1The one group other than whites that saw increased inclusion in at-large admissions were Foreign-born students, which makes sense as most of them would have been likely to attend high school outside of the state of Texas. http://www.utexas.edu/news/2012/08/06/race-admissions-narrow-necessary-constitutional/