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OPINION - Diversity and college admissions

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Janet Napolitano was a sub-par Homeland Security Secretary. These days she's the Chancellor of the University of California system, where she isn't doing much better. Last month she wrote an op-ed piece about affirmative action in college admissions just after the Supreme Court ruling upholding Michigan's ban on using race as a factor.

Napolitano wrote a what-if essay: what if the Supreme Court struck down all affirmative action on college campuses. Undoubtedly she's thinking about it because the day is coming . Now retired Justice Sandra Day OConner wrote the last court decision on the issue. It was a muddled ruling that said race can be a 'plus factor' but not the determining factor in college admissions. If that sounds like a contraction, it is. She also wrote that the time will come that racing preferences, quotas, and set-asides will sunset. And, of course, there will be intense debate over when. Some will argue right now , others will argue decades into the future. Justice OConnor suggested 20-or-so years, and that time is just about up.

The problem with Chancellor Napolitano's thinking is that ethnic diversity (and affirmative action as a way of achieving it) has been elevated to a core value on college campuses. It shouldn't be. Academic excellence should be the core value, second to none.

If a person values ethnic diversity, it can be achieved in many other areas of their life. Where you choose to live determines how much ethnic diversity you'll have on a daily basis. So does where you work. (Anyone in the working world who can't get along with people of different ethnic backgrounds is sabotaging their career.) Where you go to church or what activities and pastimes you enjoy will all increase of decrease the varieties of people you come in contact with. It's wrong to think of our colleges as the one and only magical place where you'll meet people of different ethnic groups.

There is one thing that should be unique about college. It's the one place where you could be surrounded by really smart people. That can't be replicated in a neighborhood, on a job site, or at a social club. Assembling a group of people who are highly intelligent and want to educate themselves in a rigorous environment can only happen on campus. And, as most college graduates know, being around smart people makes you smarter.

Napolitano laments that since California dropped its affirmative-action college admissions, some state medical schools don't have any African-Americans in their incoming classes. If the reason is that there are no academically-qualified blacks who applied, then good. Those slots are occupied by others who are more likely to become doctors. The alternative is to let less-qualified minorities take seats that should go to more-qualified students of other races. Minority enrollment also dropped at California's law and engineering schools. Asian enrollment went up in those categories. Asians have long complained that in an affirmative action environment, their race counts against them that because their culture values education that it takes a near-perfect entrance exam to get into a competitive college. And if we determine that a school with too few blacks is racially offensive, why is it acceptable to make sure a school isn't too Asian?

College admissions should be based on one standard: whether a student is academically qualified to attend. If there are 100 spots in a class, give them to the 100 smartest students who apply. Otherwise we are curing past-racism with new racism. That can't be right.

Chris Conley

Image: Janet Napolitano, FEMA file photo, via WikiCommons.com