River Runs True
by Scott Williams
April 11, 2000
Notes on the book Bok and Bowen, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Considering Race in College and University Admissions [Princeton University Press, 1998, $25 also at Amazon.com]
Los Angeles Times "A compelling new book . . . demonstrates why affirmative action programs can be good for the country. . . . The authors prove with facts, not anecdotes, that affirmative action works. . . . With the presidential commission having fallen flat in trying to advance the national discussion on race, it may be the smaller-scale efforts, like the Bowen and Bok book, that better lay the groundwork for long-term change."
Ronald Dworkin, New York Review of Books "The Shape of the River . . . offers much more comprehensive statistics and much more sophisticated analysis than has been available before. Impressionistic and anecdotal evidence will no longer suffice: any respectable discussion of the consequences of affirmative action in universities must now either acknowledge its findings or challenge them, and any challenge must match the standards of breadth and statistical professionalism that Bowen, Bok, and their colleagues have achieved."
The New York Times, September 14, 1998 "No study of this magnitude has been attempted before. Its findings provide a strong rationale for opposing current efforts) to demolish race-sensitive policies in colleges across the country. . . . The evidence collected flatly refutes many of the misimpressions of affirmative-action opponents." Los Angeles Times "A compelling new book . . . demonstrates why affirmative action programs can be good for the country. . . . The authors prove with facts, not anecdotes, that affirmative action works. . . . With the presidential commission having fallen flat in trying to advance the national discussion on race, it may be the smaller-scale efforts, like the Bowen and Bok book, that better lay the groundwork for long-term change."
Prior to the 1960s racial preferences prevented African Americans from attending state colleges much less the best universities in the country. The author of this review found that 95% performance on the 1960 version of the SAT and 95% performance on the Advanced GRE's were not enough for consideration by these institutions. However, in the late 1960's, leading American colleges and universities began to use racial and ethnic criteria to select a significant fraction of their entering classes. This was formalized, as Affirmative Action, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, and expanded during the Richard Nixon adminisitration. And since the 1970's, increasingly vocal objections have been raised to such policies on grounds of moral and constitutional principle. Until fairly recently, however, relatively little was known about how the process actually worked. Exactly how much weight was given to racial and ethnic considerations in the admissions process? Not much, unreflective of the 10% national population, schools increased their African American admissions up from essentially 0% to 1% or even 2% at the best schools? A typical example, a university of 8000 students increased its African American population from 4 to 120. Subsequently, in the African American community we found many well trained individuals were able to compete with the general American public. For example, in areas of science, African Americans graduates performed, on average, far better than their general public contemporaries. However, until the 1990s only negative data was presented, while the primary positive reason formulated was "fairness.". Thus, opponents to race-sensitive admission policies were able to develop a strong voice, and the nationwide debate about affirmative action in college admissions grew louder.
As a response, two ex-university presidents, William G. Bowen and Derek Bok, examined the college careers and the subsequent lives of students - or, to use the Mark Twain metaphor, they learned the shape of the entire river - in order to make an informed judgment of university admissions policies. Bowen was provost at Princeton University from 1967 to 1972 and then president until 1988, when he became head of the Mellon Foundation. Bok was dean of the Harvard law school from 1968 to 1971 and then president of Harvard University for twenty years.
In their book, The Shape of the River, Bok and Bowen waded through a database of approximately 30,000 students who entered one of 28 leading colleges and universities in 1976, and another 32,000 who began their studies in 1989. Of the 28 institutions, 24 were private. The authors divide the schools into three levels of selectivity on the basis of the mean combined SAT scores of their matriculants, with institutions like Princeton, Stanford, Williams, and Yale at the top, places like Columbia, Northwestern, Penn, and Tufts, and mainly public schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Pennsylvania State, and Miami University of Ohio.
Bok and Bowen argue "that academically selective colleges and universities have been highly successful in using race-sensitive admission policies to advance educational goals important to them and societal goals important to everyone." African Americans, who would not have been admitted to select institutions without the use of race-sensitive admissions policies, have been successful in life and often are among the leaders in community and civic organizations.
According to Bok, the schools were chosen because there the race-sensitive admissions issue is particularly alive because of the many highly qualified applicants are turned away. Bok said,"Also, it really makes a difference to your career if you go to these selective schools. For instance, we found that blacks who go to selective schools earn somewhere around 70% to 80% more than black students who go to other colleges nationwide. And some leading corporations, law firms and hospitals don't bother recruiting except for 10 or 12 schools."
The data reveals the graduation rate for those students studied was 86 percent for whites, 81 percent for Hispanics, and 75 percent for African Americans. In addition, most students (56 percent of whites and 88 percent of African Americans) reported that they knew "well" at least two students of other races while enrolled in college. "Despite self-segregation that takes place among all groups, there is significant integration," Bok maintained. He also noted that when survey respondents were asked about potential changes in race-sensitive admissions policies, 39 percent indicated that policies should not be changed, 39 percent wanted policies strengthened, and 22 percent wanted policies diminished or eliminated. Of the African-American and white students reviewed, 56 percent had earned a graduate degree, while 40 percent of African Americans and 37 percent of whites had earned a professional degree, he said. The statistics show that successful African Americans are more likely than whites to serve as leaders of community and civic groups
"The study also flatly refutes the hypothesis advanced by a number of critics of affirmative action that black students at selective schools whose test scores are significantly lower than the average will be intimidated intellectually, ill drop out that the intended beneficiaries will become the victims. But we found that those students with lower scores who went to the most selective schools graduated in larger numbers than those who went to schools where average scores were lower." says William Bowen.
In any case, it is of no surprise that to find warped reponses negative to the Bok and Bowen book. Under expressed guise of "no preferences" they oppose to the few meager exceptances of African Americans in to their universities.
You can read three negative reviews by the right wing conservative Center for Equal Opportunity.
Also see the related article On Affirmative Action