UCLA Law Professor Says Affirmative Action Inflicts ‘Significant Academic Harm’ on Minority Students

Mismatch Bookcover by Richard H. Sander

Admissions quotas for minority students are not only hurting higher education, they are hurting the students themselves, says Richard Sander, a professor in the UCLA law school.

Data show that when students with lower academic qualifications than their peers are accepted into more challenging universities, they suffer academically as a result, Sander said Wednesday evening before an assembly of the Bruin Republicans at UCLA.

Affirmative action creates what Sander calls “mismatch,” whereby preferred students find themselves out of their league and underperform as a result.

Sander told the group that “students will learn less when they are surrounded by students who had scores 10 points higher than them than if they were surrounded by students who had similar scores.” In other words, less academically qualified students perform better when surrounded by students of their own caliber than when placed among students with superior abilities.

This is not a question only of race, Sander insisted, but occurs any time that a student is given preferential treatment based on anything other than academic ability, be it legacy status, athletic prowess, or any other non-academic qualification.

Nonetheless, Sander said he believes his theory explains why so many minority students, particularly African-American and Latino students, drop out of school.

“Because they were given preference, they are not learning as fast as their peers, so they become discouraged with education and decide to flunk out,” Sander said.

The law professor has suffered abuse for his theory by groups and individuals who believe that any questioning of affirmative action is necessarily motivated by racism. “Black law students know that Richard Sander doesn’t think they belong,” wrote one blogger, who compared Sander to a white Louis Farrakhan.

In a 2012 article in the Atlantic, Sander said that while affirmative action in university admissions began as a noble effort to jump-start racial integration and foster equal opportunity, along the way it was derailed and often inflicts “significant academic harm” on those it presumably means to help.

Together with co-author Stuart Taylor, Sander said that academic leaders “have become prisoners of a system that many privately deplore for its often-perverse unintended effects but feel they cannot escape.”

Quota-based admissions “often place students in environments where they can neither learn nor compete effectively—even though these same students would thrive had they gone to less competitive but still quite good schools,” he said.

The Atlantic piece was drawn from a full-length book treatment of the topic, titled Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reportedly referenced Sander’s mismatch theory in 2015 during oral arguments in the Supreme Court’s second hearing of the famous affirmative action case of Fisher v. University of Texas.

“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a  slower­track school where they do well,” he said.

Most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas but from “lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them,” Scalia added, referring to one of the briefs.

In his talk Wednesday, Sander cited a number of research studies that corroborate the mismatch theory, with one showing that when lower ranking students were placed alongside the highest ranking students, they actually began to perform worse.

Academic administrators are aware of the problem, Sander contended, but tend to sweep the information under the rug or even try to discredit it.

As a result, the mismatch problem is largely an invisible issue. “With striking uniformity, university leaders view discussion of the mismatch problem as a threat to affirmative action and to racial peace on campuses, and therefore a subject to be avoided,” Sander wrote. “They suppress data and even often ostracize faculty who attempt to point out the seriousness of mismatch.”

“We believe that the willful denial of the mismatch issue is as big a problem as mismatch itself,” they said.

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