Monday, January 23, 2012

Race and Majors at Duke, Why the Hubbub?

This week newspapers have been covering how (some) black students at Duke are mad about a study done by a couple of professors. one of them an economist at Duke.  This is a dangerous topic, because no matter what one says on this issue, someone is going to be offended.  So, here I go!

Basically, a survey of Duke students' majors found that black students at Duke are more likely to switch to an "easier" major after they get there than white students are.  And so, black students at Duke are mad.  At what exactly, I haven't been able to divine from the reports.  Most articles quote Nana Asante, president of the black Student Alliance: (from

“The implications and intentions of this research at the hands of our very own prestigious faculty, seemingly without a genuine concern for proactively furthering the well-being of the black community, (are) hurtful and alienating.” She asked the researchers and the university administration “what image has this … report portrayed to the rest of the country, namely our peer institutions, about Duke and its black students? Asante said the research paper does not “account for the societal, complex and institutional factors that must be considered in any attempt to delineate trends in racial differences in grade point averages and major choices, in a scholarly manner. 

The implication is that because Duke and many other schools have affirmative action policies to give more minorities the opportunity to attend, that some may compensate by choosing less difficult majors at Duke.  They found the same thing with respect to others who get more "opportunity" to get in with more leeway on scores, namely legacies (kids of alumni). It makes sense to me!  I actually saw a few cases where it appeared to me that a legacy, athlete, or minority just wasn't as prepared for the Duke Juggernaut. Look, very few people are! Why are people mad?

It is well-known and commonly discussed that on average, Hispanics and blacks attend poorer schools, and might be less well prepared for college.  Similarly, kids from rural areas (like me) went to school systems where we didn't have the greatest teachers, either, with a few exceptions, of course.  For example, the calculus teacher in my high school did not understand even the basics of calculus.  (I also had a French teacher in 9th grade who knew absolutely no French.) Yes, we had AP classes, but when discussing a poem, my AP English teacher told my good friend (who had the 3rd highest GPA in a large school):
Teacher: "In this line he is saying this." 
Friend: "I think he could be saying that." 
Teacher<enraged>: "You are not here to think.  I am the only one paid to think here." 

Additionally, I dealt with the same kind of anti-intellectualism you read about in poor, urban high schools. Having spent 6 years at Duke getting my Ph.D., let me tell you: My rural high school did not prepare me to survive at Duke, and I would not have survived had I gone there for Undergrad.  I did a lot of growing and catching up in my 5 years at Appalachian State, and was therefore well-prepared for my Ph.D. work. Again, why are the students mad?  I find this data very enlightening, and do not find it demeaning to anyone.

Years ago, I was concerned about a similar possibility:  I wondered if it was possible that, if a student is let in to a school in some preferential way, that they might be possibly less prepared, and less likely to graduate-- it just stands to reason (some suggest this about George W. Bush's record).  I am pleased to say, that most research has not found this to be the case for black students at most highly ranked universities.  The currently-criticized study actually may help to partially explain why.  I am intimately aware of how preparation, both academic and in terms of maturity and attitude, can affect chances of graduation.  Also, any professor/advisor has seen students who move up to a more difficult or down to a less difficult major, oftentimes due to that student having high or low preparation compared to his peers.

If students or advocates want to get mad, do you:
Get mad at the data?
Get mad at the researchers for collecting the data?
Get mad at the researchers for writing the report?
Get mad at Duke for their affirmative action?

Well, please don't get mad at me!  Yes, I get it... they got mad because they think it makes them "look bad"?  Sorry, I disagree.  And, it is juvenile to get mad at data.  To kill the messenger is also juvenile.  I personally know many of the Duke Economics faculty since I went there, but also because I have worked with them for years in a program for minorities who want to get their Ph.D. in economics.  These people voluntarily worked for many years on this program, and had a great impact on a lot of very smart kids.  These guys are not trying to make anyone look bad, they are uncovering facts.

What burns me up most is this:  Any time someone is determined to get offended when data doesn't show that they are made of solid gold, you put a chilling effect on such research.  It is already very difficult to report unpopular results on race, gender, sexual orientation, and the like. By yelling each and every time, you guarantee that fewer people will do research on your group, and we will understand less, and therefore be less able to uncover when there are genuine concerns.  If you are outraged, I need to ask you one final, crucial question: "Having done the research, and found out something unpopular, do you really want people to shred the report at that point?  Will that make you better off?"  If you believe so, then you are an ostrich, and yes, should not be at an institution such as Duke. Please, please Duke students: Thank these researchers.  Apologize to them.  And then let them help you to think about solutions to any problems you think exist.

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