Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Face of Affirmative Action?

Anybody interested in the debate over race and merit in higher education should take a look at the story of Harold Fernandez, recently documented in the New York Times. While his story might not change your views on the use of race in admissions, it should certainly help you consider your views more carefully.

Mr. Fernandez came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant in 1978, as a 13 year old. Through hard work and perseverance, he gained admission to Princeton University. He arrived at Princeton two weeks before most students in his class, as part of a university program for poor and minority students who came from high schools without the rigorous course work to which most other Princeton freshmen had been exposed. He also assumed his SAT scores were lower than most of his classmates. He was hardly the traditional Princeton freshman, likely an "undeserving beneficiary of affirmative action."

But he proved them wrong. After his first semester, his grades placed him among Princeton's top freshmen. He worked hard -- really hard -- and took advantage of the opportunity Princeton afforded him. Isn't that what higher education should be about? Isn't that what affirmative action should be about?

The second part of his story is just as important as the first. In the spring of his freshman year, Princeton asked Mr. Fernandez to bring his green card to the adviser to foreign-born students in order to verify his immigration status. This presented a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, since Mr. Fernandez was an illegal immigrant, and the copy of the green card he had previously sent Princeton was a forgery, and not a very good one at that. This posed a grave problem: he had accepted federal monies that were not available to illegal immigrants. He had also violated Princeton's honor code.

At this point in the story, I couldn't help but think of the life story of Christopher Langan, as examined by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. A brilliant student, with an IQ between 195 and 210, Mr. Langan was unable to navigate the myriad obstacles posed by both Reed College and Montana State University. Officials at both schools were unwilling to help him, and so his vast potential was not maximized.

Mr. Fernandez faced similar obstacles. But the one part of this story that bears paying close attention focuses on how Princeton officials responded to his problems. He first went to one of his professors, who in turn spoke to the adviser and to William Bowen, then president of the university. A few days later, he met with the director of studies. After telling her what he had done, her answer shocked him then, and shocks me today. In his words: "Just as I was feeling crushed by the gravity of these issues . . . she went on to say: 'But Harold, both problems have solutions.'"

Princeton did not have to do any of this. In fact, they could have, as Mr. Fernandez acknowledged, "shrugged [him] of as an unscrupulous intruder." They chose instead to treat him as one of their own. They even chose to help his finally with their immigration status.

Mr. Fernandez went on to graduate magna cum laude and Phi Betta Kappa, and went on to attain degrees from Harvard medical School and New York University Medical Center. Today he is a cardiac surgeon in Roslyn, New York.

This story should be mandatory reading to admissions officials across the country.

I am not encouraged. As a recent study documents, students of color are lagging behind all other students in admissions at the nation's law schools even while class sizes increase. This is true even as their LSAT scores and grade point averages increase. I suspect the same holds true in other areas as well.

Try to make sense of that in light of Harold Fernandez's story.