The Penn Law School Progressives, Scores a Victory
Now Black Lives Matter wants Amy Wax fired for arguing that preferences harm their ‘beneficiaries.’
By Heather Mac Donald
The campus mob at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania Law School has scored a hit. Prof. Amy Wax will no longer be allowed to teach required first-year courses, the school’s dean announced last week. Now the leader of Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, Asa Khalif, wants Ms. Wax’s scalp. According to a weekend newspaper report, if she isn’t fired within a week, “he plans to make things on the West Philadelphia campus very uncomfortable.”
Ms. Wax’s sin this time was to discuss publicly the negative consequences of affirmative action. Her punishment underscores again the dangers of speaking uncomfortable truths in a university setting.
The academic left has been gunning for Ms. Wax since last August, when she co-wrote a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed calling for a return to the “bourgeois culture” of the 1950s. She was branded a white supremacist for advocating personal responsibility, even though the op-ed criticized “the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites.”
Half the Penn law faculty signed an open letter denouncing the op-ed. The dean, Ted Ruger, asked her to take a leave of absence and stop teaching her first-year course, Ms. Wax wrote last month in this newspaper. She declined his request. (The law school denied her account and said the discussion was merely “about the timing of a regularly-accrued sabbatical.”)
The latest outrage arises from a web video Ms. Wax recorded in September with Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University. Forty or so minutes in, the discussion turned to racial preferences. Mr. Loury noted that, on average, students admitted via preferences “are less academically qualified—by definition!” Ms. Wax brought up the “mismatch” effect: the idea that the so-called beneficiaries of preferences have difficulty competing with peers who were admitted without them. “Take Penn Law School, or some top 10 law school,” Ms. Wax said. “Here’s a very inconvenient fact, Glenn. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class and rarely, rarely in the top half. I can think of one or two students who’ve scored in the top half in my required first-year course.”
Ms. Wax added that she teaches a “class of 89, 95 students” each year, “so I’m going on that because a lot of this data is of course a closely guarded secret.” That is an understatement. Schools pay fanatical attention to the racial makeup of their student bodies, then work just as fanatically to conceal the resulting gaps in qualifications and subsequent academic achievement.
Ms. Wax suggested that preference beneficiaries would do better in colleges where their academic preparation equaled that of their peers. “If they were better matched, it might be a better environment for them,” she said. “We’re not saying they shouldn’t go to college. We’re not saying that. I mean, some of them shouldn’t.” The statement that some college students would be better off in vocational training or work is true for all races, particularly for the millions who drop out before getting a degree.
The video had been online for months before someone at Penn got wind of it. Cue an alumni and student petition protesting Ms. Wax’s “disparaging, false and deeply offensive claims.”
The petition worked. In the campus email last week announcing Ms. Wax’s removal from first-year teaching, Mr. Ruger denounced her claims as false: “Black students have graduated in the top of the class at Penn law.” At the same time, he insisted that Penn does not “collect, sort or publicize grade performance by racial group.”
Although Ms. Wax’s statements were general, Mr. Ruger accused her of violating the school’s confidentiality policy and conscripting students in the service of her “musings about race in society.” He also accused her of saying that some black law students at Penn shouldn’t “even go to college,” when she was speaking of the mismatch problem more broadly.
Though couched as a subjective perception, Ms. Wax’s casual observations about the mismatch effect at Penn were too sweeping—there have undoubtedly been some black students in the top quarter of the class—and she might want to correct that overstatement. But the mismatch effect is absolutely real, at Penn and elsewhere. In the early 1990s, the Law School Admissions Council tracked 27,000 students at nearly 90% of all accredited law schools. Of the 2,000 students attending the most “elite” law schools, 52% of blacks were in the bottom tenth of their class, compared with 6% of whites. Only 8% of blacks were in the top half of their class. Bar failure rates were also skewed; the LSAC data showed that 19% of blacks graduating from these elite schools failed the bar, compared with 3.5% of whites.
In 1995 UCLA law professor Richard Sander gathered GPA data on first-year law students at 19 law schools, including Penn. Though the number of self-identifying black respondents from Penn was small, the patterns there closely tracked those in the LSAC data set. There is no reason to think anything has changed.
Mr. Ruger has accused Ms. Wax of a “conscious indifference” to the truth. The burden is on him to disclose the data that prove her thesis wrong. It is conceivable that to maintain plausible deniability about the effects of its racial preferences, Penn does not collect or analyze data on the performance of black law students. That information, however, would be easy to assemble.
The diversity industry has given notice: Discuss the costs of affirmative action, and you can be punished and publicly shamed. The real scandal is not what Ms. Wax said but that schools refuse to be transparent about admissions policies that impede students’ success.