‘Poison Ivy’ Author Evan Mandery: ‘Virtually Certain’ Supreme Court Will End Affirmative Action At Universities

The Supreme Court is considering a second case against the University of North Carolina that could end affirmative action for admission practices at U.S. universities. A decision is expected in June. Courtesy photo

Yes. These schools have astonishingly high endowments, and so they could give more money to needy students if they wanted, correct? What are they spending that money on?

I mean, it’s knowable. It’s in their financial reports, and they save a lot of it. Basically, they all spend approximately 4.5% of their endowment per year. It fluctuated a tiny amount, but it didn’t really go up during the pandemic. If they weren’t going to draw down more of their endowment during the pandemic, then the idea that it’s a rainy day fund is obviously just a myth.

In the business it’s called the Yale Spending Rule; the number doesn’t come out of thin air. There’s an IRS guideline that nonprofits with the endowments are supposed to draw down 5%. That’s a random target that they’re trying to get to.

A lot of it goes to faculty support. Malcolm Gladwell put out this piece pointing out that Princeton’s endowment is approximately $4 million per student. So at 2% interest, you could pay for every student, and you could run the college in perpetuity. He called it a perpetual motion machine. In my book, I say, what are the schools going to say about me? I joke that they will say that I don’t understand endowments. That’s exactly what they did with Gladwell, and that a lot of these endowments have specific restrictions on how they can be spent.

One of the heroes of my book is a woman named Catharine Bond Hill who used to be the president of Vassar. She runs a nonprofit called Ithaka. She says that there are some restrictions, but there’s more flexibility than these schools are willing to admit. If you really are determined to redirect the money, there are mechanisms to do that.

Let’s just say, with a $50 billion endowment, if Harvard drew down 5.5% percent instead of 4.5% percent, you’re talking about an extra $500 million a year. What does $500 million a year do? My college’s entire operating budget is $200 million, so you could run a couple of colleges for free. That would make a pretty massive expansion of opportunity, if they were so inclined.

When you say, ‘if they were so inclined,’ you’re saying these are choices these schools are making, correct?

‘Poison Ivy’ is published by The New Press.

That’s my whole point: They certainly want people to perceive that they’re sort of bystanders in this process. That to the extent there are inequities in higher education, they’re merely reproducing the underlying inequities in higher education. What can you do? Kids want to go and be investment bankers and consultants.

Every element of the story is a myth. I talk a lot about the research of a sociologist named Amy Binder which says most kids don’t go to college wanting to work at Goldman Sachs; they don’t know what Goldman Sachs is. They are high achievers, and they just compete.

If colleges were inclined to direct them into more pro social careers, they can make a dent in the problem. If they were inclined to advertise to the world that they weren’t really admitting the best and brightest, they were admitting, you know, the very good, largely selected from among the rich, that would be a different story. It’s their choice not to tell that story.

Most of the top business schools have built these pipelines to these investment banking and consulting companies, for example, with really aggressive recruitment processes. Is that what you were talking about systems for protecting oneself from not falling out of the upper class?

One of my favorite books that I read in the course of writing my own book was a book called “Pedigree,” by a sociologist named Lauren Rivera. She embedded herself at an unnamed management consulting firm in the human resources department. She wrote about the hiring practices at investment banks, management consultancies, and large law firms.

First, she says, basically they draw their hires exclusively from three or four of the most elite universities. There’s a joke in the book that the recruiters don’t even want to travel to Stanford because it’s too far a flight. That’s bad enough. But then she says, how did they pick among the Harvard and Yale and Princeton graduates? She finds – and this doesn’t surprise me, I’ve had kind of a gut sense of this for a long time – that what’s happening is they’re looking for people like them, and people that they like to play with. So they end up reproducing an even more extreme version of the inequality because they’re looking for lacrosse players and squash players.

The book is extremely depressing. I don’t think there’s any silver bullet on any of these problems, but it makes a difference that Goldman Sachs and McKinsey look the way they do.

On October 31, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a major affirmative action case that would affect college admission practices and likely ripple out to businesses and other organizations that depend on diverse hiring pipelines. Can you provide a bit of a primer on those cases and what you think might happen?

There’s a pair of lawsuits brought by a group of Asian students, Students for Fair Admissions. One lawsuit is against Harvard, and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson has recused herself. There’s a second lawsuit which is brought against the University of North Carolina, and that’s under the Title Seven of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The lawsuit is a challenge to race based affirmative action. The existing Supreme Court position is that race may be considered a plus factor in admissions. The seminal case from 1974 is a case involving admissions at UC Davis Medical School called Bakke.

It’s likely/virtually certain that the Supreme Court is going to overturn Bakke and a later case called Grutter, and rule that race based affirmative action is unconstitutional.

I have an op ed out on CNN arguing that the fact that this issue was even before the Supreme Court is largely Harvard’s fault. Under the Constitution, in order to engage in race conscious policies, you have to show that they serve a compelling interest and that they’re narrowly tailored. So everybody acknowledges or agrees that diversity is a compelling interest. But Harvard could have achieved its goal of increasing diversity through race neutral means; They could have reduced preferences for athletes, and the children of alumni, and donors and faculty members, and that would have freed up a third of their class to fill with a more competitive system. They chose not to do that.

What do you think the likely overturning will mean for issues that you’re writing about?

It’s hard to know for sure, and I think the answer will be different in different institutions. It depends a little bit on their resources.

One very scary thing in the University of North Carolina lawsuit, one of the issues on the table is whether schools can consider socioeconomic status. My book is all about class, and I think it would be preferable for institutions to really try to focus on class diversity for a variety of reasons, and they would increase race diversity if they focused on class diversity.

For the richest colleges, I think they will probably be able to sort of maintain their race diversity by focusing on class diversity. It’s expensive to do this. because part of the way they bring up their numbers of non white students is by bringing in lots of international students. So this is a very odd phenomenon at Harvard, that most of the black students aren’t from the United States. They’re letting in international students, like sons and daughters of diplomats, who can pay full freight. There aren’t that many of those students, so then it gets more expensive because many students of color are not that wealthy. I think, sadly, what will happen is the numbers will go down at a lot of these other places.

So why does this matter?

It matters across a whole host of dimensions. I’m a college professor, so it matters in terms of the classroom experience. It matters to students, and there’s lots of data that shows that students do better in environments where they actually interact with people like them.

Mostly, I think in the aggregate, it matters to democracy. Of the many hateful mechanisms that Donald Trump exploited on his pathway to the presidency, none was quite so effective as his critique of elites.

The problem is, his critique is, at bottom, true: It’s very hard for people to trust elites when they have no prospect of being one themself and don’t know any. Part of the reason I don’t mistrust the New York Times is because I know people who work there. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes, but I believe in their overall conscientiousness. I believe in journalism. But, if you don’t go to college or you feel like you can’t go to college, think about the story that you’re going to tell about those people. Or how easy it is for you to believe that they are, you know, just rich Jews who control the media. And, I say that as a not so rich Jew.


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