Hmmm… Implementing DE&I Might Be Trickier Than It Sounds

Here follows the transcript of an entirely fictional videoconference between University of Virginia President Jim Ryan and his Executive Cabinet. The author is not intending to be satirical. He is illuminating the issues that any honest effort to implement a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion agenda will encounter. — JAB

 by Jon Jewett

President Ryan: I have called this meeting to address the most important problem facing the University today — systemic racism. It is imperative that we make significant progress towards a solution during the 2021-22 academic year. In view of their critical roles in determining how we as a university address this problem, I have asked Greg Roberts, Dean of Admissions, Ian Baucom, Dean of Arts and Sciences. Risa Goluboff, Dean of the Law School, and David Wilkes, Dean of the School of Medicine, to join us.

I trust that by now you have all read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. If not, you should. Make that “must.’ Kendi’s basic message can be summed up as “No More Excuses.” We all know that all races are equal. Yet there are huge disparities between whites and blacks in this country, and in this University. Supposedly we have been working to eliminate those disparities at least since the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, but they have barely changed over the last 50 years. What we have been doing has simply not worked, and it is time to recognize that reality. Kevin McDonald, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Community Partnerships, will first explain what our goals must be if we are to have an anti-racist university, and then I will call on others to explain how we will achieve those goals. Kevin?

Kevin McDonald: Thank you, President Ryan. To eliminate systemic racism at the University we must eliminate racial disparities. It is as simple as that. And the disparities are stark. In 2020 just 6.74% of undergraduates, 4.9% of graduate students, and 3.7% of faculty members were African-American. Yet approximately 22% of last year’s Virginia high school graduates were black. Now, of course, we draw 30% of our students from out-of-state, and the national percentage of high school graduates who are black is only about 16%. Accordingly, if our student body and faculty reflected the racial makeup of the relevant student population, about 20% would be black, roughly three times the number of black undergraduates we currently enroll, five times the number of graduate students, and five-and-a-half times the number of faculty members. That is the task we have before us. Greg, Ian, Risa, and David will now explain how we will get there.

Greg Roberts: As Kevin said, we will get there, but I think I should start by giving you the bad news. We will, of course, make strenuous outreach efforts to increase both the number of black applicants and the percentage of accepted applicants who decide to attend UVa. Unfortunately, we cannot expect these efforts to have much effect, for two reasons. First, we have been working hard on outreach, recruiting, and increasing yield for a number of years with only modest success, and there is no reason to expect dramatic results from further efforts along the same lines. The second reason is that all of our peer institutions are also ramping up their efforts to attract black applicants. Realistically we will have to step up our recruitment simply to avoid losing ground.

Dispensing with the SAT and ACT in the admissions process wouldn’t make our task any easier. SAT scores add very little information for applicants from the best high schools. For students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technoloogy, for example, grades and scores on AP and achievement tests tell us all we need to know. On the other hand SAT scores can be useful in assessing applicants from high schools who send very few students to selective colleges and universities. The University of California System looked at this issue and concluded that eliminating the SAT/ACT wouldn’t result in higher black admissions.

The good news is that it should be possible to triple the number of black students in the class we admit next year, the class of 2026, by simply dipping much further into our black applicant pool. However, that will have predictable consequences that all of you need to understand and be prepared to deal with. By the way, at this point I want to say for the record that in achieving greatly increased diversity in our student body we will continue to apply a holistic admissions process, and we will not not use explicit racial quotas, preferences, or other methods that are inconsistent with applicable legal precedent.

Tripling the number of black students in each entering class cannot be accomplished by admitting more applicants who are academically similar to the applicants we currently admit. We are not going to get the yield we need by poaching students from the Ivy League or Duke or even Virginia Tech. It will be all we can do to keep them from poaching from us. But all of the new students will be kids who would have gone to another college. Therefore the pool we draw from will have to be expanded to include a lot of students who now go to schools like Old Dominion and VCU. Of course, those schools may not like the fact that we are taking many of their strongest minority applicants, but they won’t be able to do a lot about it.

I reject the idea that these new admittees will be in some way less worthy than students with the qualifications we have traditionally required. They appear to be less qualified because they are victims of systemic racism. But we do need to recognize that their academic backgrounds and expectations will be different, and that is something that the faculty will have to take into account.

We also need to take into account the effect of dramatically increasing the number of black students on the rest of the student body. We cannot let these new students displace Latinx students, of course. So, that means reducing the number of white and Asian students. If we do that by applying our current admissions criteria but not going as far down the list of applicants, the approximate result will be the elimination of the bottom 20% of white and Asian admittees. This will make the apparent difference in academic preparation between black and white students more obvious, and it could have political repercussions, as many current high school students who reasonably expect to get into UVawill be rejected.

Ian will now explain the adjustments that will be necessary to ensure that our black students will succeed once they arrive at UVa.

Ian Baucom: As Greg has explained, if we were to maintain our traditional curriculum, academic requirements, and grading standards it is virtually certain that our black students will be clustered at the bottom of their classes, particularly in the first year, with little overlap with white and Asian students. We have to face the fact that this is because our traditional curriculum, academic requirements, and grading standards are profoundly and systemically racist. Fortunately we have already undertaken reforms that promise to begin remedying this condition. As you all know, the New College Curriculum began to be implemented in 2020-21. It reflects a non-traditional approach to the curriculum. For example, a first-year student can meet all of the distribution requirements by taking the following eight courses:

  • Life on the Move
  • Poverty Counts
  • Sounds of Resistance
  • The Politics of Popular Music
  • #StayWoke – Social Movements and Social Media
  • Other People’s Music
  • Do We Still Have Faith in Democracy?
  • The Ethics of Piracy

It is too early to be sure, but we believe that racial disparities will be much smaller under the New College Curriculum than has been the case for the traditional first-year curriculum. And our plan is to continue to reform the curriculum, beyond the first year, to make it more flexible, more collaborative, and more reflective of the specific interests and aptitudes of each student. In this way we hope to eliminate the racial grade disparities caused by structural racism in our academic program.

The other key to overcoming structural racism is to make our faculty look like our student body, instead of skewing white and male as it does today. At this point defenders of the status quo usually bring up the so-called “pipeline problem.” They point to tenure, which prevents the university from replacing senior white faculty with faculty of color, and the fact that in many fields few blacks receive advanced degrees. For example, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has reported that in 2019 African Americans earned only one percent of all doctorates awarded in physics to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Blacks earned 3.2 percent of all mathematics and statistics doctorates, 3.4 percent of all doctorates in computer science, 3.5 percent of all doctorates in chemistry, and only 4.2 percent of all doctorates in engineering disciplines. In addition, there were 1,690 doctorates awarded by U.S. universities in the fields of fisheries science, forestry, atmospheric physics, geochemistry, marine biology, oceanography, astronomy and astrophysics, applied physics, plasma physics, algebra, geometry, logic, number theory, neuropsychology, Asian history, European history, Middle or Near East history, and music. Not one went to an African American.

Fortunately, actions can be taken to overcome both of these obstacles. First, we can strongly encourage, by buyouts and other means, senior tenured white faculty to retire. We are exploring how far the University can go in this direction with legal counsel. Second, we can broaden our search for new faculty to include more young scholars with unconventional credentials. In many cases there is no reason to require a doctorate for a job primarily devoted to teaching undergraduates. We can give more credit for other life experiences, and less for traditional peer-reviewed scholarship. We have tended to confine our searches to scholars coming out of the top-rated graduate programs, and discounted degrees from Historically Black Colleges & Universities. This will end. We should also be able to effectively recruit faculty from lower-ranked schools, if we take the initiative. The key thing is that we must begin making offers to faculty candidates who we would not have seriously considered before.

These measures to make the curriculum less racist and increase the diversity of the faculty will not be well received in all quarters. There will be pushback. Look, we’ll be taking some risks, and some bets won’t pay off. Some departments will be find themselves outside of their comfort zones. But if we are sufficiently committed we can do it, and if we mean what we say about being anti-racist we must do it.

Kevin McDonald: Thanks, Ian. I have been assured by President Ryan that the administration is fully committed to the effort you have laid out. I would now like to ask Risa and David to discuss what they will be doing to overcome systemic racism at the schools of Law and Medicine.

Risa Goluboff:  We at the Law School are fully committed to anti-racism, and we endorse and support the actions described by Kevin and Ian. The racial disparities at the Law School are very similar to those at the undergraduate level. However, it is only fair to point out that we are subject to some constraints that don’t apply, or apply to a lesser extent, to the undergraduate program.

Law Schools are more stratified than undergraduate institutions, and most applicants go to the highest ranked law school, as determined by U.S. News & World Report, that they manage to get into. Rankings are significantly affected by the LSAT scores and GPA of the student body. Currently the average LSAT scores/GPA of black students at the Law school are quite a bit lower than for white and Asian students. This doesn’t affect us much now, because of the way we report LSAT scores (75th & 25th percentiles), but if we triple the number of black students, the bottom end of the range will be significantly lower, and we could see a downward trend in our national ranking, which might have serious consequences for recruiting both students and faculty.

We also don’t have the curricular flexibility that Ian described for undergraduates. Particularly for first-year students, we largely have to stick to the traditional required courses for first-year students. Maybe the legal system itself is structurally racist, but it is the system in which our graduates will have to work, and we have to provide the background familiarity with the legal system and the analytical tools they need to succeed. If we eliminate racial disparities in admission rates and reject the weakest non-black applicants that are now admitted, the contrast between the academic performance of black students and white and Asian students will be even greater and more obvious than at the undergraduate level.

Finally, to get a license to practice law it is necessary to pass the state-administered Bar exams, and that requirement is likely to continue in effect for a while. We could easily see a significantly lower Bar exam pass rate for our graduates, which would be bad for them and embarrassing for us. So I am afraid we need to proceed cautiously. Most of our graduates want to be practicing lawyers, and we cannot get too far ahead of the profession. However, we can and will advocate for licensing changes, such as elimination of bar exams for graduates of accredited law schools, that eliminate racial disparities, and over time these changes should allow for changes in admission standards and the curriculum.

Kevin McDonald: Thanks, Risa, for your candid, if somewhat disappointing, response. David, please tell us about what the medical school is doing to meet our diversity objectives. By the way, I was shocked to read recently that although Black male medical students comprised 3.1% of medical students nationally in 1978, in 2019 they accounted for just 2.9%.

David Wilkes: Kevin, the statistic you cited concerns me as well, but you have to put it in context to properly understand it. In 1978 fewer than 25% of medical students were female. Now more than 50% are. This has reduced the percentage of male students in all demographic categories. The percentage of medical students who are white males has gone from about 75% to about 25%. There are now significantly more female  than male black medical students. I would like to see more black male medical students, but when the closing of the gender gap is taken into account, they have actually increased their relative representation.

I certainly cannot tell you that racial disparities have been eliminated at the medical school. Obviously they have not. But I can tell you that we have been working hard on this problem, and that in evaluating our efforts you need to take into account some factors that apply with special salience not only to UVa, but to all medical schools.

First, I wish to point out that we have received a nationally recognized award for excellence in diversity every year for the last nine years, and our national ranking for diversity is 39th out of 118 medical schools, so relative to our peers we are doing reasonably well. Second, unlike undergraduate schools and many graduate schools, the national ranking of a medical school has relatively little impact on the professional prospects of its graduates. The big challenge is getting into a medical school at all, not which school you get into, and that is determined largely by undergraduate grades and MCAT scores. If we poach black medical students from VCU or Eastern Virginia, it is difficult to discern any net benefits for the students or the schools. We wouldn’t increase the size of the pool.

It is also important to recognize that we have little control over our curriculum. In order to practice medicine in the United States it is necessary to pass all three parts of the U. S. Medical Licensing Exam. The first part, Step 1, is administered after the second year in medical school. The second step is taken after the fourth year. The third step is typically taken in the first year of residency. Like all medical schools, we teach to the tests, because these are hurdles all students must get over. We are not doing a student a favor by admitting them if we don’t think they will pass the USMLE.

You may think that I am saying that little can be done to eliminate the glaring disparities that exist, but that is not where I am coming from. As Risa has explained with regard to legal education, to achieve more than incremental gains will require fundamental reform of medical education on the national level. It has to come from the top, from the National Board of Medical Examiners and the leadership of the medical profession. High-stakes standardized tests like the MCAT and the USMLE consistently show racial disparities. They are intrinsically systemically racist. The USMLE has made a modest improvement recently by making the Step 1 exam pass/fail, but that is really just concealing the problem. The USMLE should be replaced by some form of holistic evaluation, taking into account race, that does not produce racial disparities, and the MCAT should be eliminated.

The medical school will continue its efforts to incrementally improve our diversity metrics, but our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts will be focused on advocating, and persuading the American Association of Medical Colleges to advocate, for the replacement of both the MCAT and the USMLE.

President Ryan: This discussion has been illuminating and, notwithstanding how far we have to go as an institution, heartening. With the leadership of the University so strongly dedicated to racial equity, I am confident that we will make UVa into a truly anti-racist school.

Jon Jewett is an attorney living in Ashland. He serves on the legal team suing to prevent the removal of the Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

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James white Rawles Jr MD
James white Rawles Jr MD
11 months ago

The decision to replace excellence with diversity as the first priority is the first step in the inevitable path to mediocrity!