Doctor Science Knows

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor was not an Affirmitative Action student

Glenn Greenwald has been doing a great job of holding Jeffrey Rosen and The National Review's feet to the fire, for Rosen's anonymously-sourced hit piece on Sonia Sotamayor, in which he said she is "not that smart", "[unable] to provide an intellectual counterweight to the conservatives", whose good qualities are mostly that she's Puerto Rican and from poverty -- a combination that has led pretty much every blog I've seen, left or right, to connect the dots and say that what Rosen meant is that she benefited from Affirmative Action at Princeton and Yale Law.

I want to stop the right-wing meme that Sotomayor must have been an Affirmative Action admit to Princeton, intellectually second-rate but bossy. This meme is a lie: Sotomayor got into Princeton despite a restrictive quota system, and left with the highest award Princeton gives to undergraduates.

I'm highlighting and expanding on a comment that got lost in the barrage after Glenzilla's first post about Rosen's article.

Commenter "PollyPerks" noted that, based on dates and statistics alone, Sonia Sotomayor *could not* have been a "mere Affirmative Action" admit to Princeton, because she entered during the early years of Princeton co-education, when women were subject to a restrictive quota system.

I am a female member of Princeton's Class of 1978, 2 years after Sotomayor, and I have personal memory and experience to back PollyPerks up. Like Polly, I am also relying on Jerome Karabel's The Chosen, which I highly recommend and which made many things clear to me in retrospect.

I have no clear memory of meeting Sotomayor, though I certainly knew of her -- she was extremely energetic and politically active, heading the Latino student group and other campus activities. She graduated summa cum laude, a very rare distinction at Princeton, not to be acquired without both a stellar senior thesis and across-the-board As in one's major: many departments would have no summas in any given year.

Sotomayor applied to Princeton in only the 3rd year of co-education. Princeton came to co-education late even for an Ivy, and the Board of Trustees had set strict limits on how exuberantly women could rush in. In particular, the original agreement between the University administration and the Board stipulated that the number of men admitted would never decrease -- no man would risk being out-competed by a woman for a seat at Princeton. Instead, the total number of students would have to increase: we women were explicitly competing for a separate pool of seats, a rather small one at first because there wasn't enough housing for us.

(And if housing was a problem, a female friend in the Class of 1975 reminds me that bathrooms were worse. It was only several years after I entered that it was no longer common to see a bathrobe-clad woman going out of one dorm and into the doorway next door, in search of a shower.)

As Polly said, quote Karabel: only 14 percent of the female applicants were accepted, compared to 22 percent of the men. ...[T]he women who were admitted to Princeton were even more elite both academically and socially than their male classmates".

This was obvious and much-discussed by the students ourselves. We could see that pretty much every woman admitted to Princeton was abnormally bright, ambitious, and hard-working, while the male population included a certain fraction of guys who were just there because going to Princeton was what the [Family Name]s *did*.

It was those men -- the Princeton equivalents of George W. Bush -- who were the beneficiaries of "affirmative action" at Princeton, not Sonia Sotomayor. PollyPerks quotes from Karabel:
"1968-1969 was also the year Princeton began to recruit Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans and expanded its efforts to recruit more 'disadvantaged' whites" (p. 398).

In 1972, Princeton reported that the freshman class included 22 Latino students, 15 Chicano students, 27 "Oriental" students, 5 Indian students, and 113 black students, for a total of 181 "Third World students" (as Princeton then called them) out of a class of approximately 1127 (p. 399).

To compare, the number of students admitted as athletes was 310 (p. 477) and many spaces (approximately 200-250) were taken by legacies, who were admitted with significantly lower qualifications (p. 467, 478):

"Princeton ... was careful not to tamper with legacy preference. Admissions rate for alumni children never fell much below double the rate for other applicants, and in the mid-1970s preferences for legacies actually increased. In 1975, 48 percent gained admission - a rate 2.3 times higher than other applicants." (p. 478)

In working on this post, I discovered that Sotomayor not only graduated summa cum laude (which is determined by the departments), she received the M. Taylor Pyne Prize for 1976.

The Pyne Prize is the highest award Princeton gives to an undergraduate (it goes to two people per year), and is supposed to reflect both scholarship and leadership.

It is flatly impossible for a Pyne Prize recipient to be "not that smart" or to "lack intellectual weight", as Rosen's "sources" said. There may be fashions or pressures in what specific person gets the award, but it's always to someone who looks *really* smart even when they're surrounded by very smart people. Frankly, I would have to be *insane* to not assume that Sotomayor is smarter than me -- I mean, one Pyne Prize winner for my year (1978) was Eric Lander, and he's pretty much smarter than anyone.

Now, I will admit that based on my mostly-paper-but-slightly-inside knowledge, Elena Kagan (Princeton Class of 1981) is probably in Sotomayor's league. Kagan also was summa cum laude, and received a very prestigious scholarship to study at Oxford after Princeton. From the Princeton point of view, it's all good. But also from the Princeton POV, both Sotomayor and Kagan look much more impressive than Samuel Alito (Class of 1972), who did well there but not blow-your-socks-off well.

In contrast, on paper, based solely on their academic records, Scalia and Roberts really are (or should be) at the top of the league. But then, that should also be the case for Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Souter. I don't know whether there's actually much correlation between undergraduate record and performance on SCOTUS. Remember, it's the absolute pinnacle of the profession, but it's also *a committee*, which means issues of personality, temperament, and social cunning can be at least as important as pure intellect.

What Karabel's book illuminated for me was how much of a dance Princeton and its ilk were negotiating in the 60s and 70s. Princeton et al. did not become co-ed and more diverse out of pure goodness of heart. A certain amount of idealism was definitely involved -- people at the colleges thought it was *right* that their educations, and by extension membership in America's ruling class, should be available to a wider range of candidates.

But they also knew that change was coming, and it was important for the new faces in the American power structure have some of the old labels: "Bottled at Princeton" or "Bottled at Harvard". The strength of the Expensive Higher Education brand, as it were, depended both on helping those who *should* succeed, and making sure that those who *would* succeed regardless (because of their inherited money and family) still passed through their gates.

Back when Alito was joining Concerned Alumni of Princeton to protest the University letting in a bunch of riff-raff, IIRC (from Karabel) Shelby Collum Davis argued that there was no point in wasting some of Princeton's future-leaders spots on women, because it was preposterous to think women were going to be future leaders. Similar arguments could have been (and probably were) made for black students, Latinas, Asians, and so forth.

As an aside, I assume Alito, who got into Princeton out of pure ability (poor, local, Catholic, Italian) and was always a bit outside the WASP social structure, wanted to make sure that the club door was slammed behind him, to maintain the cachet of the brand he had worked so hard to achieve.

Now, at last, we can really start to see how well the Expensive Higher Ed admissions staff from the 60s and 70s did their job. Their job was to make sure that when Americans, decades later, went looking for possible Supreme Court justices or even Presidents who weren't white men, the obvious candidates bore the Expensive Higher Ed brand names. Sotomayor, Kagan, and both Obamas represent not only great advances for American inclusiveness, but great successes for the Ivy League system and its role, good and bad, in the American power structure.

Updated to correct some errors and obscurities.

Also: I haven't seen a blog yet, left or right, where either the poster or the comments doesn't say something about Sotomayor being an affirmative action beneficiary. I can't believe it's coincidence that the one of her cases that has attracted most attention was about affirmative action. Glenn Greenwald's update this morning has plenty of links to how this is being played out.

And to those still wondering "but why does it have to be a *woman*? What about the best person for the job?" -- The display the male justices put on during the recent oral arguments about the strip-search case made it brutally clear that the current gender balance on SCOTUS is intolerable.

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  • Hi, Doctor Science. It's asiangrrlMN from Balloon Juice. I wanted to say that I really appreciate this blog post. You articulate what I instinctively feel, and you have the knowledge to back it up. Thank you, too, for doing your part to break the gender barrier. A tip of my hat to you.

    Have you thought about sending John Cole this post?

    By Anonymous asiangrrlMN, at 9:00 PM  

  • Maybe slightly off topic?
    Thanks for correcting me on the frog v. toad issue!
    I'm petrified of anything reptilian or amphibian, so, you know, I was just trying to get the photos and get the f**k away!
    Of course you are right. I did not even have the presence of mind to use my macro lense function.

    By Blogger Laura W, at 5:41 PM  

  • er, lens!

    By Blogger Laura W, at 5:42 PM  

  • Hi Dr. Science,
    If you're class of '78, I am your classmate. Nice to meet up with a fellow Tiger!

    I do remember Judge Sotomayor, having served on a governing board with her during our time at Princeton. I agree with you that Sotomayor's academic distinctions were well-earned. I live-blogged today's announcement for

    However, your assertion that this disproves that she was an affirmative action student suggests a fundamental misapprehension about affirmative action, especially as it was practiced at Princeton. You seem to suggest that had she been admitted through affirmative action, she could not have attained the academic honors that she earned. I know of no reason to assume that.

    Arguably, all of us who were women students in those years were part of an affirmative action program. There were administrators hired to make us comfortable (Halcy Bohen had female students as her specific area of focus, as I recall.) There were recruitment efforts to girls high schools that were regarded as feeder schools. The Women's Center was established.

    The challenges that you cite make it clear why these and other measures were necessary to help Princeton become the far more inclusive institution that it has become today.

    I don't know the basis on which Sonia Sotomayor was admitted, any more than I know what the specific conversation was about admitting me or you. (Staff members in the Admissions office told me that each of us who got into Princeton had been discussed individually, sometimes in several rounds of review.) If however, she was the beneficiary of Princeton's affirmative action program, her subsequent accomplishments support AA proponents argument that the purpose of affirmative action is to create opportunity, not to lower academic standards.

    Thanks for your careful thinking about this. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    By Blogger Professor Kim, at 6:01 PM  

  • I'm a member of the Princeton class of '74, and I can vouch for the description of the situation with female students in the early years. All the women I knew there were extremely capable, and I think it took a certain amount of gumption just to decide to go to a previously all-male place.

    By Blogger Rich, at 2:02 PM  

  • I just read how she (over)reacted to a question from a law firm interviewer, about the role it may have played. So she didn't need it, I don't care about that and am fine with what you wrote... but it makes me question her principles that all these years later, when it sure seems like her ethnicity is being propped up as some great triumph for a supreme court nominee, she isn't objecting or down playing it at all. I haven't spoken with Obama personally, but nevertheless, I find it hard to believe he would have picked her if she was caucasian.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:11 AM  

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