IN THE MATTER of Bakke , I have a personal interest, one which is shared anonymously by millions of other Americans who are now older than young.
To put it crudely, I was a "quota kid" in an era before that ugly phrase was invented, long before anyone thought of special admissions programs for racial minorities. I was among the lucky chosen, in part, for reasons other than our individual merits.
This personal history is relevant to Bakke , I think, if only to demonstrate the profound hypocrisy with which the country - and now the Supreme Court - has addressed this question of preferrential treatment in college admissions, not to mention the other arenas of jobs and promotion where the idea of "affirmative action" is also under assault.
The civil rights lawyers, reading the legal opinions, are proclaiming victory.Or, at least, not much was lost. At another level, however, the social message embedded in the Bakke decision is much more threatening to the future interests of blacks and other minorities trying to get through the gates.
Bakke says, after a generation of struggle to confront questions of racial inequality in the most direct terms, let us back off a bit. Be discreet, private, fluid in our decisions about who gets in, who gets excluded. Let us rely upon the good intentions of institutions, not those direct and provocative approaches which stir so much envy and distemper in the society.
What Bakke does not say is that those good intentions of colleges and universities have been helped along by the goodly sums of federal financial aid that have been following minority students into their classrooms, or that much of that financial incentive is currently threatened. Will colleges and universities have as strong consciences if the money flow ebbs?
Justice Thurgood Marshall interpreted the Bakke message in the gloomiest terms. He was before the bench a generation ago, as an NAACP lawyer, when the Supreme Court ratified and empowered the great social struggle for racial equality; now, as a justice himself, Marshall sees his neo-conservative colleagues turning it off.
The last decade has produced extraordinary progress in opening the gates of higher education for blacks, the crucial step in determining income, class, even social status in America. Black enrollment has tripled, approaching proportional parity with whites though still short of it. Among whites 18 to 24 years old, 27 percent were in college in 1976, compared with 20 percent of blacks.
The question which haunts civil rights advocates now is whether this new social attitude will turn off the progress and blacks will find themselves slipping back to the old rung on the ladder, the bottom. History provides blacks with grim precedent for that fear, and the Bakke decision is another alarm bell. The legal impact is still not fully defined, but the social meaning is already threatening.
MYALMA MATER was a footnote in Bakke , Justice Powell, whose swing vote makes his distinctions so important to how Bakke influences the nation, cited Harvard and Princeton and a few other prestigious universities as the exemplars of how one should take race into account when deciding on admissions. This surely will make the neoconservatives gag - they have been railing at those elite institutions almost as strenuously as they have been opposing "affirmative action." Others may find it ironic surely, that the justice finds in these places - gatekeepers for the highest rungs in our society - the paragon for equity which the rest of the nation should emulate.
I thought it was kind of funny. When I applied to Princeton in the mid-1950s, I had several things going for me - special qualities which had nothing to do with my College Board scores (okay but unspectacular) or grades (likewise). I was, above all, white and male. The university at that time had three black undergraduates among 2,800. There were, of course, no women.
No one spoke of "quotas" in those days, but the university was quite explicit, even proud, of the way it "balanced" its admissions. This was to insure diversity and other educational goals, just as Justice Powell mentioned in his opinion.
So I had several other advantages. I was graduating from a public high school, as opposed to private prep school. In those days, Princeton was balancing 50-50 between public and private, which meant necessarily passing over many kids from Exter and Andover et al , who had better scores, to pick others from high schools.
I was from Ohio, which gave me another notch up, since the university was balancing on a regional basis. I had, therefore, a distinct edge over boys graduating from public high schools in New Jersey or New York or Connecticut. Princeton easily could have filled its classes from the East, but chose to spread the precious slots around. The Midwest "quota," if one may use that odious term, was never precisely stated, but everyone agreed that there was one.
Now I had another, more delicate preference working in my behalf. This was a very small high school and, as it happened, one of my high school classmates was the son of an alumnus, an active and important man who cared deeply about Princeton. My friend's record, his grades and scores, was somewhat less distinguished than mine. A delicate question: Could Princeton take him away and pass over me? Princeton took both of us.
Were we qualified? Both of us managed to garduate, wihtout distinction, but both of us also nearly flunked out at several points. I can offer comfort to those black students who hear the whispers and shouts about inferior they as students, how they are watering down standards. They said the same thing about my friend and me and all high school graduates at Princeton 20 years ago.
In a general way, it was true.We were inferior. Except for the wizards, the high school graduates were atrociously unprepared compared with their classmates from the best prep schools. There were periodic storms of protest from alumni at this injustice. Princeton discerned, however, that high-school kids tended to be hungrier, studied harder out of necessity (some of us were notable exceptions to this).
But another complaint was more fundamental: Jewish students, graduates of those high schools in the East, complaint that, in addition to these other selection factors, there was a "Jewish quota." The university always denied this, and I always believed the university. I still do. But it is obvious now that the balancing act of geography and talents and alumni sons and all the rest works to include some and exclude others. To a medium-speed high school kid from Ohio meant rejecting a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, who probably had higher College Board scores. One man's luck was another's injustice.
Princeton, like many other institutions in America, has changed dramatically since the 1950s. Despite stormy objections from alumni, the university opened its admissions to women nine years ago. Now its undergraduate enrollment is approximately 35 percent female.
Without government coercion, the university introduced race into the many factors important to its self-balancing. Last fall, there were 340 black students, about 8 percent of total enrollment, and 300 other minority students.
The old balance between high school and prep school, once so sensitive, is less so now, with about 65 percent of the students coming from public schools. The preference for alumni offspring is still strong, however. The university will accept 40 to 45 percent of the alumni children who apply, compared with only 20 percent of all others.
A cynic might say that there is a genetic theory of educational quality in those patterns, a redundancy of class. The real explanation, of course, is that universities need alumni, for money, for continuity, for tradition.
William G. Bowen, Princeton's president, led the university through these changes, catching heavy flak from reactionary alumni and outlasting their assaults. The system has no fixed numbers, Bowen explains, but Princeton's admissions officers have a pretty clear idea of where they want to come out. The selection may be flexible, but someone must decide when there are enough football players, enough Mid-westerns, enough wizards, enough women, enough blacks.
The admission director, Bowen says, "may have a rough sense that, if we wound up way over here or way over there, that would be bad. That doesn't mean you think 17 percent or 24 percent. There's no magic number. It is ultimately subjective."
Yet the numbers do not vary widely from year to year, Bowen adds, because the same people are making the up-or-down decisions and the same forces are at work - the university's objective of balance and the pool of qualified applicants.
The important is this: Discreet "quotas" or something operating very much like "quotas" have always been at the center of selective admissions. These rules and judgements will continue to operate in the future, the Supreme Court notwithstanding. It is inevitable, so long as there are too many qualified applicants for limited spaces.
The legal debate over Bakke succeeded in evading this reality or cloaking it in euphemisms. But it is hyprocritical to pretend that "quotas" began with the civil rights movement. Grading and sorting, selecting and rejecting, by class, by region, by family, by other extrinsic factors, is as American as Eli Yale, Old Nassau and the Havard Crimson.
This is not to imply that a Harvard or a Princeton will now retreat from the goals of social equity which they have pursued in the last decade. The crucial and disturbing message, however, is that public institutions may now rely upon their own private and autonomous good intentions, rather than rigorous public standards.
Be fair. But do it out of sight, where the public won't be aroused by clumsy quotas like the California plan, where aggrieved minorities will find it more difficult to establish equity and demand redress.
Black people know that "good intentions" have been a fragile guarantee in the long, uneven struggle for racial equality. Thurgood Marshall felt compelled in his opinion on Bakke to remind everyone of that troubled history, the stops and starts in America's past and long spells in between when blacks made little progress. That history says rather clearly that good intentions are an unreliable mechanism for insuring social change.
Every institution, one assumes, has good intentions. But every institution, ultimately, will also seek results which are in its self-interest. If survival requires taking more alumni children, or more sons and daughters of famous millionaires or more black and Hispanic children, if these colleges and universities will balance their selection factors toward those ends.
To put the matter more crassly, the future progress or retrogression of black will depend on money, not just good intentions. This is the battleground now and, while the outlook in one sense is encouraging for black aspirations, future progress is also threatened.
Colleges and universities everywhere face a bleak and unavoidable future of scaling down. This may affect the Harvards and Princeton least of all, but state-financed institutions simply must cut back over the next deacde. In 1976, there were 4.2 million 18-year-olds in America. By 1985, there will be only 3.6 million of them. By 1994, there will be 3.1 million.
Colleges are going to lose one-fourth of their potential clients and the game of colleges admissions is already becoming a buyer's market. The black college-age population will decline, too, after a peak in the early 1980s, but the black share will still be somewhat larger. Blacks are now 13.5 percent of 18-year-olds; they will be 15.6 percent in 1990. Other non-whites will aso increase their numbers and share.
These demographic facts argue strongly that the blacks and other minorities sshould continue to increase their college enrollments in the years ahead. As Princeton president Bowen explains: "As the total population falls off, the competition among colleges to enroll students is going to become keener . . . Anything that reduces the general competitiveness among applicants is going to help minorities."
For these minority students, kids who are now 8 or 10 years old, however, the crucial factor will still be money. If the federal government turns off the spigot of student aid, blacks and other minorities are in big trouble.
Lois Rice, vice president of the College Entrance Examination Board, esplains the strong connection:
"More than 40 percent of the largest federal student aid program - that for Basic Education Opportunity Grants - went to minority students in 1976 . . . (this) undobtedly has been a strong incentive for institutions to enroll racial minorities.
"This is not surprising since minority students are a very disproportionate share of the low-income population for which the program was designed. About 65 percent of black students in higher education are from families with incomes below $10,000.
"If you substitute a tuition tax credit for the student aid program - which is the current threat - you unquestionably will eliminate a large part of the financial incentive for higher-education institutions to enroll minority students."
While the Supreme Court muddles through Bakke, Congress is considering precisely what Rice fears: reducing the direct federal dollars which accompany so many minority students to college, the money which encourages good intentions. If this aid is replaced by a tuition tax credit, more beneficial to middle-and upper-income families, that might hurt twice - by encouraging colleges to raise their tuitions to take advantages of the tax subsidy. Without substancial aid, black applicants might indeed suffer disproportionately as colleges and universities scale back their budgets and enrollments.
In short, if white America wants to back away from thestruggle, if it is insufficiently angry and tired of pursuing racial equality, then the Bakke decision certainly offers a spiritual blessing for retreat. The next question is whether Congress will provide a financial incentive.