For two weeks now, I have been carrying around a clipping from The Boston Globe about Patrick Ewing, a Cambridge high school senior who was admitted to Georgetown University in Washington for next fall, despite an acknowledged "reading deficiency" and "slowness in writing."
An official of his high school wrote the colleges he was considering a letter outlining Patrick's special requirements. Among them were "daily tutoring . . . [which] must include covering reading material with Patrick, some level of explanation of new material, proofreading of papers and help with construction of papers." The letter also specified that he must have "untimed testing," because "Pat's slowness in writing does not give him ample opportunity to express himself."
If these stipulations seem remarkable, let me add that the letter was written by the high school basketball coach and that Patrick Ewing is a 7-foot center described by The Globe as "one of the most coveted players in the country."
I kept looking at this story and thinking that something was sure to be said about its implications. We all remember the furor over the Bakke case, and the wave of indignation over the fact that Allan Bakke, a white applicant to a California medical school, had lost his place because, it was alleged, an affirmative action program gave preference to a black applicant with a lower entrance score. That one was so important it wound up in the Supreme Court.
Well, here was young Patrick, whose college admission score was "relatively low," according to his coach, taking someone's slot at the highly selective Georgetown University. Where was the protest? Strangely enough, none appeared.
And then last Wednesday in The Washington Post Patrick's fellow-townsman, Harvard political science professor James Q. Wilson, weighed in with a powerful essay attacking affirmative action programs. He expressed the "rage" he said most people feel at policies that aim not at "equality of opportunity" but at "an increase in the number of blacks, Hispanics, women and minorities" in a school or office or plant.
Reading along, I felt sure that my friend Wilson was going to cite the Ewing case discrimination implicit in such programs. I could not have been more wrong.
"A college," he declared -- perhaps with the Ewing story in mind -- "may decide that its purpose is not simply to find the brightest students and make them still brighter but also to have a competitive athletic program, retain the support of generous alumni and offer to students an opportunity to mingle among young persons of different backgrounds, talents and interests" -- presumably including individuals of exceptional height, coordination and agility.
But, he said, that principle does not apply to institutions where access "is judged solely, or principally, by the merit of its members and the excellence of its pracitces." Specifically, it does not, according to Wilson, apply to the faculty of arts and sciences at his own Harvard University, whose dabbling with affirmative action hiring apparently had triggered his denunciation.
When I read that, I knew what I wanted to say about the Patrick Ewing story. First, I am glad he is getting a chance at a Georgetown education, and I hope he makes it. One of the many virtues of that great university is that it has recognized its special obligation to the city in which it is located by running an effective program to identify promising minority students and giving them the financial and academic help they need to reach their potential. Few of them, incidentally, are 7-foot centers.
But I felt a lot less comfortable about what the Ewing case said about the value system that most of us whites, Harvard professors or not, accept. Most of us were never outraged about busing, so long as black kids were being bused past white schools to their own segregated classrooms. It was only when white kids were put on buses to go to previously black schools that the practice became controversial. b
Just so with affirmative action.There will be no squawks from Wilson or anyone else so long as affirmative action as confined to 7-foot centers who want only an undergraduate education and are no threat for a faculty job or any other position a better-education white might want.
After, all, "a competitive athletic program" does "retain the support of generous alumni," to say nothing of adding to the enjoyment of the millions of us who watched the tournament games on TV.
But don't mess around with the Harvard faculty in order to bring in more minorities or women. And don't give a black kid of average height a medical school slot that "belongs" to a white, just because the black kid might open an office in the ghetto, instead of the suburbs.
That, to quote Wilson, is guaranteed to produce "rage."