Friday, June 30, 2023, will be remembered by those most affected as the day the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) turned its back on those less-advantaged Americans for whom admission to one of the nation’s premier colleges and universities could provide the resources and mentoring by which they have a chance to fully develop their innate interests and talent. But it is about more than education. When a Harvard or North Carolina used race as a (not the) factor when considering a potential student’s application they were practicing what could be called “affirmative entrepreneurship.”
The curriculum in every American institute of higher learning with a major or minor in entrepreneurship includes a discussion of risk and reward. It goes something like this. You can do what everyone else is doing and make a decent profit. But if you can see something no one else sees, even though the risks to pursue it are high, the rewards can be even greater. Affirmative action in education was the willingness to see the less than apparent (through SAT scores or being president of the French club) potential of an applicant and produce something that was more unique and of higher value than what was readily available in the marketplace. In other words, the justices who made up the 6-3 majority in Friday’s decision sent a second, more covert message. American universities need to be more like risk-averse, large corporations, rather than entrepreneurial ventures. Stick with the proven commodity, not identify and develop the market disruptor. Be more like American Motors, TWA and Sears (remember them?) instead of Apple.
If you really want to know how affirmative action can work, one of the best examples is not in education, but in sports. It was called “the Royals Baseball Academy.” When Ewing Kauffman acquired the rights to a Major League Baseball (MLB) team in Kansas City, he chose not to repeat the dismal tradition of new franchises. For new MLB entrants, initial rosters consisted of cast-offs and has-beens waived by the more established teams. Mr. K (as he was affectionately known to his business associates and citizens of his hometown) decided to take a different approach. In 1969, the Royals held tryout camps in 41 states, the only attendance criteria being athletic ability regardless of sport. Of the 7,682 attendees, 42 were chosen to attend the baseball academy at which they were mentored by the best in the business such as Ted Williams. Of those 42, eight had never played on a high school or college baseball team. Three of the 42 ended up playing for the Royals, including Hall of Fame inductee Frank White. Mr. K knew there were potentially great baseball players out there. You just had to look for them and offer them a path to reach their potential.
Perhaps those who oppose affirmative action would be less antagonistic if they considered how they have benefitted from the practice. You do not have to be a minority, as my own experience demonstrates. Based on my undergraduate GPA at the University of Virginia, I should never had been considered much less accepted into the Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University. However, I had the good fortune to have John Ellwood as one of my professors. John earned his doctorate from Hopkins and wrote a recommendation in support of my application. He told the admissions office, although I was not much of a traditional student or test-taker, he thought I would thrive in the seminar-dominated environment for which the political science department was known. I know I was given an opportunity I probably did not deserve based on objective criteria such as test scores or GPA. I also know, an equally qualified (or in my case under-qualified) minority candidate would never have had a John Ellwood as a mentor.
I am not alone. Every successful individual, if perfectly honest, can identify one or more instances where they received some immeasurable, subjective advantage in life. Often due to nothing more than being in the right place at the right time. And though they might not want to admit it, that hand up was a form of affirmative action, something that gave them an advantage over equally or more qualified competitors.
One last point. Economically, affirmative action is not in the best self-interest of great universities. Endowments, which are becoming an increasing portion of a school’s financial resources, come largely from successful alumni. When a university admits a student from a family of less means or whose lineage does not consist of multi-generational success, the school is less assured that graduate will have the means to make a major donation in a future campaign. Yet, successful minority graduates continually show their appreciation for the life-changing effect of a college experience offered them, often at a giving rate higher than non-minority alumni. As an example, Morgan State University alumnus, Calvin Tyler, who worked as a UPS driver to pay for his education, parleyed his degree in business administration to become a senior vice-president at the delivery company. In 2021 he and his wife Tina added $5 million to an endowed scholarship fund, bringing the total to $20 million.
Any major university in America, before Friday, could have taken that same risk and reaped the same rewards. Today they are less likely do so. And future Calvin Tylers, the universities they might have attended and America are more disadvantaged as a result of SCOTUS’ repudiation of “affirmative entrepreneurship.”
For what it’s worth.