Badger Pundit has the rundown on a debate at Harvard Law School over the proposition in the title of this post, Epic smackdown of affirmative action at Harvard — following debate, audience’s opposition rises nearly a third.

It’s a discussion that people on campuses don’t like to have. Good for Harvard Law School for hosting such a debate with well-qualified speakers arguing each side. Too often the argument against affirmative action is denegrated as racism.

A speaker in favor of the proposition argued that affirmative action is an “epic policy failure” because it actually hurts — not helps — minority achievement through lower graduation and professional accomplishment rates.

This is commonly called the mismatch effect, as to which there has been a debate in law schools for years.  When University of the South Professor E. Douglass Williams published an article in The Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, Do Racial Preferences Affect Minority Learning in Law Schools? (2013)(pdf.), I had a chance to communicate with him, although I never got around to writing it up as a post. 

Here’s the Abstract of his article:

An analysis of the The Bar Passage Study (BPS) reveals that minorities are both less likely to graduate from law school and less likely to pass the bar compared to whites even after adjustments are made for group· differences in academic credentials. To account for these adjusted racial gaps in performance, some researchers put forward the “mismatch hypothesis,” which proposes that students learn less when placed in learning environments where their academic skills are much lower than the typical student. This article presents new results from the BPS that account for both measurement-error bias and selection-onunobservables bias that makes it more difficult to find a mismatch effect if in fact one exists. I find much more evidence for mismatch effects than previous research ang report magnitudes from mismatch effects more than sufficient to explain racial gaps in performance.

Here is part of our email exchange:

WAJ: I just want to confirm your ultimate finding in layman’s terms: There is evidence of a mismatch effect, and that effect is sufficiently pronounced as to account for differences in bar passage rates. Do I have that right?

EDW: Yes this is accurate. Much of the difference in bar passage rates by race is explained by differences in academic credentials. But a significant gap still persists after controlling for these entering credentials. It is this remaining gap that the mismatch effect found in the paper can explain.

Some other reading on the mismatch effect and related controversy:

To some extent the “mismatch” effect doesn’t entirely address the issue. There also is the fact that affirmative action by definition is discrimination on the basis of race, which has a pernicious but perhaps unmeasureable impact on race relations.

Here is a video consolidating the argument for the proposition as well as some of the counter arguments:

This video includes some of the question and answer period, including arguing that performance is irrelevent, affirmative action achieves a greater societal goal of integration:

Prof. Randall Kennedy argued, when questioned by an Asian student who felt discriminated against, that individual reactions were irrelevant:

More videos and analysis at the Badger Pundit post, including audience reaction (emphasis in original):

The audience members voted via keypad both before and after the debate. Among those expressing a position (9% remained undecided at the end of the debate), support for the position argued by Heriot and Sander rose by nearly a third — from 31% before the debate (22 of 70) to 40% after the debate (36 of 91). Support for affirmative action dropped inversely — from 69% before the debate (48 of 70) to 60% after the debate (55 of 91).


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