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    Here’s a (pain de brioche) toast to dear old Penn

    John Rosenberg at PJM cites a head-scratcher of a policy adopted at my alma mater:

    Inside Higher Ed has just reported (Feb. 26) that the University of Pennsylvania may be the first institution to launch what is described as an “outreach” program for gay students. That program, I think, suggests a number of interesting questions, but before we get to the assumptions underlying and implications flowing from gay outreach, let’s pause a moment at everyday, garden variety outreach. “At many colleges,” IHE’s article begins, “outreach” is

    a standard part of the recruiting process once applicants are admitted. Current students who share individual traits or academic interests help reach out to prospective students with similar backgrounds or interests. So the young woman who expresses an interest in engineering will hear from a female junior in engineering. A black admit might hear from a black student, and so forth. The idea is that these students may be uniquely well positioned to answer questions and to make the case that the college is a good place to be a female engineer, a black undergrad, or whatever.

    Reading that, I couldn’t help wondering, what if that “black student” were a female engineering major? Would she be tasked with reaching out only to black female prospective engineering majors? To all black females? To all blacks, whether prospective engineering majors or not? Given that heavy workload, shouldn’t Penn take “affirmative action” to make sure it has more than one black female engineering major? Moreover, since everyone knows (doesn’t everyone?) that Asians tend to be geeks who segregate themselves in math and science, shouldn’t Penn have an Asian literature major to reach out to prospective Asian English or philosophy majors (or two: one male and one female)? Doesn’t “diversity” require such an effort.

    I’m not sure how much outrage is called for here. Rosenberg is aware that the policy here is not said to apply to admissions decisions, because he writes:

    Does Penn do for not-yet-admitted gay applicants what it does “for many other groups of students”? That is, does it now engage in what might be termed “sex preference-conscious” admissions that parallels its race conscious admissions?

    If not, why not?

    Okay, but then why does the subhead (which Rosenberg may not have written or approved, note well) say, “Schools like the University of Pennsylvania twist themselves into pretzels trying to pretend they admit students ‘without regard’ to race or sexual preference”? The issue here isn’t admissions, from what I can gather.

    According to the Inside Higher Ed article, when we talk about “recruitment,” we seem to be talking about two things: “reaching out” to gay students to try to convince them to submit applications, and then “reaching out” to already “admitted gay applicants” to try to convince them to matriculate. I’m not sure that sits well with me, but I’m also not sure it counts as discrimination. Colleges like having low acceptance rates, which make them look more selective, so it’s not surprising that they’ll do what they can to convince every possible constituency that it’s worth applying. Once you’re actually admitted to a college, it presumably wants you (and your money), so it’s not surprising that it’ll do what it can to convince you that it’s the right place for you. Savvy advertising and deal-closing may not be things we like to associate with higher education, but in context they strike me as having more to do with all-American commerce than with special favors for gays.

    Now, if we were talking about actual admissions set-asides for gay students, that would be an ethical issue, and it’s possible that Penn and other institutions are skirting that line pretty perilously. I kind of doubt it, though, for the simple reason that there are plenty of gay students who are going to get in anyway without special treatment. I’m not sure that we’re greatly overrepresented in the populations at elite colleges and universities, but there was certainly no shortage of gay students at Penn when I was an undergrad nearly two decades ago, and I can’t imagine it’s gotten worse since then. It’s possible that some students win sympathy points for writing application essays about the trials and tribulations of coming out, but it’s also true that applicants have long used dead grandparents, childhood pets, and sports injuries before the Big Game to get admissions officers on their side. As long as character and eloquence are what help get them accepted, I don’t think being frank about being gay means they’re asking for special treatment.

    I remember the packet I got from Penn with my acceptance letter in 1991. It included several open letters from minority-student groups to potential members, encouraging them to matriculate. We then spent much of orientation week learning about “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” (My friends who’d gone to Ivy-feeder prep schools had already been force-fed those things for years and were sick of them from day one.) I would have much preferred messages that said, “Look, everyone, for the next four years, you will experience the unfettered life of the mind. Your full-time job, for the last time in your lives, will be to learn as much as you can and to argue ideas. Take advantage of it. Your thinking becomes stronger when it hits opposition and develops in response to it. Don’t look for ‘safe spaces'; look for different points of view. If you haven’t yet learned how to have a rough-and-tumble debate without hurling personal insults or taking what others say personally, you must do so immediately. Your sense of self and purpose will be refined and clarified through contact with all the other possibilities your classmates represent. The universe is way bigger than you are. Start getting to know it as best you can. Now.”

    But I think that blurring the distinction between collectivist thinking in campus life and collectivist thinking in admissions is still a bad idea. The issues are closely related, but they’re not the same. Trying to charm gay students into applying or matriculating is not the same as granting them acceptance over more deserving applicants. Rosenberg is probably right about the “assumptions underlying” gay outreach, but I wish he’d given firmer arguments for what he appears to think are the “implications flowing” from it.

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