Affirmative action: Boys as bait
The dean of admissions at Kenyon College pens an open letter to the girls she rejected in favor of less qualified male applicants in order to make sure that her incoming class wasn't more than 60% female. [NYT]
According to the article, male admissions preference is the norm in college admissions. Why do elite colleges care about the 60% theshold? The author claims that colleges that are more than 60% female are less attractive to both male and female applicants:
The elephant that looms large in the middle of the room is the importance of gender balance. Should it trump the qualifications of talented young female applicants? At those colleges that have reached what the experts call a "tipping point," where 60 percent or more of their enrolled students are female, you'll hear a hint of desperation in the voices of admissions officers.
Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.
She doesn't explain how "the experts" know about the 60% tipping point. For all I know this widely-held belief could be complete pseudo-science. However, I'll assume for the sake of argument that the dean knows what she's talking about.
I think that affirmative action can be justified under certain circumstances, but I'm not sure that male gender preference in college admissions qualifies under any of the usual justifications for affirmative action.
All other things being equal, it's probably better to be closer to gender parity, if only because students seem to prefer it. Of course, whatever benefits may accrue from male preference are offset by the fact that the class is less academically qualified overall. Still, maybe a gender balance closer to 50:50 is a superior social environment, at least for girls who want boyfriends.
However, colleges also have self-interested motives for micromanaging their sex ratios. Institutions compete with each other to attract super-qualified applicants. It seems that middling male students are being chosen over more qualified female counterparts in order to attract top-tier students who might otherwise go elsewhere. Boys are being used as bait to lure elite girls. These self-interested reasons aren't legitimate excuses for discrimination. Qualified female applicants shouldn't suffer because Kenyon College is worried about preserving its US News ranking.
In principle, I think it's acceptable to allow demographics to influence application decisions. Schools have a legitimate interest in achieving a good mix of students. What constitutes a good mix is debatable, of course. Admissions committees believe that all other things being equal, applicants prefer institutions without female super-majorities. However, this is just a relative preference. If there were no gender preference in admissions, all colleges would presumably have roughly the same sex ratio--there would just be more girls than boys everywhere because qualified female applicants outnumber qualified male applicants. It's not clear to me that that college life would be dramatically worse if the sex ratios drifted from 60:40 to 65:35.
Race- and class-based affirmative action is often justified by appeal to the value of diversity. Arguably, all students are better off if they are exposed to a broad range of experiences and ideals. Education is supposed to broaden people's horizons. So, it's mutually beneficial for students from different backgrounds to go to school together. If nothing else, it's instructive to be exposed to people who aren't exactly like you.
I'm going to assume that the arguments for ethnic and economic diversity on campus are valid. Even so, these aren't arguments for the overriding importance of admitting equal numbers of people from each race or class. Nor do arguments for diversity establish that admissions should be weighted to mirror makeup of the population at large.
I don't think anyone fears that men would virtually disappear from college campuses without affirmative action. Nor would any sane person suggest that the male perspective would be in danger of dying out in academia without gender preference in admissions. Unlike other candidates for affirmative action, men are not victims of systemic discrimination, let alone historical injustice.
And yet, as the Kenyon dean explains, colleges have to discriminate heavily in order to keep the sex ratio at 60:40. Why? Because they fear they will lose their most desirable applicants to other institutions with a more competitive sex ratio. Yet, if all colleges were forced to stop discriminating by sex, the incentive to discriminate would largely disappear.
By definition, discrimination is unfair to the qualified people who get turned down. Why should they have to bear the brunt of redressing inequalities they didn't create? So, if discrimination is ever morally justified, it has to be offset by a very strong countervailing good. Arguably, gender balance is desirable, if only because students seem to prefer it. However, there's no reason to assume that near gender parity is any better than the mix you'd get without affirmative action.
Intercollegiate admissions arms races certainly aren't a good enough reason to discriminate. So, I have to conclude that sex-based affirmative action should be illegal because it doesn't meet the usual standards for justified discrimination.