Affirmative action in the Ivies

I do not understand the conversation about Sonia Sotomayor’s notional affirmative action advantages at all, not at all. The affirmative action that gives you a kick upwards in Eastern Establishment territory is the thumb on the scale for white people from the right schools and neighborhoods and families, especially legacy applicants: it’s the most affirmative and active of all. W got into Yale, for Pete’s sake!

I remember arriving at Harvard (a decade before SS went to college) from the Bronx HS of Science, whence Harvard had admitted eleven students a year since forever, out of a graduating class of about 800- of whom, we learned, none had ever graduated less than magna. There I found many things of interest to a New York kid, for example (1) Protestants! (2) …who seemed to be in charge of everything! My social justice gland went into overdrive as I started to meet the thirty-odd Pomfret students (a third of their graduates) in my class through my roommate, and compare them just on general smarts to the BHSS students who hadn’t made the cut with me.

It’s the credentials of WASPs we should be discounting, not Sotomayor’s, especially given Princeton’s reputation at the time as the “northernmost Southern school” and a distinct laggard in accommodating minorities of any kind (it certainly seemed that way to Michelle Obama a decade later). Speaking of minorities, I wonder if Princeton wasn’t also infected with the condescending anti-Catholic fungus (which may have been more pronounced in Boston given its political history) that pervaded Harvard at least through the eighties. I remember standing with a glass of sherry at some event, on the fringes of a conversation between two distinguished faculty members seriously considering whether Catholics were really capable of independent thinking, and realizing that they both knew my name (but, having just been introduced, could not know that the obvious inference was incorrect).

If we’re going to recalibrate Sotomayor’s academic credentials at all, I think we have to at least get the sign right, and recognize that she would have had a much easier ride at Princeton were she named Woods or Grove, or even Bigthicket.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.