Letters to the Editor

November/December 1996

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Letters to the Editor

Affirmative Action, Pro and Con

"The Case Against Affirmative Action," as stated by David Sacks and Peter Thiel, is correct and compelling. I hope Stanford focuses more on individuals and eliminates racial considerations in the future. It also would be fine with me if the preference for legacies was reduced or eliminated.

John R. Wyse, '57, MBA '61
Scio, Oregon

If David Sacks and Peter Thiel think there is "very little" racism at Stanford, they should start looking in the mirror. "It is often not possible to tell whether a given student genuinely deserved admission to Stanford, or whether he is there by virtue of fitting into some sort of diversity matrix," they complain. Their concern about who "deserves" to be among their classmates--virtually a definition of elitism--apparently applies only to minority students. What about whites who get special consideration because their parents are alumni or faculty?

Like most critics of affirmative action, Sacks and Thiel rely on the false premise that the alternative they offer is a system based solely on scholastic merit. Such a system has never been tried at any institution in the United States. Whites routinely benefit from "affirmative action" in various guises and for various reasons, some more defensible than others. Meritocracy is not the issue. The issue is whether we should address the problem of racial discrimination by seeking out qualified minority students.

Steve Wechsler, PhD '91
Austin, Texas

Sacks and Thiel see "very little [racism] at a place like Stanford." No surprise. My African American wife, who grew up in the wealthy East Bay community of Orinda with a UC-Berkeley PhD professor for a father and a mother who held a Master's in Fine Arts, offers a disturbing example. Early in our courtship she told me how, in high school, after solving a complex calculus problem in front of the class and deriving the wrong answer due to a simple, easily correctable error, she was coldly told by the instructor, "Well, I could say something about your people. But I won't." This, at one of California's most prestigious public schools and within earshot of 25 other students!

The psychological devastation wrought by incidents such as these, echoed a million times over and amplified by repetition, cannot be soothed with rhetoric. If, like my wife, minority students somehow survive to earn entrance into (and graduation from) such elite establishments as Stanford--despite, in some cases, lower scores in "objective" measures of competence--they should be commended for the content of their character and the quantity of their courage, not viewed with suspicion as to the adequacy of their ability.

Darren Thorneycroft, '85
San Diego, California

Thank you for finally addressing the issue of affirmative action at Stanford. We read with great interest Charles J. Ogletree's "The Case For Affirmative Action." Clearly, the article was mislabeled.

Ogletree, in his own words, is not interested in affirmative action for all minorities and women. He has a clear agenda: Admit African Americans. He writes: "We must keep affirmative action--and keep refining it. It is a small but significant way to compensate victims of slavery [and] Jim Crow laws. . . . The affirmative action policies promoted by Stanford recognize that, for more then 300 years, African Americans were treated differently because of their race."

His statements are typical of the apologists who are attacking the culture, academic values and standards of a once great university.

John Shields, '54, MBA '56
Juliana Shields, '55
Pasadena, California

Bill Rivers

I thoroughly enjoyed David Rubin's reminiscences on the late Bill Rivers, one of the great journalism professors of all time (End Notes, September/October). Former students and friends of Professor Rivers may wish to attend a gathering in his memory on November 22; everyone will be welcome to share similar recollections. For details, contact the Department of Communication by e-mail (Commdept@ or phone (415-723-1941) or visit our web site.

Steven Chaffee, PhD '65
Chair, Department of Communication

Top of the Charts

The short feature on "The Five Most Popular Majors at Stanford" (Leland's Journal, September/October) shows the top five majors to be (in order) biological sciences, human biology, economics, psychology, and English. However, using the Student Directory for 1995-96 and combining mechanical (94), civil (57), electrical (91), chemical (35), industrial (85), and general engineering (65), we have 427 undergraduate majors in some kind of engineering, putting engineering at the top of the heap, as it has been for decades.

Bob Hamrdla, '59, MA '64, Gr '69
Stanford, California

In Defense of Tenure

In your March/April Letters to the Editor, Joel P. Smith asks, "Perhaps tenure has a justification. What is it?" Somewhat belatedly, I would like to offer him not one justification, but three.

First, it is naive to think that tenure no longer serves the function of protecting academic freedom. A great many state legislators and board members do not take kindly to the actual investigation and dissemination of ideas--particularly unpopular ones. If you think that academic freedom no longer needs protecting, I invite you to inspect the AAUP list of censured institutions, and consider how much longer it might be if tenure no longer existed.

Second, tenure also serves to protect faculty members against the arbitrary actions of university administrators who often resent criticism, and are quite capable of retaliating if provoked.

Third, tenure affords at least some indirect protection for those faculty who are attempting to maintain academic standards. An increasing number of students and parents see education as a consumer good, with degrees granted on payment of tuition. They regard bad--or even mediocre--grades as unacceptable, no matter how wretched the performance. Tenure is one form of defense, making it possible to keep one's academic integrity and one's job at the same time.

Tenure protects intellectual freedom; it protects whistle-blowers and critics; and it protects academic standards. And if it also provides general job security, why is this such a bad thing?

Katherine A. Hinckley, MA '63, PhD '71
University of Akron
Akron, Ohio

Who Gets In?

As your September/October issue makes painfully clear, affirmative action has both good and bad points. Both sides want society to be color blind, but affirmative action, in making judgments based upon ethnicity, commits the very wrong it wishes to correct. Without it, though, many disadvantaged youths would not obtain the university education they have earned.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test, SAT, is not a measure of intelligence, but of preparedness for university courses. That blacks who are admitted to Stanford score on average 171 points less than admitted whites is not meaningful. The average SAT scores for blacks admitted to Stanford is still well within the top quarter of test takers. Affirmative action is not admitting people who cannot handle the academic rigors of Stanford, which is all that the SAT measures.

To the extent that ethnicity can proxy for many characteristics that can't be gleaned from an admission application, affirmative action becomes more justifiable. Further, a mix of people from various backgrounds is a large part of the Stanford residential education experience. Such diversity is a worthy goal.

Randy Silvers, '88
San Diego, California

Your article on affirmative action includes comments from several students and faculty members who have benefited from the policy. Lacking were any comments from those individuals who, despite superior effort and qualifiications, never made it to Stanford because the place that might have been theirs went to a member of a favored group.

We do not know the names of these victims of affirmative action, and we will not hear their stories. But we know that they exist, and that they have been treated unjustly.

Richard G. Williams, MD '73
Suisun, California

I read with dismay your well-written
article, "Who Gets In?" in the September/ October issue. Despite abundant proof of its failure, it is most disappointing to learn that Stanford is still practicing race-based "affirmative action."

We are told that African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians are the three groups selected for special privilege. We are not told how Stanford determines whether or into which of these groups an applicant falls. Does it have the applicant simply check a box on his application form and then take his word for it? Does it have some sort of Nuremberg type rules that require applicants to prove the ethnicity of their grandparents? Or does it simply have the applicant submit a photograph and then guess?

When I was at Stanford, I took a course in English literature in which we read George Orwell's Animal Farm . We all recognized the absurdity of the pigs' claim that though all of us are equal, some of us are "more equal." Why can't the perpetrators of Stanford's race-based "affirmative action" program recognize that same absurdity today?

John C. Weaver Jr., '58
Oakland, California

As the son of an immigrant who never finished high school (my father ran away to sea at age 14), and as someone who was raised in a "multicultural environment" and as a parent of a "legacy," I applaud Stanford's philosophy. However, there are quotes in your article that I found surprising--even shocking:

Professor Camarillo said that affirmative action "is the struggle to achieve diversity through a policy that has problems. But we don't have any better policies"; and President Casper is quoted as saying, "A Where in the Stanfords' Founding Grant are all these references to "diversity" and attention to our "multiethnic and multicultural society?" The Stanfords talked about educating "the children of the West."

There's one aspect to this emphasis on "diversity" that is particularly disquieting to me, as a result of my nearly 40 years of fund raising for Stanford. My concern is that, for the past decade or more, a very large percentage of graduate students in engineering (roughly 50 percent of PhDs) and physical science--and now more than 20 percent of MBAs, for example--are foreigners. Those large numbers of foreign alumni don't make gifts to Stanford at the rate of U.S. alumni. Why should they? Neither their tax laws nor their cultures encourage that sort of thing. Nor do they pay U.S. taxes, which help support Stanford through all kinds of government programs, some of which support them during their graduate work; and "full tuition" pays less than 60 percent of the cost of their education.

Including foreign students in our Stanford family is laudable. But why so many, at the expense of those of us who contribute to Stanford's endowment and/or support the University in other ways?

Perhaps more important is the fact that every foreign student (subsidized by us) takes a place that could be taken by a minority U.S. citizen--a woman or Asian American or black or Chicano.

Charles A. Eldon, '48, MBA '50
Sierra Vista, Arizona

You are right that the affirmative action argument leads to anger and mistrust.

Just once I would like to see a liberal white affirmative-action supporter turn to the camera and say, "I think African American and Hispanic people can't succeed on their own without my help, which I give freely because I am so ashamed of my legacy of exploitation. I am ashamed of my affluence and success, which was only attributed to historic over-representation and exploitation by whites. In fact, I am emigrating to a country where whites are historically underrepresented, so I can fully live out my shame." Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Bob Andrews, '70, JD '73
Santa Rosa, California

A Teacher of Style

Michael Cunningham's article ("Nancy Packer's Lesson Plan," July/August) was a wonderful tribute to a great teacher. I was fortunate to be one of her early students in the '60s, and her fiction writing class remains a vivid memory. Today, as I work on my eighth novel, I find her, as I always have, an immediate and strong presence. "What is your point in writing this?" she asked us. "Write from your moral center. Write from a point of your deepest integrity."

I still have in my papers a story I wrote for her that has a flurry of comments in the margin, including: "Your faulty spelling and punctuation are more than just distracting, they are destructive." As my first real fiction teacher, Nancy Packer made, and continues to make, a vital difference in my work.

Page Edwards Jr., '63
St. Augustine, Florida

Cheer for Beer

It makes me want to cheer, your article on beer ("Head of Steam," September/October). Obviously our hours at the Oasis and the Old Spaghetti Factory paid off in the long run.

I also cheer that people like Fritz Maytag are having fun in their lives. Articles like this are memorable; other articles are pretty dull by comparison.

Mike Chambreau, '60, MBA '66, Gr '71
Los Altos, California

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