Sociology of Race and Ethnicity is an academic journal that focuses on identity politics, so it’s an unusual place to look for hope in higher education. But earlier this month it published a study suggesting that admissions offices value academics over activism.
Florida Gulf Coast University sociologist Ted Thornhill wanted to study what types of black students pique the interest of admissions officers. So he sent fake email inquiries to 517 universities where the student body is predominantly white, using eight “black sounding” names, like Lakisha Lewis and Jamal Jackson. Mr. Thornhill used four different email templates in which the decoy prospective students discussed their interests and high-school records.
Mr. Thornhill described two of the template emails as “deracialized and racially apolitical.” In one, the decoy prospective student expressed an interest in English and math and discussed volunteer work as a tutor and participation in the marching band. In another, the student expressed a passion for science and extracurricular activities focused on environmentalism.
Mr. Thornhill wrote his final two templates to suggest “an interest in race-based activities.” The first of these describes involvement in a church gospel choir and interest in African-American history—meant to show awareness of race but “no direct interest in racial politics.”
The last template details the student’s “strong passion for issues of racial justice,” which include planning a workshop on “white privilege, affirmative action, colorblind racism, racial microaggresions, and institutional racism.” It concludes: “I might be able to develop a similar workshop for the students at the college I end up attending.”
Admissions officers were much more likely to respond to the students who were more serious about academics than activism. The first set of emails got a response 65% of the time, compared with 55% for the second set. The response rate for the fourth template was 48%, lower than for any of the other three.
As a self-described racism scholar, Mr. Thornhill was dismayed by his own finding. He claims the data affirms that “white gatekeepers are increasingly inclined to screen blacks to ‘weed out’ those they perceive as too concerned with race and racism.”
But another conclusion is that admissions officers are more receptive to students who view college as a place to learn, rather than a chance to “educate” their peers and professors coercively.
The study may also suggest that universities are wary of students they expect will protest and make demands. One cautionary tale is the University of Missouri, which saw a significant decrease in enrollment and public support after its widely publicized 2015 protests.
The study is a promising indication that universities are maintaining their original mission of providing an education. Ultimately, that has a bigger social impact than activism. Education, after all, is the original form of empowerment.