A recent Duke study examining the correlation between academic performance and race is being deemed racist by a number of students and members of the Duke community.
The officially unpublished report—“What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice”—examined how minority students close the gap in academic performance as compared to white counterparts at Duke. The research found that black students’ GPAs indeed converge eventually with those of white students, but attributed this to black students being more likely than white students to switch to less difficult majors. About 35 people protested the study Sunday, claiming that the research minimizes the achievement of black students and wrongly characterizes some humanities disciplines as easier than other majors.
The Black Student Alliance sponsored the protest following remarks by Donna Brazile, vice chair of voter registration of the Democratic National Committee, in the Duke Chapel Sunday. In a statement released by the organization Monday, BSA expressed concern about the study’s methodology and called for action.
“We reject the notion that majors in the humanities and social sciences are inherently easier and call on the University administration to do the same, publicly,” the statement said. “Furthermore, we ask the entire Duke community to stand with us against this attack on the academic achievements of all students in the humanities and social sciences and black students at this University.”
BSA members declined to comment further.
“This study does not embody Duke’s values as an institution,” said sophomore Jacob Tobia, who attended the demonstration. “We do not stand for that type of racist inquiry and that misuse of academia to mischaracterize the accomplishments of the African-American students at our institution.”
For the purposes of the research, the investigators quantified the difficulty of certain majors based on student evaluations, measured study times, grades and grading standards. Among the “more difficult” majors were engineering, hard sciences and economics. Subjects in the humanities and social sciences were deemed less difficult.
According to the study, among students matriculating in 2001 and 2002 who initially expressed an interest in majoring in engineering, economics or the natural sciences, 54 percent of black males and 51 percent of black females ended up switching to other majors in the humanities or social sciences. By contrast, only about 8 percent of white men and 33 percent of white women switched majors.
Black students are slightly more likely than white students to express an initial interest in engineering, economics or the natural sciences—61.7 percent for blacks compared to 60.8 percent for whites—yet less than 30 percent of black students finish with a major in that realm compared to 50.5 percent of whites.
‘Not the intent’
Peter Arcidiacono, the report’s lead author and professor of economics, said that he is not certain what BSA and others are criticizing about the study.
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“I was very surprised that the study received coverage given that it is unpublished,” Arcidiacono wrote in an email Sunday. “The reaction may be because others are using the study in a lawsuit against racial preferences in admissions.”
Arcidiacono is meeting with BSA members Thursday.
“I hope that people have actually read the study,” he said. “When I meet with BSA, I hope to make clear what the paper says and what it doesn’t say.”
Although most of the controversy centers around the racial aspect of Arcidiacono’s study, he and his colleagues also observed similar results with legacy students, who—like minorities—are often given an advantage in college admissions.
In the report, the scholars argue that their findings undermine other studies that play down the difficulties experienced by recipients of affirmative action and legacy students by asserting that these students eventually earn the same GPAs as their white counterparts. The research found similar major-switching patterns in legacy students as well.
BSA President Nana Asante, a senior, said in a speech before Brazile’s remarks that the study undermines the scholastic achievements of black students at Duke.
“That was definitely not the intent,” Arcidiacono said. “I don’t think other academic economists read the paper in that way, either.”
He added that people may be misinterpreting what the study actually says.
“The study doesn’t say anything about what races are better at Duke or anything like that,” he said in an interview. “What it actually says is that if you take white students and black students with similar levels of academic preparation, then they leave the hard sciences and economics at the same rate,”
The reason that the gaps are so different in terms of how many people switch out is that students are coming to Duke with very different academic backgrounds, he added.
‘Affront to the liberal arts’
Protesters, who held signs reading “GPA has no race” and “My major is not easy” among other statements, had an equally passionate response to the fact that some majors were quantified as less difficult than other subjects.
According to the report, self-reported assessments of course difficulty indicated that the sciences were more difficult than the humanities. Students taking courses in the natural sciences, engineering and economics earned grades that were on average 8 percent lower than courses outside those fields. Moreover, these subjects were associated with 50 percent more study time than others.
“The study is an affront to the diversity of our institution and an affront to the liberal arts in general,” Tobia said.
Sophomore Alston Neville said he thinks the study is biased.
“It doesn’t take into account anything about the value of the majors,” Neville said. “It’s just assuming that hard majors are in pre-med classes, so it’s really not taking into credit what majors at Duke are different, and it’s not all about color as it is making it seem.”
Arcidiacono said that, in contrast to some accusations, his study did not label majors that fall within the social sciences as easy.
“I just read [the report] again and could not find anything that said humanities and social science majors were easy,” he said. “All statements are about relative difficulties, given student answers to the survey questions.”
Senior Thomas Burr, an economics major, said BSA overreacted to the study and misunderstood the economics department’s purpose. He added that he believes the professors who spearheaded the study—Arcidiacono and Kenneth Spenner, professor of sociology, psychology and neuroscience—were unfairly attacked in the email BSA sent to students that called for a protest and labeled Aridiacono’s study “hurtful and alienating.”
“Essentially, BSA has implied that the professors had malicious intent when performing this research, which is absurd,” Burr wrote in an email Sunday. “They should have met with the professors before making such an inflammatory charge against their characters.”