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Saturday, August 31, 2002

Survival of the Fittest(-In)

First we must have a little background.

Anastasi Fedotova, a profoundly deaf Russian immigrant, applied to and was rejected by the comically-named Brasenose College of Oxford University. This despite having 6 As in her A-levels (the final tests English students take when they complete high school).

This has produced a little flutter in some corners of the Blogosphere. Iain Murray grumps at an indignant Independent editorial (is there another kind?), which I didn't think was that bad except for its insinuation that Fedotova would be a prize for any university primarily because of her disability and immigrant status (and possibly gender), and not because of her brains.

Natalie Solent notes this article with approval, which is entitled "A grades don't work at Oxford. It's whether the dons like you".

Natalie says, "Carr makes a good point that Oxbridge selection, like all personnel selection, is often and justly more concerned with how the selector will get along with the selectee than with actual cleverness."

Yes, well.

I was explaining this point to a young man in Australia a couple months ago. He was upset (I don't know the proximate cause) at some preferences given to, say, women. His argument was that jobs/fellowships/etc should only go to "the best". Now, this young man is very bright, and has a very high opinion of himself. He thinks he is "the best", and so naturally he feels threatened by any sorts of considerations that undermine a strict meritocracy.

I had to break it to him that there is no such thing as "the best".

I routinely apply for jobs for which the job description is thoroughly satisfied by maybe ten people. On the planet. And once you get to that point, there is very very little daylight between "the best" and "the rest". If you find an applicant who is head and shoulders above even the best of the others, then you know that person isn't going to take the job; he's going to take a better one.

(Unless of course there are no better ones out there, in which case you've turned him down knowing that he'd be "unhappy" working with you, when in reality he finds unemployment a lot less happy.)

So when you have a hatful of what seem like equally good candidates, you can only decide between them by unquantifiable methods---which one will fit best into your group. This is no different than a lucky applicant with multiple offers taking a job in an area he likes rather than one he does not, if everything else is equal.

Maybe one applicant seemed really friendly---and you're turned off by perkiness. Or one seemed really self-confident---and reminded you of a used car salesman. Sometimes it happens that one candidate who isn't quite as well-qualified, technically can have strengths in other areas that lead you to choose him.

So far, it sounds like I'm agreeing with Simon Carr and Natalie---you can't just add up the A grades, throw in some extra consideration "for past wrongs", and come up with a definite winner. Making the choice can be very difficult.

But really I'm not agreeing with them. I'm wondering if they've forgotten the days when "not fitting in" was a given for members of some groups. Blacks, women, etc wouldn't "fit in", except in their own little academic ghettos. The US armed forces were integrated over the objections of people who argued that white men---southerners in particular---simply could not take orders from a black superior. Actually, any number of groups---blacks, gays, Jews, women---have been obstructed from joining organizations like the military, police, and firefighters. The argument here has been that the need for unit cohesion, for trust in your comrades, is so high that the presence of a member of these groups would destroy it. The objectors ask, "Who would trust a ____ to back him up?" My question has always been, "Where does the need for homogeneity end?" Does every firefighter in a given station have to be a red-headed Irish Catholic man? Would the introduction of Protestants or Poles or blonds disrupt the group? Could the members not learn to adjust, or are we supposed to accept their prejudices as immutable?

I've always been a little surprised at those who believe that group preferences are given to "right past wrongs" (it ain't gonna---they're past, and unrightable). I believe they exist to provide a disincentive to employers who would use the "fitting in" excuse. (Minority scholarships are a slightly different idea; I've written three long versions in reply to Den Beste's post the other day, and not liked any of them well enough to post it.)

In the comments section of Iain Murray's blog, his wife Kris writes:

It's [ethnic or gender preference] a sure fire way to destroy a country's competitiveness (although they [proponents of preference] probably think competitiveness is a dirty word).

But as Steven Den Beste noted the other day:

What many businesses are finding is that not only are those kinds of hiring policies [i.e., discriminatory ones] unfair, incorrect, (and illegal!) but they're also unwise. Good people shouldn't be wasted; there are never enough of them...The greatest ally that the Civil Rights movement has had is human greed. That's even more powerful than clannishness or hatred. Inclusive social policies have turned out to be more profitable.

Right, but many organizations had to be dragged to this realization, kicking and screaming all the way, by pesky government regs. They just didn't wake up one day with this vision of greater profits through inclusiveness.

I've always taken it for granted that one day there'd be no need for affirmative action programs, because essentially no one would think of turning down a qualified candidate on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc. I don't think that day has come yet, but at least it's something to argue about. People who argue that those policies have never been needed are fooling themselves.

But back to Brasenose College...I have more personal interest in this situation because, many years ago, my boyfriend Niles was rejected from Brasenose College. He took five A levels and got four As and a B. He was turned down despite being male and fish-belly-white. In an incident a couple years ago which is similar to the Fedotova one, the BBC reported: [Oxford head] Dr Lucas rejected suggestions that the admissions process favoured confident, smooth-talking public school pupils.. But that's exactly why Niles thinks he was rejected---not confident and smooth-talking and public school enough. ("Public" school, in Britain, actually means a private school, like Eton or Rugby.)

Poor baby had to go to Bristol, where he did so well he was awarded an inflated ego.