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Glenn Greenwald has been doing a great job of holding Jeffrey Rosen and The New Republic's feet to the fire, for Rosen's anonymously-sourced hit piece on Sonia Sotomayor, in which he said she is "not that smart", "[unable] to provide an intellectual counterweight to the conservatives", whose good qualities are mostly that she's Puerto Rican and from poverty -- a combination that has led pretty much every blog I've seen, left or right, to connect the dots and say that what Rosen meant is that she benefited from Affirmative Action at Princeton and Yale Law.

I want to stop the right-wing meme that Sotomayor must have been an Affirmative Action admit to Princeton, intellectually second-rate but bossy. This meme is a lie: Sotomayor got into Princeton despite a restrictive quota system, and left with the highest award Princeton gives to  undergraduates.

I want to highlight and expand on a comment that got lost in the barrage after Glen's first post about Rosen's article.

Commenter "PollyPerks" noted that, based on dates and statistics alone, Sonia Sotomayor could not have been a "mere Affirmative Action" admit to Princeton, because she entered during the early years of Princeton co-education, when women were subject to a restrictive quota system.

I am a female member of Princeton's Class of 1978, 2 years after Sotomayor, and I have personal memory and experience to back PollyPerks up. Like Polly, I am also relying on Jerome Karabel's The Chosen, which I highly recommend and which made many things clear to me in retrospect.

I have no clear memory of meeting Sotomayor, though I certainly knew of her -- she was extremely energetic and politically active, heading the Latino student group and other campus activities. She graduated summa cum laude, a very rare distinction at Princeton, not to be acquired without both a stellar senior thesis and across-the-board As in one's major: many departments would have no summas in any given year.

Sotomayor applied to Princeton in only the 3rd year of co-education. Princeton came to co-education late even for an Ivy, and the Board of Trustees had set strict limits on how exuberantly women could rush in. In particular, the original agreement between the University administration and the Board stipulated that the number of men admitted would never decrease -- no man would risk being out-competed by a woman for a seat at Princeton. Instead, the total number of students would have to increase: we women were explicitly competing for a separate pool of seats, a rather small one at first because there wasn't enough housing for us.

(And if housing was a problem, a female friend in the Class of 1975 reminds me that bathrooms were worse. It was only several years after I entered that it was no longer common to see a bathrobe-clad woman going out of one dorm and into the doorway next door, in search of a shower.)

As Polly said, quote Karabel: only 14 percent of the female applicants were accepted, compared to 22 percent of the men. ...[T]he women who were admitted to Princeton were even more elite both academically and socially than their male classmates".

This was obvious and much-discussed by the students ourselves. We could see that pretty much every woman admitted to Princeton was abnormally bright, ambitious, and hard-working, while the male population included a certain fraction of guys who were just there because going to Princeton was what the [Family Name]s did.

It was those men -- the Princeton equivalents of George W. Bush -- who were the beneficiaries of "affirmative action" at Princeton, not Sonia Sotomayor. PollyPerks quotes from Karabel:

"1968-1969 was also the year Princeton began to recruit Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans and expanded its efforts to recruit more 'disadvantaged' whites" (p. 398).

In 1972, Princeton reported that the freshman class included 22 Latino students, 15 Chicano students, 27 "Oriental" students, 5 Indian students, and 113 black students, for a total of 181 "Third World students" (as Princeton then called them) out of a class of approximately 1127 (p. 399).

To compare, the number of students admitted as athletes was 310 (p. 477) and many spaces (approximately 200-250) were taken by legacies, who were admitted with significantly lower qualifications (p. 467, 478):

"Princeton ... was careful not to tamper with legacy preference. Admissions rate for alumni children never fell much below double the rate for other applicants, and in the mid-1970s preferences for legacies actually increased. In 1975, 48 percent gained admission - a rate 2.3 times higher than other applicants." (p. 478)

In working on this post, I discovered that Sotomayor not only graduated summa cum laude (which is determined by the departments), she received the M. Taylor Pyne Prize for 1976.

The Pyne Prize is the highest award Princeton gives to an undergraduate (it goes to two people per year), and is supposed to reflect both scholarship and leadership.

It is flatly impossible for a Pyne Prize recipient to be "not that smart" or to "lack intellectual weight", as Rosen's "sources" said. There may be fashions or pressures in what specific person gets the award, but it's always to someone who looks really smart even when they're surrounded by very smart people. Frankly, I would have to be insane to not assume that Sotomayor is smarter than me -- I mean, one Pyne Prize winner for my year (1978) was Eric Lander, and he's pretty much smarter than anyone.

Now, I will admit that based on my mostly-paper-but-slightly-inside knowledge, Elena Kagan (Princeton Class of 1981) is probably in Sotomayor's league. Kagan also was summa cum laude, and received a very prestigious scholarship to study at Oxford after Princeton. From the Princeton point of view, it's all good. But also from the Princeton POV, both Sotomayor and Kagan look much more impressive than Samuel Alito (Class of 1972), who did well there but not blow-your-socks-off well.

In contrast, on paper, based solely on their academic records, Scalia and Roberts really are (or should be) at the top of the league. But then, that should also be the case for Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Souter. I don't know whether there's actually much correlation between undergraduate record and performance on SCOTUS. Remember, it's the absolute pinnacle of the profession, but it's also a committee, which means issues of personality, temperament, and social cunning can be at least as important as pure intellect.

What Karabel's book illuminated for me was how much of a dance Princeton and its ilk were negotiating in the 60s and 70s. Princeton et al. did not become co-ed and more diverse out of pure goodness of heart. A certain amount of idealism was definitely involved -- people at the colleges thought it was right that their educations, and by extension membership in America's ruling class, should be available to a wider range of candidates.

But they also knew that change was coming, and it was important for the new faces in the American power structure have some of the old labels: "Bottled at Princeton" or "Bottled at Harvard". The strength of the Expensive Higher Education brand, as it were, depended both on helping those who should succeed, and making sure that those who would succeed regardless (because of their inherited money and family) still passed through their gates.

Back when Alito was joining Concerned Alumni of Princeton to protest the University letting in a bunch of riff-raff, IIRC (from Karabel) Shelby Collum Davis argued that there was no point in wasting some of Princeton's future-leaders spots on women, because it was preposterous to think women were going to be future leaders. Similar arguments could have been (and probably were) made for black students, Latinas, Asians, and so forth.

As an aside, I assume Alito, who got into Princeton out of pure ability (poor, local, Catholic, Italian) and was always a bit outside the WASP social structure, wanted to make sure that the club door was slammed behind him, to maintain the cachet of the brand he had worked so hard to achieve.

Now, at last, we can really start to see how well the Expensive Higher Ed admissions staff from the 60s and 70s did their job. Their job was to make sure that when Americans, decades later, went looking for possible Supreme Court justices or even Presidents who weren't white men, the obvious candidates bore the Expensive Higher Ed brand names. Sotomayor, Kagan, and both Obamas represent not only great advances for American inclusiveness, but great successes for the Ivy League system and its role, good and bad, in the American power structure.

Updated to correct some errors and obscurities.

Also: I haven't seen a blog yet, left or right, where either the poster or the comments doesn't say something about Sotomayor being an affirmative action beneficiary. I can't believe it's coincidence that the one of her cases that has attracted most attention was about affirmative action. Glenn Greenwald's update this morning has plenty of links to how this is being played out.

And to those still wondering "but why does it have to be a woman? What about the best person for the job?" -- The display the male justices put on during the recent oral arguments about the strip-search case made it brutally clear that the current gender balance on SCOTUS is intolerable.

Originally posted to DoctorScience on Fri May 08, 2009 at 03:15 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Where did Rosen write these things? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "an Affirmative Action admit to Princeton" who is "intellectually second-rate".

    "mere Affirmative Action"

    It is flatly impossible for a Pyne Prize recipient to be "not that bright" or to "lack intellectual heft", as Rosen's "sources" said.

    In the Rosen article you link, I don't see any of these quoted remarks.  Is there another article you're referring to?

    •  I'll edit to make it clearer (0+ / 0-)

      I put this together from blogcomments, and in some cases I was replying to people above me in the stream. Rosen definitely said -- or rather, quoted, or is that "quoted"? -- "not that smart" and "[unable] to provide an intellectual counterweight" "the word on the street is that she's not the brainiest of people". The affirmative action implication was drawn by every blog I looked at, and wingnut commenters are really running with it. Typical example:

      Granted, even if affirmative action played a role in her acceptance to Princeton and Yale law school, the fact that she graduated and passed the bar suggests a minimum threshold of ability. But that's not good enough, it seems that many liberals would like someone who can go toe-to-toe with the conservatives on the court intellectually


      If I can't dance, it's not my revolution. -- Emma Goldman.

      by DoctorScience on Fri May 08, 2009 at 05:27:39 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  armando (4+ / 0-)

    (big tent democrat) also has been all over this.

  •  I taught at Prrinceton in the 1980s. (11+ / 0-)

    Women were still in the minority at that time, and there were still places where there were not enough women's bathrooms. If you are looking for affirmative action candidates at Princeton, look to the alumni children and to the student athletes. The women who were admitted in those early years were very, very smart.

    •  I heard from a woman professor at Princeton (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Gary Norton, blue jersey mom

      (sometime around 1998) that they still hadn't taken the urinals out of the women's restrooms, with the implicit message being that it was as if the old order was going to just wait out "the fad" of women in academia and things would go back to "normal."

      I've heard many horror stories from women in academia at different institutions. That one stuck with me.

      "It's like we weren't made for this world, But I wouldn't really want to meet someone who was." --Of Montreal

      by andydoubtless on Fri May 08, 2009 at 06:43:03 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Typical baseless republican attacks (3+ / 0-)

    I certainly hope we don't base SCOTUS appointments on undergrad records but these republican attacks were nonsense.

    "It's the planet, stupid."

    by FishOutofWater on Fri May 08, 2009 at 04:13:08 AM PDT

  •  Only "empathy" and "sympathy," (0+ / 0-)

    the words themselves,were omitted from Rosen's article, but they still were 'there.'  Poor, Puerto Rican, did it on her own...  Of course, Rosen implies, she is bound to have empathy and sympathy and we certainly don't want that on the Supreme Court.

  •  Rosen (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama, LynneK, mayim

    is a moron.

    They Pyne Prize?  Wow.  Those kids are, in a word, UNBELIEVABLE.

    Before anyone bashes Princeton, it is a whole different university now.  Very diverse and inclusive.  I loved my experience there.

    •  Inclusive even then despite the image (5+ / 0-)

      I was in the Class of '75, Jewish, public high school (and male).  Maybe I was just oblivious, but never felt marginalized or excluded.  I think a pretty dramatic sea change took place between the late 60s and early 70s, and that coeducation (plus general societal changes) had a huge amount to do with it.  More to the point, there is no question that the women who got in then were all incredibly bright and talented and also definitely worked a lot harder than the men.  I was a math major, and I think pretty smart, but not close to being a Pyne Prize winner.  I have met a few though over the years and they are all very impressive people.

  •  Rosen's hit appeared in the New Republic, not (4+ / 0-)

    the National Review.  This is significant, because it suggests some Democrats may oppose Sotomayor's nomination.

    As for Sotomayor's qualifications, I quite agree with you.  I only got a magna cum laude at Princeton, and I did not make the Yale Law Journal at Yale Law School.  So I am impressed by her record.

    The influence of the [executive] has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

    by lysias on Fri May 08, 2009 at 04:38:03 AM PDT

    •  Thanks! I'll make the correction (0+ / 0-)

      I can never remember which is which, or which one is supposed to be "liberal".

      If I can't dance, it's not my revolution. -- Emma Goldman.

      by DoctorScience on Fri May 08, 2009 at 05:29:14 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  if 'liberal' means supporting (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        the Iraq occupation and joe lieberman, then yes; TNR is "liberal".  As I recall, national review supported both as well.

        A learning experience is one of those things that says, 'You know that thing you just did? Don't do that.' Douglas Adams

        by dougymi on Fri May 08, 2009 at 06:56:52 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  no Democrat should read it anymore (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lysias, andydoubtless

      I had a subscription for over 20 years.  I finally had to cancel last year, and it was a couple of years too late.  Between the racism of Peretz and the fact that it's owned by a conservative, the old "even the liberal TNR" should die a quick death.  They used to be liberal, now they are a strange mess. But overall, TNR has been perverted into a republican disinformation outlet.

  •  Yalie (0+ / 0-)

    I don't think he'll appoint Sotomayor.  She went to Yale.  I think he'll appoint someone else from Harvard instead.  Maybe Cass Sunstein.

    •  I think it's got to be a woman (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pragmatic optimist

      The display the male justices put on during the oral arguments about the strip-search case made it brutally clear that the current gender balance on SCOTUS is intolerable.

      If I can't dance, it's not my revolution. -- Emma Goldman.

      by DoctorScience on Fri May 08, 2009 at 05:32:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Good point (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        There's a certain frat boy idiocy up there that apparently needs attenuation.

        Nobody but Ginsburg seems to comprehend that the only locker rooms in which teenage girls strut around, bored but fabulous in their underwear, are to be found in porno movies.

        My suggestion was perhaps a bit flippant, but he has shown a discernable preference for Harvard people in previous appointments.  And given his background, I expect him to appoint someone who is a constitutional scholar.

        All I can say for sure about his appointment is I'll be happy with it.  Isn't it nice to have an adult as president again?

  •  isn't this just they typical fascist tactic of (0+ / 0-)

    attack, attack, attack?

    given that their 17 degrees off of complete right wing is frequently defined as 'center' and 'moderate', their tactics have been remarkably successful.

    Without the assitance of 7trillion700billionWAMUFreddieFannieMerril


    the fascist lie machine would probably be doing fine.

    For 30 years the Dim-O-Cratic party has been ... 'lead' by the highly credentialed Ivys or Ivy wannabees, AND, what have they accomplished? They've stayed in charge while things got so fucking bad that the fascists couldn't lie their way outta of it anymore.

    I hope this woman is a good SCOTUS pick. The Ivy brand, to me, means people who excel at getting in charge, NOT people who excel at leading. Who gives a fuck about another head sheep?


    Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous

    by seabos84 on Fri May 08, 2009 at 05:29:36 AM PDT

    •  The Ivy brand (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The Ivy brand, to me, means people who excel at getting in charge, NOT people who excel at leading.

      I can't say I really disagree. Both Obamas are more the exception than the rule, that way.

      If I can't dance, it's not my revolution. -- Emma Goldman.

      by DoctorScience on Fri May 08, 2009 at 05:36:13 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Of course it is (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lysias, seabos84

      They are pre-smearing everyone on any list that's been made of Obama's potential nominees. They have already announced their intention to try to block any appointment even though they have no idea who it will be. They're doing the same with everything else. I just read they are organizing to sink Obama's health-care plan even though they have no idea what it is. Party of No is totally apt.

      BTW I couldn't even get into an Ivy at the height of the baby boom (just before the male Ivies went co-ed so I applied to Smith), but I think I'm smarter than George Bush!

      Rob Portman: He sent your job to China.

      by anastasia p on Fri May 08, 2009 at 05:42:00 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm a member of the Class of '70 (7+ / 0-)

    at Yale -- the last "all-male" class there.  We were also emblematic of the Yalies whom George W ( class of '68) hated -- guys who got in on merit, not on his Daddy's (or Grand-Daddy's) coattails.

    The late 60's/early 70's was a time of great change, and the women who were admitted in '69 as Freshmen, or transferred in as Sophs or Juniors were, without doubt, smarter than the average Bulldog -- or Tiger.  I can well imagine how the same process took place at Princeton.  

    The attacks on Sotomayor reveal far more about the attackers than the attackee.   sigh...

  •  As a woman with a Brown '73 degree everything (3+ / 0-)

    you're saying resonates. Funny historical note: co-education went back further at Brown (1891), with women admitted and housed in a separate "college" (Pembroke) but taking Brown classes and degrees. A number of years after women began there a commencement speaker addressed the success or failure of it by pointing out that as many women had received degrees with distinction as had men. Of course in the year he said this, only 10% of the graduates were women!

  •  No. Let them follow this meme. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Answer Guy

    let Jeff Sessions go into a confirmation hearing under the impression that he is asking questions of an affirmative-action qualifier, and let her crush his nuts. Let the GOP build her up as being as weak and "bossy" as they wish.

  •  Stellar diary! Very informative! (0+ / 0-)

    It's distasteful, bordering on absurd, that someone like Sotomayor faces the assumption that she is where she is not because of her own ability but because of affirmative action or "handouts." Information like what this diary provides should dispel these aspersions, except that it will not because the people who are making these arguments are not susceptible to contrary evidence. And that this will certainly be the case is itself the most persuasive evidence that at bottom of this meme about Sotomayor is some very ugly racism.

    There's no shortage of amazing potential justices. I think this country could be well served for example by Kathleen Sullivan, Diane Wood, or Elena Kagan. But this controversy actually makes me partial to Sotomayor.

    "It's like we weren't made for this world, But I wouldn't really want to meet someone who was." --Of Montreal

    by andydoubtless on Fri May 08, 2009 at 06:38:37 AM PDT

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