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Nowhere is the hypocrisy of today's politics of affirmative action more apparent than in a recent ruling of the U.S. Department of Education that exonerated Harvard University of charges that it discriminated against Asian-Americans in admission to its freshman class.

A two-year investigation by the department's Office for Civil Rights concluded Asian-American applicants to Harvard were admitted at significantly lower rates than white applicants despite statistics suggesting the two groups were similarly qualified.

The higher admission rate for whites, said the federal report, is largely explained by the preference given to "legacies" -- the children of alumni and to recruited athletes, two groups at Harvard that are predominantly white.

Such preferences were deemed "legally permissible" and "legitimate." Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos described them as consonant with our nation's "principles of justice and equity.

Yet giving preference to the children of alumni -- long a standard practice in the leading private colleges -- may properly be described as affirmative action for the privileged.

Roughly 40 percent of alumni children are admitted each year as against 14 percent of non-alumni children, with alumni children who do not apply for financial aid enjoying a significantly greater advantage still.

Yet these offspring of alumni possess qualifications that are, at best, slightly above the mean. If "legacies" had been admitted in 1988 at the same rate as other applicants, their numbers in the freshman class would have dropped by close to 200 -- a figure that exceeds the total number of blacks, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans enrolled in the entire freshman class.

Harvard also has a vigorous program of affirmative action for athletes. While Harvard is no doubt more restrained in its recruiting than the great majority of colleges, the preference for varsity prospects is nonetheless massive; indeed, an unpublished dissertation from the 1970s revealed that a policy of admitting students on the basis of their SAT verbal scores would have excluded more than 80 percent of the admitted athletes.

The image of institutions such as Harvard as bastions of academic meritocracy that bend their rigorous standards only for certain racial minorities is both naive and mythical. The admissions policies of elite colleges have long been composed of an intricate patchwork of affirmative action programs that serve a wide variety of groups: among them, the children of alumni, athletes and the geographically underrepresented.

It is curious that the one type of affirmative action singled out for the most intense legal, political and moral scrutiny -- that of preferential treatment for underrepresented minorities -- is the single policy designed to benefit groups historically denied the opportunity to attend elite colleges and universities.

We are not proposing an admissions policy based purely on grades and test scores; such a policy would be both mechanistic and seriously biased in favor of the culturally and economically advantaged.

Instead, our diverse society would be better served by a policy that recognizes talent in all segments of the population and that employs a broad range of criteria for evaluating achievement and potential contribution.

The national debate about affirmative action has thus become profoundly deformed in recent years. Attention has focused selectively on those programs that benefit the historically excluded, while the often larger programs that favor the already privileged have been ignored.

The truth is the elite private colleges have never selected their students on academic criteria alone. The real question, therefore, is: which qualities of applicants will receive preferential treatment and whose interests will be served by such programs?

JEROME KARABEL and DAVID KAREN teach sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and Bryn Mawr College, respectively.

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