Breitbart.com, the right wing political blog, posted a piece ("Exclusive: The Vetting – Did Obama have lower SAT scores than George W. Bush?” May 22, 2012) questioning President Barack Obama’s qualifications for admission into Columbia University in the early 1980s. In the Brietbart.com piece, an article I wrote for the Columbia Spectator is extensively quoted. Unfortunately, the conclusions drawn by the Breitbart.com article defy logic and distort the facts in my original article from 30 years ago.
The Breitbart.com piece suffers from one of those logical fallacies my Columbia education taught me to avoid: selectively choosing facts to support a predetermined conclusion. The underlying assumption, that Barack Obama isn’t qualified to be President of the United States, is presupposed. Yet, the facts presented in their article ultimately do nothing to support this inference, calling into question the logic of the piece itself.
Back in 1981, I was the student affairs news reporter at Spectator, covering everything from student life to student government to admissions policy. At the time, Columbia College admissions were declining, forcing Columbia College to accept some students with SAT test scores lower than they would have in previous years. Why? The college was still an all-male school, though prospective students wanted to go to co-ed schools. So, talks were underway between Columbia College and Barnard to see whether the two institutions should merge.
These talks between the college and Barnard went on for months. So, to keep the story alive, I reported on many of the issues surrounding the declining admissions crisis. One of them was an article about Columbia College transfer admissions.
For the 1981 article I spoke with the assistant dean of admissions at the time, Robert Boatti. According to Breitbart.com, Boatti was quoted as saying that “among accepted transfer students, the average combined math and verbal score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test is a 1100 and their grade-point average at their former schools is about 3.0...The freshman class at the College had a combined SAT score more than 100 points higher.”
I remember thinking that Boatti might be exaggerating his case. I had no way of knowing whether the scores he quoted were, in fact, the actual scores, so I carefully attributed these facts to Boatti in my article.
This is where Breitbart.com’s right wing propagandistic spin comes into play. The article says, “If Obama’s SAT scores were near the average of the transfer students entering Columbia in the fall of 1981, he would have scored significantly lower than George W. Bush, whose combined math and verbal scores were 1206 out of a possible 1600 points (as revealed by the New Yorker in 1999).”
“If Obama’s SAT score were near the average of transfer students”—what if it was much higher than the average? The attempt to portray Obama’s combined SAT scores as lower than Columbia College’s average is, of course, used to support the conclusion of the Breitbart.com piece, that Barack Obama isn’t qualified to be President of the United States.
Regardless, what if President Obama’s SAT scores were lower than President Bush’s? That proves exactly what? Bragging rights for Republicans? It certainly doesn’t prove that Barack Obama was any less qualified than quite a few politicians who have been elected President of the United States. We’re also talking about someone who was accepted in Harvard Law School, became editor of the Harvard Law Review, and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.
The Breitbart.com article goes on to speculate whether Obama was subject to affirmative action favoritism in his admission to the College, basing this claim on equally dubious evidence. The issue about whether Columbia College had a special arrangement with Occidental College is a red herring. Obama applied to Columbia College, he was accepted—the rest is smoke without fire. Trying to portray Obama as a liar in this context seems more than a little petty.
If the writers at Breitbart.com were half as educated as President Obama, they would base their arguments on actual facts and not conjecture. As for whether Barack Obama is qualified to be President of the United States, in democratic theory, this question is ultimately decided by a majority of the voters. In 2008, the people decided Barack Obama was indeed qualified—like it or not.
I’m surprised that an article I wrote more than 30 years ago in the Spectator would be used to try and smear the President of the United States. Thirty years ago, it would never crossed my mind that an article about transfer admissions published in a student newspaper would become even a small part of the political discourse in a presidential campaign.
The author is a General Studies graduate from the class of 1989. He was a Spectator student affairs beat writer in 1981, production manager in 1984, and editor of Summer Spectator in 1984. He is a senior copywriter at the advertising firm Atmosphere Proximity.