'Still in the Trenches'

Members of the American Association for Affirmative Action discuss their views -- as the Supreme Court gets ready to consider a key case.

June 14, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Members of the American Association for Affirmative Action are arriving here this week for the group's annual meeting -- taking place as the Supreme Court prepares to revisit the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.

Some leaders of the association met Wednesday with Inside Higher Ed to discuss their concerns about the case, even though their respective institutions don't have admissions policies similar to those being reviewed by the Supreme Court. And one of their themes was that new limits on affirmative action may have a much broader reach than the admissions policies at the heart of the case.

The case challenges the right of the University of Texas at Austin to continue to consider race and ethnicity in determining admissions when it has been able to achieve some levels of diversity through its race-neutral 10 percent policy, which guarantees all graduates in the top 10 percent of each of the state’s high schools entry to any public university in the state. The university maintains that it should be able to look at race when admitting students not in the top 10 percent of their classes in order to achieve a higher level of diversity, but critics of affirmative action – many of whom argue that it is no longer necessary – disagree with that stance.

The association's leaders said they hope to overcome negative perceptions of affirmative action, but acknowledged that they have not yet accomplished this goal. John Burnett, director of compliance at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said Wednesday that discrimination is not a bygone notion: “We’re not at the mountaintop,” he said. “We’re still down in the trenches.”

He said that if the Supreme Court decides against Texas, the message to society about the importance of affirmative action will change, but – whether Texas wins or loses – he said affirmative action policies will continue.

“Affirmative action is very critical to make sure that we are breaking down barriers,” he said, adding that since President Obama was elected, a false perception has emerged that America is now a post-racial society without need for affirmative action policies. “There’s more of a need of it now than ever.”

Burnett, along with other members, said many critics of affirmative action believe the policy only serves to give minorities an unfair advantage, but that is not the case.

Carmen Suarez, director of human rights, access and inclusion, special assistant to the president, and interim associate vice provost for student affairs at the University of Idaho, said that affirmative action is intended to level the playing field so applicants of all racial affiliations can be evaluated equally: “The notion of merit doesn’t really exist,” she said. “It’s tied to privilege.”

Shirley Wilcher, executive director of the association, said a ruling against Texas would be a setback for institutions, and “there would be a chilling effect on colleges and universities."

Although the leaders acknowledged that a ruling in favor of Texas might be hard to come by, Charlie Williams, director of affirmative action programs at Kean University, said such a ruling -- "a ruling in favor of diversity" -- would be important, as it would maintain the precedent set by the Supreme Court's 1978 decision upholding the constitutionality of the consideration of race in admissions. "Diversity is a compelling interest," he said.


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