College That Ended Race-Based Affirmative Action Reverses Itself

What was behind a two-year policy change that ended two days after it was revealed?

August 6, 2018
 

A week ago, the College of Charleston was revealed to have stopped considering race in admissions in 2016. The college never announced the change, but the local Post and Courier newspaper disclosed it, leading to widespread criticism by black leaders in Charleston. Among the public college's undergraduates, only 7 percent are black, and 80 percent are white. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that the state's population is 27.3 percent black and 68.5 percent white.

The policy change took place during the presidency of Glenn McConnell, a politician selected by the board in 2014, over the objections of faculty members and civil rights leaders. Many critics noted his support for flying the Confederate flag, his ownership of a store that sold Confederate memorabilia and his posing in Confederate military uniforms.

McConnell, who recently stepped down, citing health reasons, said at the time he was appointed that his association with the Confederacy was based on his devotion to history and states' rights. The college denied he had ordered the change, but many wondered why exactly the college had stopped considering race in admissions.

Then two days after the Post and Courier article ran, the college reversed itself, simultaneously denying that any change had been made and confirming that a change had been made.

Stephen C. Osborne, the interim president, issued a statement in which he said: "Despite reports to the contrary, the college has not made any changes to its official admissions policies regarding race. There was no secretive effort to change the college’s policies by past administrations. And there was certainly no effort to reduce the College’s commitment to promoting diversity on campus."

But in the next paragraph of his statement, he acknowledged that the college's admissions policies changed in 2016. "Prior to 2016, the college’s admissions office conducted an additional review of students of color who were not initially recommended for admission to the college. The admissions office discontinued the practice after the summer of 2016 due to the positive results of various recruitment initiatives for students of color." The statement went on to say that the change was not secret because the college informed the College Board of the change.

The statement then said that the 2016 change was being reversed. "In consultation with the chief enrollment officer and after listening to key stakeholders across campus and reviewing our recruitment strategies, I have advised the admissions team, effective immediately, to implement an additional application review of students of color and to make it abundantly clear that, as an institution, we do and will consider race as a factor in our holistic review process," the statement said.

"While we are pleased that our overall numbers of students of color are improving, frankly we have not moved the needle enough regarding our African-American student enrollment. We need every tool available to us in order to ensure access. As stated many times before, diversity is a core value of this institution and plays an important part in shaping our campus community."

Inside Higher Ed asked for an interview with Osborne and he agreed only to answer some questions via email. He said that the number of minority students admitted based on the additional review was always small, but that he didn't have exact figures. Still, he said, the process was "worthwhile."

As for why the 2016 policy shift was never announced, he said that there was no need to do so. (Many black leaders in Charleston have criticized both the dropping of consideration of race and the lack of transparency about the shift.)

"We did not change an official admissions policy, so there was no need for a public statement. It was a change in practice within the admissions office," Osborne said. "Nevertheless, we need to take advantage of every tool available to us in order to ensure greater access. That is why I have made the decision to re-implement the additional application review of students of color to complement our existing diversity initiatives. If we are able to accept and yield even one more student of color, then it is worth it."
 

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