Defeat for Affirmative Action

February 15, 2007

A decades-old, popular program in which colleges prepare minority high school students for journalism degrees and careers in the field will no longer focus exclusively on minority students.

The Center for Individual Rights, a group that opposes affirmative action, on Wednesday announced an agreement with the Dow Jones News Foundation, which sponsored the program, and Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the sites for the program. Under the agreement, all 27 programs -- which in the past have focused on minority students -- will be opened to white students. The center sued Dow Jones and the university last year on behalf of a 15-year-old white student who was rejected from the program at Virginia Commonwealth.

Dow Jones started the program in the 1960s, as part of an effort to attract more minority students to journalism. Colleges apply to be one of the host sites and high school students travel to the sites in the summer for journalism training. Participants in the program have praised its track record in helping to diversify newsrooms all over the country -- and participants typically receive scholarships to help them attend college. Current participants include Kent State and New York Universities, San Antonio College, and the Universities of Arizona and Kentucky. Until the settlement, the program was called the High School Journalism Workshops for Minorities. (The words "for Minorities" will now be dropped.)

According to the Center for Individual Rights, it became involved in the case after Emily Smith, from Chesterfield County, Va., applied for the Virginia Commonwealth program and was accepted. A few days after she was accepted, Virginia Commonwealth called her and asked her race. When she indicated that she was white, she was told that she "couldn't come." As part of the settlement, Virginia Commonwealth has promised to admit Smith to its program for 2007 and to pay her $25,000 in legal expenses. A statement from the university said that the settlement did not involve an admission of wrongdoing, that the agreement was consistent with the institution's "race-neutral admissions policies" and its commitment to "inclusiveness in all of its programs."

The lawsuit filed by the Center for Individual Rights argued that the program's previous restrictions violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by excluding white students.

Terrence Pell, president of the center, said that he was surprised that Dow Jones had operated these programs for so long without a legal challenge. To the extent that there are similar programs operating at other colleges in other fields, Pell said that the center would go after them as well. "I think there are pockets of race-exclusive programs. As we learn about them and people want to challenge them, we will file suits," he said. "Our lawsuit was kind of a wake-up call not just to Dow Jones, but to school officials generally about other kinds of programs that might be operating under the radar screen."

Dow Jones officials did not answer calls on Wednesday.

But the director of a program that has to change as a result of the settlement said she was disappointed and that the CIR lawsuit would hurt efforts to diversify journalism education and journalism.

"It's very disappointing because we still have such a dearth of people of color in the industry," said Cristina Azocar, director of the Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism, at San Francisco State University. Azocar said that her summer program has always been open to low-income white students, as well as minority students, but she fears that under the new rules, too many slots will go to those who don't need the program.

"It's much easier to get well-off kids to apply for these. The more advantaged you are, the more likely you apply for these, and get in," she said. "There are now going to be a lot of spaces going to undeserving students -- students who have other opportunities."

Azocar is also on the board of the Native American Journalists Association, which has also received Dow Jones funds for a summer program, in that case for Native American students. Dow Jones has told the association it must open up its program as well. Given how few programs reach out to Native American students who want to be journalists, she asked what would be gained by adding white students.

"There has always been affirmative action for white people in this country," she said. "It's really sad that they fail to understand that the reason they are so prominent is because of those affirmative action policies, legacy admissions policies, getting ahead because of things like who you know. We never had that access," she said. "We still have such low numbers. What are they afraid of? Are they afraid that they aren't going to get those jobs?"

Pell said that while certain programs may favor certain groups, they are not race-exclusive. He noted that the children of minority alumni benefit from legacy admissions. "I'm not aware of any program anywhere in the country that is run as a whites-only program."

But William B. Harvey, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education and vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity of the University of Virginia, questioned that logic. "Isn't that a bit disingenuous on its face? All we have to do is look at the social history of this country and this particular field. No one is saying that there are programs today only for white students, but our newspapers are overwhelmingly white. Are they saying things are equal?"

Added Harvey of Wednesday's announcement: "I think it's very disturbing. The misnamed Center for Individual Rights has a perspective and approach that is entirely in error and that is that everyone has an equal opportunity for advancement today."

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