As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King this week, we recall his famous wish that Americans be judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin. How are we doing in fulfilling that dream?
Well, I am amazed at how frequently I will read a news article in which a school district or college will declare that it is essential to hire more teachers of this or that skin color or national origin. The faculty must mirror the student population, we are told, and students of each race and ancestry need “role models.”
Two recent examples: The Indianapolis Star ran an article headlined “Schools intensify hunt for minority teachers,” with the subheadline “Metro-area districts struggle to make faculties mirror growing diversity of student enrollments.”
Likewise, the Leadership Alliance -- which is a coalition of 29 higher-education institutions that was established 13 years ago to bring more minority students into mathematics, science, engineering, and technology -- held a conference in Washington. At the meeting, speakers cited the “need to increase the number of faculty of color who can serve as role models.”
One more example, that came across my desk as this piece was being edited: The Boston Globe ran an article about Randolph, Mass. headlined, “To reflect students, town woos minority teachers.” The school committee chairwoman was quoted: “It’s providing role models for the kids.”
It is understood that, in order to achieve this greater diversity, skin color and ethnicity will be considered in the recruitment and hiring process. And so, inevitably, some candidates will be given preferences, and others disfavored, because of these external characteristics. It cannot be denied: If race is given weight in the search, then you are no longer looking for the best candidate, regardless of race.
I’m amazed at the news stories because the role model justification for hiring preferences is so clearly (a) illegal and (b) bad policy.
And, really, they shouldn’t even need a lawyer to tell them that the role model approach is wrong.
For starters, universities, colleges, and schools should ignore skin color and national origin and simply hire the best professors and teachers they can. Period. It’s hard enough to get competent teachers at any level without disqualifying some and preferring others because of irrelevant physical characteristics.
Show me a parent who would say, “I’m willing for my child to be taught by a less qualified teacher so long as he or she shares my child’s color.” As for research and writing, hiring anything less than the best qualified minds will inevitably compromise the school’s or college's academic mission.
Second, it is ugly indeed to presuppose that one can admire -- one can adopt as a role model -- only someone who shares your skin color and, conversely, that a white child could never look up to a black person, or a black child to a white person, or either one to an Asian or Latino or American Indian. Does this also mean that men cannot admire women, or a Christians admire a Jew, or the able-bodied admire someone in a wheelchair?
When President Bush was asked who he wanted to grow up to be when he was a boy, he replied without hesitation, “Willie Mays.” And why not?
Third, the notion that our schoolteachers and professors must look like our students leads into some very undesirable corners.
As Justice Powell wrote in Wygant, “Carried to its logical extreme, the idea that black students are better off with black teachers could lead to the very system the Court rejected in Brown v. Board of Education.”
And if you have a school district that is all-white, does that mean that it is all right to refuse to hire blacks? If you have a school district that has no Latino children, does that mean you should avoid hiring Hispanic teachers? And if your school district’s students are only 5 percent Asian, should that be your ceiling for Asian teachers?
Likewise, are Idaho universities entitled to avoid hiring African Americans, Maine colleges Latinos, and Nebraska schools Asians -- to ensure that those states’ natives are not taught by someone who may not look like they do? Should Ruth Simmons have been disqualified as president of Brown University, on the grounds that she is an unsuitable role model for the white male students there?
Yes, sex will rear its ugly head, too.
Schoolteachers remain a disproportionately female profession, but students include as many boys as girls. Does that mean that schools ought to be granting a preference to men when they hire faculty?
The truth of the matter is that the “role model” claim is just another made-up excuse to engage in the politically correct discrimination that is so fashionable among so many of our so-called educators.
This discrimination is illegal, unfair, silly, and harmful. Whenever a school is distracted from looking for anyone other than the best possible teacher, it is in the end the students who will pay the price. Hire by content of character, not color of skin.
Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
Too seldom do we ask graduate students in science or engineering about their experiences in completing doctoral degree requirements. We go to administrators, faculty, and sponsors, but we don't ask students -- the main educational client -- what they make of what is happening to them. In particular, we are remiss with minority graduate students.
The need to communicate is self-evident. In 2004, fewer than 500 African American citizens and permanent residents earned Ph.D.'s in science and engineering fields, not even 1 percent of the total awarded. The numbers in some disciplines are so tiny as to defy sensibility: 17 in computer and information science, 13 in physics, 10 in mathematics, zero in astronomy. Today the science and engineering workforce -- like medicine, law, and business -- barely resembles the rest of America. The pattern for African Americans, observed for over half a century, is particularly bleak.
Last summer, I asked 40 minority doctoral candidates about their experiences in a "talk back" session at the annual meeting of the Graduate Scholars Program of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Since 1992, Packard Scholars have been selected from among the premier graduates of historically black colleges and universities.
The discussion confirmed that -- for these scholars at least -- those who do enter graduate programs in the sciences often face pressures not experienced by their non-minority colleagues. "It's not fun being a trailblazer in 2005," said one scholar, "because there are certain things we should not have to deal with. When you already have the responsibility and expectation of class work, nobody wants to carry the burden of the entire race and deal with issues that should have been resolved a long time ago."
Often, minority doctoral students in the sciences become PR spokespeople: "We are called upon to do a lot on diversity for the university. To sit on panels every time a black student is invited to the school ... to attend conferences, to take pictures for publications that show the diversity of the university. While we are doing these things, our counterparts are in the lab doing research and producing publications.... When a first-year student comes in, I want them to see another black face. But how do I maintain that research direction and focus? I have an extra burden not carried by my majority colleagues."
And while many students are supportive of diversity efforts, they cannot help but feel conflicted about the competitive realities facing science grads. "Yeah, I wanted to be a trailblazer," summarized one student, "but I also want the Nobel Prize in physics. I don't want to trail blaze in race relations at the university. I want to focus on my research and come up with a new laser treatment for cancer, that's my focus. I don't want to have to deal with the other stuff. Let me be me, let me shine, get your foot off of my neck, let me do my work."
The experiences voiced by the Packard Scholars are not unique. The AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity was created to assist universities and colleges committed to improving the success of all students and faculty, especially those of color. The Packard Scholars reinforced much of what we've learned from our site visits, focus groups, and data reviews (for the center's approach, see this article). Their insights are noted here, many in the scholars' own voices.
Outreach must penetrate the academic reward system. As a faculty activity, outreach ranks a distant third behind research/entrepreneurship and teaching. Neither the faculty effort nor the outcome will change without institutional policies that restructure rewards. As one scholar put it, "Diversity will not be an issue until you start diving into their pockets, their budgets, because they'll do anything to get and keep their grants. But, if a university ... has all the money they need and new buildings, but they have never graduated an African American person, it's too easy to say, 'Oh, we don't know what to do, or we don't have the resources.' That's bull, because if you want the resources, you can get them."
And another remarked, "The program I selected had four African American graduates in the last 10 years. Two more are there now and another came in with me.... That makes a huge difference. Establish a great relationship with one student; make one happy and others will hear.... That is the easiest way to recruit because if they went to a black school, there are other students in their department who are looking for a good graduate program."
Gender and racial bias is a reality. Get over it -- with or without mentoring. The Packard Scholars report discrimination is alive and well in university programs: It ranges from negative comments in the lab about ability or preparation to the faculty's assumption that the only two black students in the department are going to work together. Some universities have developed mentoring or other support programs to mitigate the effects, while others let the problems go unattended.
Many students recommended that universities conduct diversity sensitivity training for the faculty. "That stops a lot of the comments and issues in the labs and in the classroom."
Still others found mentoring programs to be effective interventions. "I'm in medical school now [as an M.D./Ph.D. student], and there are institutionalized mechanisms designed with the philosophy that if we bring you to the school, it looks bad if we can't bring you to completion. Some of these or similar mechanisms, like 'big sib, little sib' mentoring situations can be implemented early. If you start to intervene after the first warning signs, these are still very much preventable problems. I think we would see a much improved attrition rate if we didn't wait until the problem is full blown -- a classic ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
In situations lacking a formal infrastructure for dealing with discrimination, students devise their own. "Coming from [a historically black college/university] where the learning environment was more constructive, I was overlooked here several times because I was the only black in the class. I came up with strategies to cope. My best friend and I would intentionally split up ... so that we weren't in the same group.... We were able to survive because he would bring the information back to me and vice versa."
The student must focus on completing doctoral requirements. This form of accountability is a "performance contract" between student and major professor (if not one's dissertation committee). It reveals to the student the delicate balance of his/her endeavor: "When I started graduate school, the faculty taught us to work together, yet how to be competitive.... If I asked my advisor how to do something, he would guide me, but say 'You are different people, and I'm going to approach you at your level, so I may not ask you to do something that I ask your cohort to do because you are at a different place. But the results should be the same, because you are all here to get the Ph.D."
All kinds of institutions can be "minority serving." If we examine the baccalaureate origins of African American Ph.D.'s and of Latino Ph.D.'s, historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving Institutions, respectively, are the largest producers. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley, among others, have distinguished records as producers of minority bachelor's graduates who go on to earn a doctorate in science or engineering. In addition, relative newcomers such as University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Louisiana State University are undergraduate models of student preparation for science-based Ph.D.'s. Some institutions, and often departments within institutions, clearly "get it." But decentralized authority at the graduate level ensures unevenness and lack of sharing of best practices.
New Ph.D.'s underestimate the skills they possess. The orientation of most graduate programs in the sciences is to a single sector or career pathway that represents immediate job opportunity, but little demand for versatility. Because the doctoral training process reproduces the past, (i.e., the traditions that fit an earlier time), it also reflects the biases and career of one's major professors. Consequently, the Ph.D. experience minimizes belief and understanding about skills beyond science fundamentals. The Capacity Center works with institutions to develop the skills required by 21st century organizations, academic and nonacademic alike: teamwork, problem-solving, adaptation, communication, cultural competence.
This is about leadership -- the overarching need to grow leaders. For all the talk about the impact of mentors and role models, there will always be successful professional women and persons of color who will say, "It was tough for me and it's going to be tough for those who come behind me." These folks, irrespective of vintage or field, will not reach out. That's just the way they are -- making assumptions, suppressing memories of the help they received, and dealing with students their way. As one scholar noted, "Just think about how far the world has come in 10 years. Most of these cats [faculty] we're working for got their Ph.D. in the 1980s, 70s. The technology is moving way too fast and with the stuff that we know, we'll take their jobs. Some of them do everything they can to keep you from completing these programs, making it that much more difficult. The last thing they want to do is lose a job to you."
Change comes as new professionals ascend to positions that control resources and decisions. It may mean climbing the academic ladder or pursuing a nonacademic path. Both routes demonstrate that it's who you know plus what you know that matters -- not one or the other exclusively. Who's in your network? Who talks to whom? The AAAS Capacity Center makes explicit these aspects of professional socialization and networking that can make a difference in a career.
The nation has invested in science and engineering since Sputnik -- a half century -- to advance its education, economic, workforce, and national security interests. When students are not recruited and nurtured to degree completion, we waste talent and material resources -- in defiance of student demographics and to the detriment of the nation's place in the world.
Daryl E. Chubin
Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
This past week the roof collapsed on my professional life. You’re tottering along, a bit woozy but still standing, minding your own business, dreaming of the summer which is right around the corner, there’s a lightening of the mood and the weather begins, gradually, ever so subtly, to turn, you decide to open your storm windows, you go for a walk in a “Fall” jacket, and then, in the words of the annoying cleaning commercial: KABOOM!
In short order, I woke up from my honey-colored dream of lazy summertime barbeques and short pants and sultry Big Eastern City days and nights with Mr. Gordo to discover several outstanding bill collectors on the phone: a conference paper due forthwith (like yesterday!), students clamoring for extra credit work because they bombed your midterm, the usual meetings and minute-taking, long-postponed paperwork rearing up, not to mention tax time and the suddenly desperate need to see your CPA before he himself is overwhelmed. But by far the most demanding task at hand has been the need to write my year-end report on activities for my dean, the time for which I severely underestimated because this is my first year at this particular college. So underestimated, in fact, I didn’t even know it was due, until I received (again, out of the blue), a polite note from my chair. I fear I am becoming the very model of the bumbling professor who forgets his car keys in the refrigerator.
In essence, my “book report” is a catalogue of my activities in the three well-known subject areas: research, teaching, and service. And there is a certain empirical quality to the task that is reassuring: Yes, Virginia, you are exhausted for a reason! Committees and meetings, abstracts and conferences, works-in-progress and works forthcoming, student evaluations and syllabi, e-mails and phone calls, lectures and events. I have been, um, busy this year, contrary to the stereotype of the academic as social parasite, so eloquently paraphrased by my girlfriend La Connaire tonight who said, “I thought the whole point of academia was not working hard,” followed by the sound of a stream of smoke blown into the telephone mouthpiece. As most academics would tell you, the stereotype bears little relationship to the reality of most tenure-line professors. However, this cataloguing of the minutiae of quotidian academic life has gotten me to think of the differentials in experience for faculty across the broad spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality.
As a professional, I obviously covered the unholy trinity with some aplomb, if not utter success in all three. Given what has been thrown at me this year in terms of workload, I feel I did very well, as undoubtedly will my dean, who has been nothing if not incredibly supportive. However, the differential I am thinking about here is the double duty that faculty of color, some women faculty, and some lesbian or gay faculty, perform in their role as symbolic capital for the profession. For we are not only meant to perform as scholars and teachers and colleagues, we also have to be role models and mentors and supportive persons, lifting as we climb, each one teaching one, until we reproduce ourselves like some sort of crazy neo-Fabergé Organics Shampoo commercial.
This notion of symbolic capital is one that is both forced upon us by institutions looking for the diversity fix, and nurtured within ourselves, by varying degrees of gratitude, guilt, regret, and sadness at the price of our success. We are the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, those who struggled and worked, only to find ourselves marooned as tokens whose value is unclear, both to ourselves and the profession we serve. I am reminded of Toi Derricote’s story in The Black Notebooks, of meeting the “other” black woman professor at the college were she taught, only to discover that this woman was as light-skinned (i.e. completely passable as white) as Derricote herself, and how this causes a crisis in her thinking about why they were hired, and what is the symbolic value of having two black faculty members who look white?
Ironically, tonight in my race class, upon discussing with my students Fanon’s The Fact of Blackness, my eyes fell on this quote:
It was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew, for instance, that if the physician made a mistake it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect, after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look out, no nonsense, under any conditions! The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I tell you, I was walled in: No exception was made for my refined manners, or my knowledge of literature, or my understanding of the quantum theory.
To which all I have to say is: Ain’t it the truth? Faculty of color can never be sure how close we are to disgrace, to the knife-edge of outliving our usefulness, our symbolic capital. Seemingly, we can never be appreciated as intellectuals alone. We must always have some other value, some point to our presence, aside from simple qualification. We must be, in the truism, 200 percent good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of color, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labor, then perhaps the contours will come more sharply in focus.
While I appreciate my white colleagues for the support they provide, they are not expected to “liaison” with Latina/o students and student organizations. They are not expected to be role models of appropriate behavior. They are not expected to be present at every little thing that might concern race, whether interesting or not. They are not expected to be experts at the drop of a hat, nor responsible to others of their same race who might have particular critiques of authenticity for which they have to answer. No, my beloved white colleagues get to be themselves, be individuals, and go home and sleep soundly. So for me, this is not only about the incredibly problematic racial dimensions of role modeling or each one teaching one. This shit is also about work, cause believe me, this is work.
As any faculty of color, nay person of color, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by 60s social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of color in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of color: the very fact of our theoretical stupidity. Living in a post-race society means that we are finally, blissfully allowed to be ourselves, individuals in a society that prizes individualism. Needless to say, we aren’t there yet.
And then, as I am thinking about this and taking a break from writing this post and perusing the Internet while wolfing down a quesadilla, I come across this little ditty, which linked from here, both of which sadly and ironically prove my point. The most inflammatory quote from Michael A. Livingston’s post on race and law school faculty is a bombshell:
Because it is so costly to dip below the required minimum of diversity faculty, in practice almost anything has to and is done to ensure that they are happy. At my school, I have watched sadly as one after another of the unwritten faculty rules -- the level of publication expected, the expectation that one's work would be presented to the faculty before tenure, even the assumptions regarding physical presence at the law school -- were compromised or abandoned to accommodate female or minority candidates who the law school simply could not "afford to lose" under the new dynamic. Once these principles are given away, of course, the same concessions are demanded by other professors, so that the entire system of expectations that cements a faculty begins to come crashing quickly down.
Good grief! So not only are we not smart enough to be hired on “merit” (the odious false consciousness of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of color have in the profession, we seem to wield an incredible amount of power in Livingston's analysis. While it is true I have known some "playas" (as in players, not beaches) who have worked out some pretty impressive deals on next to nothing, by far the vast majority of the professoriate of color (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out.
In fact, faculty of color are incredibly vulnerable not only through the typical utilitarian nature in which they are hired (as tokens) but also to the risible racism and real disgust revealed in Livingston’s quote. If anything, Livingston’s critique reveals more about the unscrupulous ways in which institutions will go out of their way to hire "dummies of color" to avoid hiring contrary to racist type (e.g. with intelligence) than the general qualifications of a vastly diverse class of people, who after all have earned doctorates and J.D.s, right? If we trace Livingston’s critique to where it originates, this isn’t just a critique of hiring and retention practices, it is questioning the very ability of people of color to hold advanced intellectual and professional degrees. And people wonder why race is still important?
The evidence is writ before you in Livingston’s post. Race still matters, and not only for red state academics or conservatives, for liberals and leftists hold similar, if more holistic, views. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. One wrong move, and you’re toast, baby!
Self-assessment is hard, this I know after struggling with it this past week. But it might be time for the profession to take a real self-assessment of its own. For instance, when, if ever, will faculty of color be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance? When will the university and its faculty and administrators stop considering us as detriments to its intellectual mission? Why, if universities are so committed to "diversity," can't they sustain and support faculty of color in double or triple digits? When can we stop the fiction of pretending just because student X is “brown” and I’m “brown,” we automatically understand each other, like dolphins? When, in other words, will our years and years of labor be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honorable work? When, in other words, shall we breathe the fresh, clean air of individualism, which includes the noble as well as banal? When can we be normal, neither Sydney Poitier nor Step ‘n’ Fetchit? Not, apparently, any time soon.
Oso Raro, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches cultural studies, literature and film at a North American university. A version of this essay first appeared on Oso's blog, Slaves of Academe, which concerns itself with academe and racial and cultural politics.
Universities all over the country have been struggling in recent years to develop diversity plans and hiring doctrines to improve the position of minorities on campuses. I am most familiar with the plan recently issued in draft form by the University of Oregon, which has been working on the latest version of its diversity plan for a couple of years now. A 40-page comment draft has been issued. The plan, which discusses a wide variety of issues related to how non-white people fit into the largely paleface community of the university I know best, is surely similar to plans underway or issued at institutions all over the United States.
These plans don’t make much difference. The problem is less a lack of good will than a lack of connection to facts on the ground. Universities cannot remake the fundamental culture in which they exist, and that is a culture in which the availability of minority faculty and, to some extent, minority students, is decided years before a particular college or university can affect the situation by internal policies.
Diversity has become a word that must be spoken; those who don’t speak it in the right slightly breathless tone while looking both sorrowful and committed are unemployable. Because everyone speaks the word and almost no one does (or can) produce results, we are at risk, if I may use another phrase that used up its oxygen long ago, of seeing diversity mean as little as do Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity.
What does affirmative action mean today in faculty recruitment? A leaden process controlled not by departments but by human resources bureaucrats, with little discernible result. Universities need to stop treating diversity as an internal, mechanical process and start looking at the larger communities they serve for ways to improve academic opportunities for young people.
How many minority people earn Ph.D.s? Not many, and they are heavily concentrated in certain fields. In 2004, 36 percent of doctorates issued to African Americans were in education. Nationally, 15 percent of U.S. doctorates were in education. Another 20 percent of doctorates issued to African Americans were in fields in which the University of Oregon has no programs, such as agriculture, theology and engineering. Thus 56 percent of all African Americans who earn doctorates are not in Oregon's applicant pool no matter what the university does, except for the rare vacancy in education. The same is true at other institutions without these fields -- that is, most institutions.
What about fields that most universities do have? How many blacks earned Ph.D.s in mathematics in the U.S. in 2004? Ten, in the entire country. In physics? Thirteen. Although some fields have a higher number of doctoral graduates, with such minuscule numbers coming out of the academic pipeline, no mid-level institution can compete with wealthier, more prestigious institutions whose diversity goals are similar. That doesn’t even take into account those graduates who might enter private industry from fields such as physics, chemistry or engineering.
In order to maintain their reputation, good universities hire Ph.D.s who earned their doctorates at the best programs in the U.S. (and the world, when possible). In most fields, this means a chunk of the Ivy League plus other top-rank universities such as Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, Wisconsin or Minnesota; maybe 20 to 30 schools all told. For the most part, these freshly-printed Ph.D.s don’t want to work at mid-level schools, they want to work at one of the top 30 schools where they came from, but they need a job.
What happens when a mid-rank institution such as Oregon, Kansas State or Rice succeeds against the odds in hiring a new-minted Ph.D. of color? In many cases those earnest young assistant professors are in a parking orbit until they can try for what they really want: to go back to a top-tier institution where they get more pay, nicer offices, better toys, better students and more opportunity to honk their own horns. This is not wicked, it is simply human nature. When there are only a dozen new ones in some fields available each year to start with, let us cease pretending that all colleges should have one and that a college that doesn’t is doing something wrong.
Faculty at the great majority of schools are not really interested in color-coding their potential co-workers on a sepia-index wall chart anyway; they are interested in whether those co-workers are any good. Their departments don’t care that Carl Phillips, Yusef Komunyakaa or Reginald Shepherd are black; their co-workers care that they are three of the best poets writing in the U.S. today. I hope that nobody at Old Dominion thinks of Adolphus Hailstork as “the black composer in our music department;” they undoubtedly think of him as the composer who wrote “Sonata da Chiesa,” one of the best pieces by any composer in a hundred years.
Anyone who tried to recruit these people away on behalf of another school would, I trust, be discreetly shunted off in another direction and told to stop poaching. This is not because they are of color, it is because they are of quality. It is not faculty of color that are such an important example to students of all shades, it is good faculty of color. And there are not enough of them being made. We must stop whacking our colleges for failing to hire people who do not exist.
Anyone interested in actual improvement of the presence of good nonwhite faculty in our universities needs to take certain steps at their schools. Do not allow the hiring of more bureaucrats to gasp in predictable horror at the way things are. No more Assistant Vice-hand-holders in the bower of ethnic unhappiness. Forget all the false storefronts and unseemly fawnings that are the usual pewter trade beads of minority recruiting.
Start the laborious process of dragging recruitment out of the clinging vines of the H.R. people and back into the hands of departments. Accept the possibility that an imperfect process can lead to a perfect result. College leaders need the ability to go outside the standard hiring process to support and attract the best faculty, including minority faculty. They should also have the flexibility to flag potential scholars early in life and use university resources to assist them in their long-term goal of joining the professoriate.
Plan ahead a generation. Work ahead a generation. Figure out who of color in your local schools has the potential to be a good professor. Get rid of your highly paid and symbolic chief diversity officers. We all know that they accomplish little. This is not their fault; their jobs are inherently impossible. Respect can’t be legislated, it must be earned. Use that money to hire a brace of heat-seeking twenty-somethings to systematically find the most academically promising minority 10-year-olds in likely and unlikely places, and track and support them for a decade or more, as your university’s scholars-in-waiting. Consider advance long-term contracts with the best doctoral students. Be bold.
Let the word diversity lie fallow until something meaningful can grow from its good soil. Let the words affirmative action not be spoken until they mean action that is affirmative again.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. A shorter version of this essay appeared earlier in the Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard.
In a few short weeks, voters in Michigan will vote on the ballot measure known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI). In so doing, they will get to decide whether to eliminate affirmative action in public higher education admissions and government contracting in their state. In itself, the vote may not be cause for alarm.
What is alarming is that unless they have made the effort to take time out from their busy lives to learn about the myriad pros and cons of affirmative action and the latest research findings regarding the meaning of equality of opportunity and the benefits of a culturally diverse student body and workforce, most Michigan voters will be voting for or against affirmative action based either on their initial intuitions or on information provided by the media. Maybe even that does not seem alarming. But it should.
The decision over MCRI will have significant ramifications not only for people in Michigan, but also for people across the United States. For if it passes, there are likely to be other anti-affirmative action ballot measures placed on the ballots of states that allow such referendums. We could argue about whether it is wise for voters at large to have such authority, but that is not the point here. We are concerned by an issue that Michigan’s debate over MCRI brings up: If members of the voting public have the power to enact public policy, how are they getting the information on which they base their opinions about the issues and their subsequent voting decisions? And further, what sort of information are they getting? Our research on these issues shows that voters are not getting much substantive information on MCRI from news articles.
In the course of investigating the persistent disagreement about affirmative action after the University of Michigan Supreme Court cases, we noticed what appeared to be a disturbing trend within the print news media’s coverage of affirmative action and MCRI. It seemed to us that instead of writing about the deeper moral issues surrounding race-conscious policies like affirmative action, print news pieces focused on covering more sensational aspects related to the aftermath of the Michigan Supreme Court cases and the campaign for MCRI.
By moral issues, we mean, for example, issues having to do with the history of affirmative action in the United States, the multifaceted pros and cons of affirmative action, the impact of previous, similar initiatives in other states, and evidence from research on concepts such as diversity and merit and equality of educational opportunity.
We realize that it is often the case that in elections, the news media tend to pay more attention to the “horse race” between candidates than to the actual issues at stake. Nevertheless, there seems to be something qualitatively different about an election focused on a public policy issue. What else is there to cover if not the issues up for debate?
Moreover, MCRI does not venture into unfamiliar territory. The initiative arises from a distinct -- and rather disgraceful -- legacy. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative nearly identical to MCRI. In the years since its passage, California has experienced sharp declines in the number of black and Latino students applying and admitted to state universities, a decrease in the number of contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses and minority contractors, and a significant drop in the number of enrolled minority students at prestigious state law schools. Given all we know about the great academic and social benefits of maintaining a diverse classroom and workplace -- benefits affirmed by the Supreme Court in its 2003 decision in Grutter, the passage of Proposition 209 has been a defeat for all Californians. Now that we have evidence of the effects of passing these so-called Civil Rights Initiatives to abolish affirmative action, shouldn’t such information be a clear part of the public debate?
In order to find out what sorts of information potential voters have been receiving about MCRI, we decided to conduct a systematic study of what information the print news media have provided to the public regarding MCRI and the affirmative action debate in the years since the Michigan ballot initiative campaign first was announced in 2003. We read some 280 articles -- all that we could find -- from print news media and Internet sources between June 2003 and October 2006 that mentioned MCRI. Our sources included national newspapers such as The New York Times; both partisan and nonpartisan magazines such as Time, National Review and The Nation; major local newspapers such as The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press; other local papers such as Lansing State Journal and The Grand Rapids Press; campus papers such as the University of Michigan's The Michigan Daily and Michigan State University's The State News; and Internet and education news sources (including Inside Higher Ed).
We looked for evidence that the public was receiving meaningful, substantive information. Substance comes in many forms -- we consider an article substantive if it cites any scholarly research on the costs and benefits of affirmative action or implications of affirmative action policies; provides some historical, political or philosophical context of MCRI; or explains beyond superficialities the rationales for and against affirmative action.
Using these (relatively lax) standards, we found that fewer than 13 percent of all print and online news media articles provided any substantive information. For the most part, articles about MCRI did not include any mention of the available scholarly research on the impact of diversity and the implications of anti-affirmative action measures. Nor did they provide the reader with any historical, political or philosophical context -- pro or con -- for evaluating the policy. They tended to report the day-to-day incidents in the progression of MCRI.
Some of these stories may have been exciting -- such as the extensive coverage of reports that an MCRI opponent pulled a knife on MCRI’s director, Jennifer Gratz -- but they hardly provide the reader with any meaningful information on which to base an important vote. Most articles centered on less substantive issues like the campaign to get the initiative on the ballot, whether the petitions were valid, or whether local politicians and business leaders supported the initiative. Perhaps the news media believe that they are merely being neutral on the issue.
However, as the Supreme Court decision in Grutter showed through its extensive citations of social science research, the more meaningful information that is available, the more likely people are to understand the complex and important educational benefits of diversity that are fostered by affirmative action. When the press provides information that is not substantive, this has a more negative impact on affirmative action policies.
As state ballot initiative processes become increasingly prominent in elections and public policy decisions, do voters have public opportunities to become informed about the relevant policy issues? Are higher education researchers able to bring their research findings to bear on public debates? And ultimately is deliberative democracy being served?
When individuals vote on ballot initiatives that enact public policy, they are participating in the most direct form of democracy. As such, they should have the opportunity to engage in substantial and meaningful reflection and deliberation over the issues on which they vote. This, in its truest sense, is what we call democratic deliberation. A deliberative democracy, we believe, offers the best chance at resolving persistent moral disagreements, such as those that accompany affirmative action policy. Participation in democratic deliberation requires that individuals be well informed on the policy issues that affect them. For many voters, much information they get on policy issues comes from the print news media. Of course, many people don’t read newspapers; however, readership is correlated with increased voting. Therefore, the quality of democratic deliberation depends in part on the quality of information appearing in newspapers, both the paper and online versions.
We are not attempting to vilify the news media here, for they are only partially responsible for providing the people with meaningful information on important policy debates. Higher education researchers and other stakeholders have a significant responsibility to actively bring their research and viewpoints to bear on relevant education policy issues as well. Unfortunately this is not happening in any significant way; our research shows that fewer than 7 percent of the articles in our database even referred to scholarly research at all.
So, in the case of ballot initiatives against affirmative action, what can researchers and stakeholders do to get their ideas known and understood, if they can't count on the press? This question is certainly not new, but it is becoming more significant now, as controversial issues of education policy are increasingly being decided by voters via the ballot measure process. Beyond education policy, voters this year are charged with deciding many important public policy issues, like, for instance the stem cell research measure on Missouri ballots.
Rather than write the media off, it is up to us to develop relationships with members of the press and hold them responsible for the information they provide to the public. Researchers in particular can make a concerted effort to follow education policy debates related to their research, monitor the media coverage of such issues, and when they notice a lack of substantive information, be proactive in doing what they can to communicate their research in accessible and meaningful ways, free of jargon and overly complicated theoretical explanations.
Other stakeholders, outside of education research, can participate in the public debate as well, by talking about personal experiences that would shed light. For example, faculty and administrative staff upset about the implication that all minority students are not deserving could share their experiences with talented minority students in classes and on campus or talk about the differential impact of teaching classes where all students share the same socioeconomic or racial background compared to classes with a more diverse make-up.
Actions would include contributing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces whenever relevant. In addition, researchers and other stakeholders can maintain close contact with local or university media relations offices to make sure that they learn the most effective means of communicating their ideas to the media and the larger public. The key here is that in order to foster the public deliberation over controversial political issues required by a deliberative democratic society, the news media, education researchers, and other stakeholders need to be linked in providing important information to the public regarding education policy issues up for popular vote. Researchers often have the empirical evidence that can help bring substance to policy debates and the news media have the means to publicize substantive policy information. They ought to be working together to see that relevant ideas -- ideas that are based in research and at least somewhat transcend partisan political bickering -- get to the voting public.
Michele S. Moses and Lauren P. Saenz
Michele S. Moses is associate professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Embracing Race: Why We Need Race-Conscious Education Polic (Teachers College Press). Lauren P. Saenz is a doctoral student in educational foundations, policy, and practice at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Tuesday’s election results offered much for liberals like me to celebrate, but balloting in Michigan was a reminder that proponents of racial and economic justice in higher education need a new strategy.
On election day, an anti-affirmative action initiative passed easily in Michigan, just as similar ballot initiatives prevailed in California in 1996 and the state of Washington in 1998. Taken together with Florida -- where Gov. Jeb Bush preempted a threatened ballot initiative with a 1999 executive order banning racial preferences -- the Michigan result means that four states, with nearly one quarter of the U.S. population, have now banned preferential affirmative action for minorities and women in public universities and state government. Ward Connerly, the conservative black businessman who has backed each of these efforts, is now considering taking his cause to additional states, including Colorado, Illinois, Oregon and Missouri.
Supporters of affirmative action had a lot going for them in Michigan. Virtually the entire state establishment opposed the ban on preferences, including businesses, labor unions, civil rights groups, religious organizations, the higher education community, and both Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates. These groups helped supporters of affirmative action outspend opponents by a three to one ratio.
But virtually unified support for affirmative action among major organized groups did not translate into popular support. The elite strategy worked well in the U.S. Supreme Court three years earlier when the University of Michigan’s defense of the constitutionality of affirmative action prevailed. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing vote in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action in the university’s law school, cited amicus briefs from the military and business communities as especially persuasive. And O’Connor chose to defer to higher education in its contention that no race-neutral alternatives were sufficient to produce racial diversity. But Michigan voters were not similarly persuaded and, with Tuesday’s balloting, effectively repudiated O’Connor’s position on affirmative action at the University of Michigan.
Nor did a shift in wording of the ballot initiative help supporters of affirmative action. The initiatives in California and Washington, drawing heavily on the wording of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banned discrimination or preferences without using the phrase "affirmative action." Some were understandably concerned that voters were confused in those earlier initiatives because they did not realize they were banning affirmative preferences on behalf of disadvantaged minority groups. But adding the phrase "affirmative action" didn’t appear to help much. On Tuesday, Michigan passed the initiative by 58 to 42 percent -- a 16 point margin that in a presidential election would be considered a landslide.
Some portion of initiative supporters may well have been voting to keep minorities "in their place." But as a whole, Michigan voters could hardly be written off as right-wing, racist and sexist yahoos. The same electorate that easily passed the ban on preferential affirmative action re-elected Gov. Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats and women, by comfortable margins. A study released in the days before the election by the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity -- finding that applicants to the University of Michigan in 2005 with an SAT score of 1240 and a GPA of 3.2 had a 10 percent chance of admissions if they were white or Asian but a 90 percent chance if they were black -- undoubtedly moved some voters.
Given the results in Michigan, it is hard to see how affirmative can prevail in future initiative battles. Despite broad, bipartisan support for affirmative action among elites, a substantial financial advantage, favorable ballot language, and a political climate congenial to Democrats, affirmative action still took a beating at the polls. Faced with these realities of public opinion, what should those concerned about racial and economic justice in higher education do?
To begin with, higher education must rediscover its commitment to the American Dream. The public supports higher education because it sees colleges and universities as a key to social mobility. The public wants to reward students who work hard, especially those who overcome obstacles to succeed. The language -- and practice -- of college and university admissions ignores this fundamental truth. Instead of speaking about deeply held values -- equal opportunity, the chance to improve one’s position through hard work -- the higher education establishment has rallied around a different concept: "Diversity." On Wednesday, the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, began a speech to the university community saying, "Diversity matters at Michigan, today more than any day in our history." She concluded, "Let’s stand together to say: We are Michigan and we are diversity." In between, she invoked diversity 19 other times.
Diversity is surely an important and positive value in education and in other areas of life. But diversity is a result, which tells you nothing per se about whether the process of admissions was fair. The diversity argument for affirmative action was favored by the moderately conservative Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, in the 1978 Bakke case that initially established the precedent that it was legitimate for colleges to use race as a factor in admissions. The great liberal giants on the court, like Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, were far more concerned about racial justice. Relying on a university’s right to assemble a diverse class, rather than society’s need for justice and fairness, saps the civil rights movement of its greatest strength: its moral authority.
Restoring the central place of the American Dream offers up some new possibilities. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek conducted some interesting polling that found that Americans opposed racial preferences by about 2 to 1, but they supported preferences based on income by about the same margin. Even conservatives -- from George Allen to Newt Gingrich to Ward Connerly -- say they support affirmative action based on class. Progressives may well want to call their bluff. Arguing that admissions officers should provide affirmative action to low-income and working class kids of all races who work hard and do fairly well comports well with the public’s understanding of the American Dream.
Yet most American colleges and universities do not practice class-based affirmative action, their rhetoric notwithstanding. In a study published by the Century Foundation in 2004, the researchers Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose found that affirmative action triples the representation of black and Latino students at the nation’s most selective 146 colleges and universities, but there is essentially no boost given to low income and working class students. Princeton University’s former president, William Bowen, came to the same conclusion in his study of a smaller group of elite universities.
As a result, low-income students are effectively shut out of selective campuses. Carnevale and Rose found that at the selective 146 colleges and universities they studied, 74 percent of students come from the richest economic quartile and just 3 percent from the poorest. It’s hard to reconcile the 25:1 ratio of rich to poor as consistent with the American Dream. And economically disadvantaged students aren’t absent because they are incapable of succeeding. Carnevale and Rose found that you could boost the representation of the bottom socioeconomic half from 10 percent to 38 percent, through admissions preferences based on socioeconomic status and that these students would graduate at rates equivalent to those currently attending selective colleges.
Importantly, many of those smart, hard working kids who overcome obstacles and deserve to be admitted are students of color. Carnevale and Rose found that class-based affirmative action would boost the combined representation of black and Latino students from the 4 percent who would be admitted based strictly on grades and test scores to 10 percent. This is somewhat below the current 12 percent representation that is now achieved with race-sensitive admissions at the 146 selective colleges.
But if additional factors of economic disadvantage not considered by Carnevale and Rose were added into the admissions calculus -- such as having a small or negative net worth, or growing up in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty -- the racial dividend from socioeconomic affirmative action would be even greater. At UCLA Law School, which used a class-based affirmative action program that considered wealth among other factors, African Americans were 16 times as likely to be admitted under the socioeconomic program as through the normal race and class-blind admissions process.
Part of the resistance to class-based affirmative action is that its colorblind approach is seen as suggesting that racism is no longer a problem, a thing of the past. But in fact, class-based programs incorporate not only the legacy of past discrimination but also the reality of current day discrimination. Take the wealth measure, for example. Black median net worth is just 12 percent of white net worth, a gap far greater than the income divide between races. To some significant degree, the wealth gap reflects both the legacy of past discrimination and continuing discrimination in the housing market. Houses in African American neighborhoods appreciate slower than in white neighborhoods because of housing discrimination.
The American public is not opposed to taking affirmative steps to help students who have faced disadvantages. Efforts to promote the American Dream -- by giving a leg up to disadvantaged students of all races -- will win far broader public support than race-specific efforts that are justified on the basis of diversity per se. How many defeats like the one in Michigan are required before progressives wake up to this reality?
Richard D. Kahlenberg
Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action (1996) and editor of America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education (2004).