Affirmative action/racial preferences

Self-Assessment: Academe and Me

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
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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.

Affirmative Inaction

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
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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.

The Information Gap on Affirmative Action

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
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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.

Time for a New Strategy

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?

Next Steps

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
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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).

After the Vote, Moving On

The passage of the anti-affirmative action ballot Proposition 2 hit hard in Michigan for those who care about access to college or campus diversity. A Detroit teacher related to me what an African-American high school student told him about the results of the ballot measure’s passage. The academically talented student picked up a basketball and said that he had better start to practice, as sports were the only opportunity left for kids like him. The student was making a joke, but the point of the story remains – for the next generation of students, Proposition 2 will shape their hopes about college, their sense of who they can be. Though the measure may not keep students like the one above from being admitted to a top school, it could well keep him from applying, or even aspiring to attend a top school.

In the wake of attacks on affirmative action, students may believe that they cannot attend college, when most colleges and universities offer tremendous access to a wide range of students. Colleges and universities will need to make sure that students have the correct information about college standards and admission requirements. Students need to understand that standardized tests are only part of the system, and that students with a wide range of test scores can be successful in postsecondary education.

Colleges and universities need to reach out to students to bring a message of hope -- a college education is not out of reach, and that our colleges and universities remain committed to educating a diverse student population. Colleges and universities, if they work together, could use the assault on affirmative action as an opportunity to work together to better engage with the K-12 community. This work is difficult, long-term, labor intensive, frustrating and counter-cultural. Universities have traditionally had a “build it and they will come philosophy,” in which they build buildings, print application forms and expect a class of students to show up.

Higher education’s focus must change from admissions policies to outreach, with greater attention to college preparation. Programs such as Upward Bound and Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) provide models for what can be done, but these need to be strengthened, energized, and made central to the mission of colleges and universities. Nothing in Proposition 2 prevents universities from targeting schools districts across the state that are not now sending their students to college, and working with those schools to improve their curriculums and their college-going rates. The schools that need this help range from urban districts like Detroit, Flint and Lansing, to many small struggling rural districts, to districts with large populations of Native Americans, Arab-Americans or Latinos, groups of students who have been ignored in the debate over Proposition 2.

In California, Proposition 209 led to a drastic decline in minority enrollments in the flagship University of California institutions, but it has energized the California State University System, which has become the leader in school outreach, in college preparation and awareness, and in minority student enrollments. The passage of Proposition 209 has made both the University of California and Cal State system far more interested and involved in high school curriculum, and both systems have become far more explicit with students and high schools about the knowledge and skills that are prerequisites to college success.

Regional universities, long the second tier of the hierarchy, may now become the most important part of the system for diversity. The reality is that affirmative action in admissions is a far less important issue once you leave state flagships like the University of Michigan. Minority students who do not get in there because of this change would be welcomed, admitted, and successful at institutions all over the state. This shift would bring these regional universities the “critical mass” of diversity that the University of Michigan argued was so important for campus climate, and revitalize regional universities' mission of providing access to underrepresented students.

If universities want a more diverse student body, business as usual will not work anymore. Universities and colleges need to take a role in building, encouraging, locating and recruiting their future students, starting now. The passage of Proposition 2 presents a moral challenge to colleges and universities to leave the ivory tower and to work for a better future for the students that need it most.

If colleges and universities are going to do this kind of work, engagement with the K-12 system needs to go to the top of the university’s agenda. Most of the programs at colleges and universities that work with schools and schoolchildren can be found in some of the most marginal spaces imaginable, including leaky basements, off-campus sites, and in other cities entirely. They are found in virtually every unit except Academic Affairs, and are rarely run by faculty members. These valuable programs, long neglected by their institutions, need recognition, energy, clout and involvement from the top.

For faculty, substantial involvement in elementary and high schools has never had the rewards of research, even for faculty in education schools. If universities and colleges were to revitalize this role, it would take a cultural shift, in which faculty would be expected to engage with their colleagues in the K-12 system, as well as students on a regular basis.

The passage of Proposition 2 in Michigan provided higher education across the nation with a very bad night. It showed that no matter what level of corporate and higher education support exists for affirmative action programs, voters can overwhelmingly reject this based on a few attack ads.

It is now the morning after that bad night. Time to get to work.

Russell Olwell
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Russell Olwell is associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University.

Moving Beyond Affirmative Action

Voters in Michigan in November approved a proposal to ban affirmative action in the admissions process at state universities. Similar bans have previously won approval in California and Washington State. Various student groups opposed to the ban have filed suit; critics of affirmative action are looking to mount challenges in other states. Affirmative action has always been a politically sensitive issue but it is not the only issue in achieving equality in higher education.  As the legal challenges to the Michigan ban work their way through the courts and spread to other states, now is a good time to address another sensitive, and maybe even more important issue: equality in college performance.

Most colleges provide the public with very little information about racial and ethnic differences in students’ grades and graduation rates. Nor do they provide much information about the effectiveness of their diversity programs. So what should prospective minority students and their parents expect after being accepted? Unfortunately, the answer is that race and ethnicity are important predictors of college performance. Recent research confirms that white and Asian students not only enjoy pre-college advantages in family income and school quality, but on average, they also benefit throughout their college experience in ways that black and Latino students do not.

For example, in the 2001 Duke University entering class, freshman grades were on average lower among blacks and Latinos than they were for whites and Asian Americans. Black-white differences narrowed, but remained significant, even among students with similar family structures, social class backgrounds, middle and high school characteristics, and SAT scores.

Why do these racial and ethnic disparities continue? One explanation is stereotype threat; when race or ethnicity is emphasized in academic situations, minority academic performance declines. The core argument is that minority students underperform because they are trying so hard to avoid confirming pernicious stereotypes. However, when excellence is emphasized, the stereotype threat is deactivated and racial and ethnic performance differences fade or disappear. (An excellent "Frontline" interview with Claude Steele explores this issue.)

In addition, there is also evidence that racial and ethnic disparities in college success are due to differences in students’ social and information networks. From parents, peers, staff, and faculty, students get a range of information, such as which courses to take, and the best path to a desired career. They also learn behaviors, such as how to balance social and academic demands on their time. Students who have families with a long history of college attendance are more likely to have access to information about college, and to relevant role models. Due to historical racial disparities, differences in access to these social and information resources tend to correlate with race and ethnicity.

Although these findings may be surprising to many people, they are not news to many in higher education. We have long known that we cannot simply admit diverse cohorts and expect that there will be no group differences in college performance. For decades, colleges have conducted a range of programs designed to increase comfort, skills, and connections among minority students, and to make campuses more receptive to traditionally underrepresented groups.

At Colgate University, Breaking Bread requires members of disparate student groups to plan, prepare, and eat a meal together. By the end of the meal, the groups must have identified a collaborative campus event. Last year, the College Republicans and the Rainbow Alliance combined to bring Andrew Sullivan, a conservative gay-rights advocate, to campus. A strength of Breaking Bread is that it uses everyday activities -- preparing and eating a meal, as an opportunity to build bridges between groups that tend to have very little to do with one another.

Another noteworthy program is the Summer Institute for Diversity and Unity at Hamilton College, where faculty members spend three days off campus engaged in discussion groups about diversity. Participants use the experience to create new course syllabi, or to revise syllabi for existing courses. Over the past three summers, nearly 20 percent of the full-time faculty at Hamilton have participated in the program. This initiative promises a substantial impact on the campus climate because diversity discussions now appear throughout the curriculum, not just in a few courses.

However, these innovative and successful diversity programs are the exception rather than the rule. One reason that colleges don’t provide more information on their diversity programs may be that the programs are not properly evaluated. Far too many programs persist today because key administrators merely believe they work or are reluctant to ask hard questions about politically sensitive programs. This is troubling because the minority students of today are substantially more diverse than minority students in the 1980s. Without rigorous assessment, we cannot know if programs designed 20 years ago are effective for today’s students, or that the programs designed today will be effective for the students of the future.

It is imperative that colleges and universities scrutinize their diversity goals, programs, and outcomes. As with affirmative action, such examination is sure to produce a number of uncomfortable confrontations. Nevertheless, colleges and universities have a responsibility to take on this challenge. The parents who trust us with their children, and the students who trust us with their futures, deserve nothing less.

David R. Harris
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David Harris is vice provost for the social sciences at Cornell University. He, along with a team from Cornell and Colgate Universities and Hamilton, Hobart and William Smith, and Wells Colleges co-authored "Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in College Completion and Achievement," which was commissioned by the Teagle Foundation. A podcast of Teagle Foundation President W. Robert Connor, president of the foundation, interviewing Professor Harris about the report is available here.

Better Than Expected, Worse Than It Seems

There was a national sigh of relief on campuses in June when an altered U.S. Supreme Court left standing the historic 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision supporting affirmation action in admissions. There had been widespread fear among civil rights advocates that a more conservative Supreme Court would seriously undermine or even reverse the 5-4 Grutter decision with its author, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, no longer on the Court. The voluntary school integration decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education was, indeed, a serious reversal for desegregation in K-12 schools but while divided on the constitutionality of the school plans at issue in the cases, all nine justices agreed that the decision had no impact on the Grutter precedent. The rights of colleges to use race in admissions decisions for student body diversity had survived scrutiny by the most conservative Supreme Court in more than 70 years. Since the Supreme Court rarely takes such cases, the Grutter precedent might last for a while. While a bullet was dodged, optimism should be restrained. The dike protecting affirmative action has held but the river that brings diverse groups of students to colleges may be drying up as a result of the latest decision.

Colleges and universities, especially selective institutions, tend to draw their successful minority applicants from interracial schools and their admissions offices know well that many of the segregated minority high schools fail to prepare their students well enough to succeed in college. Research by the Civil Rights Project has shown that too many segregated urban high schools are "dropout factories" where the main product is dropouts and successful preparation for college is rare. Conservative economist Eric Hanushek found that the damage was worst for the relatively high achieving black students, the very students likely to comprise the college eligible pool. So making segregation worse cuts the number of well prepared students. In addition to academic preparation, students from segregated backgrounds are also often not ready to function socially on a largely white, affluent campus. It also means of course, that the most segregated group of students in American schools, whites, also have less preparation to deal successfully with diversity. So colleges may have won, but also lost.

Even before the new decision, segregation had been on the rise for almost two decades in American public schools, partially as a result of three decisions by the Supreme Court limiting desegregation in the 1990s ( Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, Freeman v. Pitts and Missouri v. Jenkins). Because this new decision struck down the most common methods of creating integrated schools in districts without court orders to desegregate, it will likely precipitate further increases in segregation. Since 1980 the tools most commonly used to create integrated schools combine parental choice of schools with magnet programs and racial diversity guidelines. Now the limitations that prevented transfers and magnet choices that increased segregation are gone and districts have to decide whether to do something more complex and multidimensional or abandon their integration efforts. It remains to be seen what will happen in various districts, of course, but the experience of other districts that have ended the consideration of race as a criteria in their student assignment policies suggests that race-neutral methods will lead to resegregation and growing inequality.

Research thus suggests that there are two significant implications for higher education to consider. First, rising segregation is likely to bring a rise in educational inequality and less prepared black and Latino students. Second, all incoming students are likely to have fewer interracial experiences prior to attending college meaning they will be less prepared for effective functioning in an interracial setting.

The Seattle and Louisville cases produced an outpouring of summaries of a half century of research by a number of groups of scholars. A subsequent review of the briefs by the non-partisan National Academy of Education confirms the central premise of Brown v. Board of Education that racially isolated minority schools offer students an inferior education, which is likely to harm their future life opportunities, such as graduation from high school and success in college. Racially isolated minority schools are often unequal to schools with higher percentages of white students in terms of tangible resources, such as qualified, experienced teachers and college preparatory curriculum, and intangible resources including low teacher turnover and more middle-class peers -- all of which are associated with positive higher educational outcomes.

Although colleges and universities differ in their criteria and process for admissions, common elements to their admissions decisions for students include 1) whether a student has or will graduate from high school, 2) standardized test scores, and 3) number of advanced and Advanced Placement courses. Research consistently finds that minority students graduate at significantly lower rates in racially isolated minority schools; in fact, minority isolation is a significant predictor of low graduation rates, even when holding constant the effects of other school performance indicators. Academic achievement scores of students are also lower in segregated minority schools, and this effect can cumulate over time for students who spend multiple years attending segregated schools. Finally, many predominantly minority schools do not offer as extensive advanced curricular opportunities and levels of academic competition as do majority white or white and Asian schools.

In addition to offering different opportunities for academic preparation, research has also found that integrated schools offer minority students important connections to competitive higher education and information about these options. There are strong ties between successful high schools and selective colleges. Minority students who graduate from integrated schools are more likely to have access to the social and professional networks normally available to middle class white students. For example, a study of Latino students who excelled at elite higher educational institutions found that most students had attended desegregated schools -- and gained academic confidence as well as critical knowledge about what they need to do to accomplish their aspirations (e.g., which courses to take from other, college-going students).

White students also lose if schools resegregate. Desegregation advocates assert that public school desegregation is powerful and essential because desegregated schools better prepare future citizens for a multiracial society. A critical component of this preparation is gaining the skills to work with people of diverse backgrounds. Segregated schools in segregated neighborhoods leave white as well and nonwhite students ill-prepared for what they will encounter in colleges and university classes or in their dorms.

Over 50 years ago, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport suggested that one of the essential conditions to reducing prejudice was that people needed to be in contact with one another, particularly under appropriate conditions. Research in racially integrated schools confirms that, by allowing for students of different races and ethnicities to be in contact with one another, students can develop improved cross-racial understanding and experience a reduction of racial prejudice and bias. Importantly, research suggests that other interventions such as studying about other groups are not as effective or as long-lasting as actually being in contact with students of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.

Research on graduates of racially integrated elementary and secondary schools has also found that students who graduated from these settings felt their integrated schooling experiences had better prepared them for college, including being more interested in attending integrated higher education institutions. The Civil Rights Project has surveyed high school juniors in a number of major school systems around the country and students in more diverse schools report feeling more comfortable living and working with others of different backgrounds than did their peers in segregated high schools.

As schools become more segregated, it will become more incumbent on colleges and universities to intensify their outreach and retention programs to improve access for all students, and to consider the extra burdens borne by the victims of segregation who have done nothing to deserve unequal opportunities. In particular, it will be critically important for colleges and universities to continue to use race in their outreach and retention programs. As colleges and universities that have sought to defend affirmative action policies have long understood and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recently wrote, “The enduring hope is that race should not matter, the reality is that too often it does.” Further, the need to help students understand how to productively live with others from diverse backgrounds will fall to higher education. As other institutions retreat from mirroring the racial diversity of our country, this may increasingly become a responsibility universities must shoulder.

Our incoming students already have more limited interracial experiences than the last generation of students, a trend that is likely to only get worse. We hope that many school districts will continue to value integration and seek more comprehensive policies under the new guidelines set forth in Justice Kennedy's controlling opinion, but it is very likely that segregation will worsen. We believe that university faculty and researchers who may have expertise to assist local school districts find legal and workable solutions to maintain diversity should offer support at this critical time. Universities can also take a public leadership and education role in continuing to argue for the importance of integrated educational settings. These actions could help limit some of the ill effects of the resegregation of local schools and help keep alive the legacy of Brown in a period of judicial retreat.

Gary Orfield, Erica Frankenberg and Liliana M. Garces
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Gary Orfield is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Erica Frankenberg and Liliana M. Garces are doctoral candidates at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education and research assistants at the Civil Rights Project. Orfield and Frankenberg are co-editors of a recently published book, Lessons in Integration: Realizing the Promise of the Racial Diversity in American Schools (University of Virginia Press). Garces, formerly a civil rights lawyer, served as counsel of record in the 553 Social Scientists brief submitted in support of the desegregation plans in the Seattle and Louisville cases.

Making a Case for Diversity in STEM Fields

When we were in college some 40 years ago, neither of us ever had an African-American or Latino professor. Unfortunately, even today many students at major American research universities have the same experience. Departments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- the STEM fields -- are typically the least diverse. Not only is that situation dismaying for those of us who lived through the civil rights movement, but it is also a big policy problem for our country.

At a time when STEM fields are increasingly important to our national security, health, and competitiveness we are neither supporting the research nor producing the diverse pool of scientists and engineers we need to fuel our future.

Programs to broaden the pool of STEM students are being scrutinized, and some have been eliminated. Beyond the obvious logic of numbers -- the more people in a field, the more likely it is that talented practitioners will appear -- research suggests that a diversity of perspectives enriches science and makes engineering more responsive to a global pool of clients. For example, Anthony Lising Antonio, et al. reported on a study of college-student discussion groups in an August 2004 issue of Psychological Science. According to the research, students working in a more diverse group setting were influenced by the different perspectives of minority participants and demonstrated enhanced complex thought processes as a result.

This is especially relevant in the STEM fields, where students are often required to work collaboratively and where thinking about a problem in new and different ways is central to developing solutions. In a friend-of-the-court brief pertaining to the Supreme Court cases on affirmative action at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, DuPont, IBM, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering submitted an argument documenting that "the importance of diversity is heightened in the fields of science and engineering."

As an engine of our economy, the STEM disciplines and the diversity of that workforce should give us great pause. Although only 5 percent of American workers were employed in STEM occupations as of 2006, their impact on the national and global economies is disproportionately large.

In both academe and the workforce, those fields look the least like America, with much smaller proportions of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. Although the overall student population has become more diverse, at the undergraduate level members of these minority groups are underrepresented among all STEM majors, with women underrepresented in many STEM fields. At the graduate level, there is an additional problem: a declining percentage of U.S. citizens. In many departments of physics, computer science, and engineering, it is difficult to find a graduate student who is a U.S. citizen. Across the STEM fields, the situation for faculty members is even more dire.

To achieve better representation in our colleges' STEM departments, we must deal with three issues.

First, we must clearly articulate the educational case for diversity, showing how students and society benefit from it. After that, we can determine how best to reach diversity: What policies should be altered, what practices endorsed, what structural changes made, and what resources committed? In biomedical research, for instance, we must not assume that whites and males are typical of all patients and develop treatments only for them; when scientists who are not white males are present, that assumption is more likely to be challenged.

Second, we need to think more holistically about diversity in STEM, including the need for everyone on our campuses -- undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty and staff members -- to be exposed to diverse ideas and worldviews. For example, in the high-tech industry, the composition of work teams now mirrors the consumer market for company products. No such practices pervade STEM units on campus, although research in many areas ultimately impacts consumers, and many students and faculty will someday operate in the private sector. To reach this goal, we may need to re-examine functions like admissions, financial aid, and faculty recruitment and advancement. What are the criteria by which decisions are made in each case? By reassigning accountability for those functions to a central office, promising and creative practices can be shared throughout the institution, with rewards for STEM units that are diversifying. A campus-wide repository of data, as well as college-specific tools, for monitoring and managing levels of diversity, is essential. Innovative examples can be found in many universities -- Harvard University on faculty searches, the University of California at Berkeley on undergraduate support, Georgia Tech on promotion and tenure -- which honor excellence while seeking to diversify participation in STEM education and careers.

Third, we must acknowledge that stereotypes still matter, and that they affect perceptions of quality and expectations for performance -- regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Studies show that humans use irrelevant external cues and group attributes in our judgments of people -- noting, for example, the race or ethnicity of a doctor before evaluating the extent of her medical knowledge. Assuming that diversity on a campus is just the result of affirmative action or special pleading reveals a different kind of bias. The Supreme Court has ruled that although colleges can consider race/ethnicity as one factor in developing policies such considerations may not carry undue weight relative to other aspects of individual qualifications. Opponents of affirmative-action programs can always claim that their emphasis on group characteristics -- race and sex -- override the required focus on individual characteristics. It seems illogical to operate special programs for the numerical majority -- women and members of minority groups. But special programs remain a valuable source of “intelligence” in guiding the transition to institution-wide approaches. Only leaders, including presidents and trustees, can begin institutional transformation in support of diversity. Though such broad change needs to start at the top, it must also be embraced and carried out at all levels.

So-called race-neutral programs -- created in response to new laws that undercut the use of affirmative action or consider socio-economic status as a proxy for race and ethnicity -- are increasingly advocated by the federal government. But they cannot be the only policy tool used to right that moral wrong. Instead, we must move toward strategies to transform an entire institution -- to serve the needs of all students and faculty members, regardless of discipline, not just those with certain characteristics. Even those who decry affirmative action should applaud an institution-wide approach that gives students what they need to succeed. Yet, this is not the same as providing “equal” treatment.

Judicial retreat on diversity in primary and secondary education is making it more difficult to diversify institutions of higher education. For example, in spring 2007 the Supreme Court struck down voluntary local strategies to desegregate schools in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky. The rulings asserted that American society is color blind and the playing field is level -- assertions that are both naïve and self-deceptive.

Americans born with the “right” sex, race, or social class still receive advantages at birth. And residence patterns can compound those advantages, as some public schools have the money to buy new technology and hire seasoned educators while others do not. Data from the College Board show that SAT scores are closely linked with zip codes. In the words of Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “At virtually every level, education in America tends to perpetuate rather than compensate for existing inequalities.” She notes, “It takes about five generations for the advantages and disadvantages of family background to die out in the United States.”

Meanwhile, the fact remains that the United States is already importing talent and outsourcing technical jobs. Although that may make sense for our society in the short run, it is risky policy in the long run. Sooner or later, a white male science, engineering, or medical-school graduate will sue his alma mater -- not because he was denied admission to a special program, but because his education in a homogeneous environment left him ill equipped to function in his chosen career. His lack of cultural competence will have impaired his contributions to the productivity of a diverse team, to satisfy a diverse client market, or to treat a diverse group of patients.

Let us not deceive ourselves. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education may be in danger in the courts, and thus race-based affirmative action may no longer represent a viable national strategy for providing educational opportunity to all Americans. But our colleges and universities have an obligation to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to a racially and ethnically diverse group of U.S. citizens -- for our own good.

Daryl E. Chubin and Shirley M. Malcom
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Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Shirley M. Malcom is head of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs.

The Illusion of Race-Blind Admissions

Since the passing of Proposition 209 in 1996, the University of California has faced a statewide ban on considering race or ethnicity in admissions decisions. Recently, a political science professor at the university’s Los Angeles campus charged the institution with “cheating on admissions” by quietly considering information revealed about candidates’ race in their application essays – an act he deems illegal under Proposition 209. In an 89-page document, Timothy Groseclose describes how the institution refused to provide him with 1,000 application files to test his theory that African American candidates were being granted undue favoritism in the admissions process.

The questions Professor Groseclose raised accentuate key flaws in the world’s understanding of how colleges admit students – and especially about the false belief that race can easily be removed from the process.

As my colleagues often say, admissions is more of an art than a science. In his argument, Groseclose plays up the fact that average SAT scores and high school grade-point averages differ by racial and ethnic groups. In most cases, decisions do not boil down to quotas or points systems (which were effectively outlawed by the Supreme Court in Bakke and Gratz). What he neglects is the inherent role of human judgment -- the subjective backbone of the admissions process. To my knowledge, no college or university aspires to break the law. But when the law is ambiguous – which has been a recurring theme of affirmative action court rulings over the past 30 years – it becomes easy to imagine violations where none exist.

While Groseclose claims to be a supporter of affirmative action and policies that aim to increase institutional diversity, his argument is that using information about race revealed in candidates’ essays decries UCLA as a criminal organization. Some critics of affirmative action, such as Ward Connerly (former University of California regent and author of Proposition 209, the statewide ban on affirmative action) want to eliminate all mention of race in any applications.

These critiques raise a simple question: How can we ask applicants not to make any mention of race in their application? Do we specify that students are not permitted to talk about celebrating certain holidays? Can we ask them not to discuss trips to visit family outside the United States for it may tip us off to their racial background? If someone is the head of a high school’s Black Student Union, must she leave it off her list of extracurriculars? Is it not discriminatory to state that mention of learning empanada recipes from Mom cannot be included?

And even if we enforce such restrictions, a more complex question emerges: How far must we go to avoid “illegal activity” when attempting to make the best possible decisions for all applicants? Race can appear in more than just a personal narrative. Will we then be asked to disregard students’ names? Their hometowns? Their high schools? Their parents’ alma maters? Will staff and alumni interviewers need to conduct conversations from behind a screen? With all the blacked-out lines, we will be forced to admit only what we can see – test scores and grades as opposed to artists, scholars, and engaged citizens and people whose backgrounds aren't the same as those who have enrolled in higher education for generations.

While some of these constraints may sound extreme, it is time to acknowledge that eradicating race from the admissions process is not as clear cut as some might believe. In states like California, Michigan, and others where affirmative action has been outlawed, admissions officers need some middle ground. If students reveal elements of their personal background in their essays, or if their names, high schools, or hometowns hint at a particular racial/ethnic group, that information is important – just as important as information on students’ grades and test scores. As long as these institutions have compelling race-neutral reasons for admitting the student, there are no racial preferences at play, and no violation at hand. In addition, colleges and universities should be at liberty to consider personal qualities – such as academic success in the wake of economic or social hardship – that may be associated with, but not necessarily linked to, students’ racial background.

In court rooms and living rooms across America, there is an electrified buzz about the “unfair” nature of considering race as a factor in college admissions. Despite ample research highlighting the academic and social benefits of attending a racially diverse institution made possible by affirmative action, it’s not the benefit but the fairness that is relentlessly called into question.

But here’s a little something to halt the noise: college admissions can’t always be fair. Is it fair that a student with C’s gets into an Ivy League school because his father is a trustee? How about the lacrosse player with SAT scores 300 points below the institution’s average? The daughter of a politician? The Republican at a liberal arts institution? As described by Lee Coffin , dean of admission and enrollment management at Tufts University, each of those students could be viewed as a case of “affirmative action.” So perhaps instead of reopening historical wounds, we should let admissions officers do what they do best: craft a talented and diverse class for that particular institution at that particular point in time. If social justice is what Ward Connerly was after in writing Proposition 209 and Tim Groseclose is after in trying to uphold it, removing race from college applications can only heal the runny nose that has plagued America for decades. To cure the cold, it is the deeper cause – persistent societal racism – that needs to be treated. And in an ironic twist, there has been no right answer to that problem either. But I’m not so convinced we should remove its checkbox.

Julie Vultaggio
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Julie Vultaggio is a Ph.D. candidate in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sotomayor and Our Future

Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination marks a historic occasion in America. Assuming she is confirmed, being the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court will cause enormous cultural ripple effects. Just as the aspiration to become president became more authentic for black children who witnessed Barack Obama’s election, Sotomayor’s confirmation will provide inspiration for young Latinos to dream big. But we must tread lightly.

Many try to use Obama’s election to declare the country to be in a “post-racial era” – a fact apparently confirmed by the election of a black man, proving that racism and discrimination are behind us. If we’re not careful, Sotomayor’s confirmation could be used by some as evidence that the educational system is fine and provides all with equal opportunity to attain the American dream.

The reality, of course, is more complex.

Public discourse over the meaning of Sotomayor’s nomination has in recent weeks become a convenient vehicle for some to debate affirmative action. This debate cuts two ways. While some use Sotomayor's nomination to claim we have leveled the playing field and reached a post-racial era, there is also a vocal contingent accusing her of being racist and of being too pro-affirmative action. The fervor caused by her statements about the contributions of a "wise Latina," or the troubling lack of Latino faculty members in her own education is a potent reminder of how unwilling we all are to engage in a constructive discussion about the role and significance of race and ethnicity in American society. I plan to join this debate and make the case in a future essay about the utility of affirmative action policies and practices. We must be willing to engage in real discussions about how race and ethnicity can describe us, not divide us.

The Latino population in the United States -- Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Central American and others -- is the youngest and fastest growing segment of an increasingly diverse United States. But we are still disproportionately poor and undereducated. Nowhere is the division between Latinos and other ethnic groups starker than when it comes to achievement in higher education. Research, as well as personal experience, shows that race and ethnicity do matter. In fact, paying attention to differences while working to engage and serve all Americans is the hallmark of the most effective higher education reform efforts. But while our country has witnessed a steady increase in college participation rates for Latino students, up almost 25 percent between 2000 and 2004 according to the U.S. Department of Education, completion rates for Latino students have barely changed in three decades.

That’s not due to lack of desire: A recent survey sponsored by Oppenheimer Funds Inc., "College Within Reach," shows that Hispanic Americans are strongly committed to a college education as a part of fulfilling the America dream. In fact, 61 percent of Hispanic parents agreed that Obama's rise to the presidency "proves that a good education makes anything possible." In a floundering economy, however, only a small percentage is able to save up enough to make that dream a reality.

Sotomayor, who from humble beginnings in the South Bronx went on to excel at Princeton University as an undergraduate and at Yale University’s law school, is an extraordinary striver. She will be, and should be, an inspiration for young Latinos and Latinas -- in fact, for all young people. She is exceptional and the exception. We must not allow recognition of her achievements to mask the challenges faced by Latinos across this country for whom an Ivy League education is out of reach.

Nor should she be attacked for being mindful of the range of unique experience she brings to the Supreme Court as a Latina. Society is strengthened when leadership in the White House and state houses, in corporate boardrooms and federal and state courtrooms, and on campuses and in classrooms more fully reflects and acknowledges the challenges of the least well served of our population.

The opportunity for America lies in harnessing the potential of our young Latino population and helping them – and as a result, the nation – to thrive. This is not simply an issue of good will but a matter of necessity. Today, 37 percent of the more than 40 million Latinos in this country are under 20 years of age. By 2020, Latinos will make up 22 percent of the nation’s college-age population, according to demographic estimates today. The critical question is whether Latinos will actually reach college and, once there, succeed.

We need an expanded, educated workforce to manage the jobs of the future, but America’s workforce is increasingly falling behind the pack, becoming less skilled and less competitive. According to a 2007 report, while 30 years ago the United States could claim 30 percent of the world’s population of college students, that proportion has fallen to 14 percent and is continuing to decline.

The coincidence of a Latino population boom and a projected American workforce unprepared for high-skill jobs of the future is sometimes described as a crisis and used to forecast the end of U.S. economic dominance. But that’s a skewed picture. There are many benefits to a booming U.S. Latino population comprised of ambitious, hard working individuals, simply waiting to be tapped. "Latinos have saved our country," argues Ken Gronbach, author of The Age Curve: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm. "They represent 14 percent of the population but 25 percent of live births. The United States is the only Western industrialized nation with a fertility rate above the 2.2 percent replacement rate." Latino growth spurs the economy, contributes to keeping the Social Security system solvent, and will help prop up the real-estate market once the economy begins to recover.

But Latinos can do more than revive markets and pay for aging baby boomers — we can produce more extraordinary teachers, scientists and judges. Those concerned with the development of America’s human capital, as well as those who advocate on behalf of underserved Latino communities nationwide, can agree on one thing: Education, and particularly higher education, is, and has always been, the most promising pathway to a brighter future.

A new report from Excelencia in Education, Leading in a Changing America: Presidential Perspectives from Hispanic-Serving Institutions, shows how some colleges and universities have found innovative ways to significantly increase the successful participation of “nontraditional” students: those who are part-time, lower-income, commuting, older and students of color. Most Hispanic students fit these categories, and they thrive with culturally relevant support and scheduling that addresses the realities of their lives.

These institutions are front runners as the country is nearing a paradigm shift in education. Many colleges and universities still don’t adequately meet the needs of a large percentage of the Latino college-age population. If Latino college degree production does not improve, the country’s projections for college degree production will not improve. Where will that leave us in 2050, when Latinos are predicted to be a fourth of the population?

Responding to this challenge requires keeping Latino academic expectations high for the newly arrived, as well as for Latinos who have been in this country for generations --and encouraging all to fully participate in American society. The significant numbers of Latinos in the armed services demonstrates their willingness to invest in this country. Imagine matching their commitment to this country with real access and support to earn a college degree.

By implementing strategies to help Latinos succeed in higher education, we ensure that our country remains competitive, that a greater segment of the U.S. population succeeds economically, and that we enhance the opportunity for this country to be strengthened by the outstanding abilities of those who will follow Sotomayor’s path. Already, it’s possible that somewhere in our country the first Latino – or Latina – President of the United States — sits in a classroom. This child’s potential will be fully realized when education affords him or her the best chance of achieving all that he or she dreams.

Sarita E. Brown
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Sarita Brown is President of Excelencia in Education, an organization that aims to accelerate Latino higher education success.


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