Affirmative action/racial preferences

Hot Button Decisions in California

Governor signs bill to give aid to undocumented students, and rejects bill that would have tried to undo state ban on consideration of race in admissions decisions.

Sweet (or Bitter) Taste of Controversy

Bake sale at Berkeley -- with race-based prices -- attracts attention, but most of it has been about the political theater, not the affirmative action bill that was the target of the event.

'Positive Discrimination' at Sciences Po

Poor and ethnic-minority students selected through what is called "positive discrimination" are thriving at an elite French university, according to a report by one of its academics.

L’Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris – better known as Sciences Po – was criticized when it announced it would drop entrance examinations for 10 percent of its intake in 2001 to recruit more poor students. Schools in deprived areas put forward their most promising pupils for admission via interview, with those chosen eligible for financial aid to cover fees.

New Round on Affirmative Action

Appeals court vacates decision that invalidated 2006 vote in Michigan. Full court will reconsider challenge to ban on consideration of race in admissions.

An 'Instructor Like Me'


Minority students at community colleges are more likely to succeed when they have minority instructors, study finds. For white students, performance drops.

Change for Chief Diversity Officers

Survey finds large percentages of those holding the position were first to do so, and may soon be seeking to leave their jobs.

Throwing Out a State Vote

Federal appeals court says Michigan's electorate doesn't have right to ban public universities from considering race in admissions.

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.

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).

No Contradiction

Almost all colleges and universities seek diversity in their student bodies and their faculty as well as staff. This is often one of two major goals for these institutions, the other of which is academic excellence. But, in my experience, many faculty and some administrators view diversity and academic excellence as competing goals (see this recent example). Moreover, some view concerns about diversity largely as a form of political correctness. Is concern for diversity merely a form of political correctness, or is there really some educational benefit to a diverse student body and faculty such that diversity contributes to rather than competes with academic excellence?

There are three reasons why diversity truly is important in institutions of higher education. Consider each in turn.

First, students learn more from others if the others are different from themselves in significant ways. Imagine, in some strange world, that everyone in a university was a clone of everyone else. Students would learn almost nothing from each other, because they all would be identical to each other. Diversity promotes learning by exposing students to different ways of seeing the world, different points of view, and different assumptions about how the world works. Much of learning is outside the classroom -- it is in the informal curriculum of the university.

One’s learning from friends is as important as one’s learning from books and lectures. And diverse friends expose one to different experiences. When I was a freshman, I had classmates in my hallway from Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, New York, Calgary (Canada), and other locales. I learned from them in a way that would not have been possible if all were from my home state of New Jersey. At Oklahoma State University, we have the largest number of American Indian undergraduates of any university. These students teach other students about diverse cultures in a way that students of the majority culture could not. In a global world and global economy, we fail to learn about others at our peril.

Second, diversity helps promote understanding that can be lacking when different groups fail, or even refuse, to interact. In 1968, the Flemish and French-speaking factions of the University of Leuven decided that they could not get along, and they split, leaving two universities, Leuven (Flemish-speaking) and Louvain (French-speaking). The repercussions of this and other similar splits can be seen in contemporary Belgium, which has not had a fully functioning government since April 22, 2010. The country has been on the verge of splitting apart because people of different linguistic and cultural groups have failed to work together. The split has hurt the economy and, obviously, the morale of people in the country. South Africa, for many years, had “black” universities and “white” universities, never the twain did meet; the consequences were extremely negative for education and for the country as a whole. Bringing diverse people together creates bridges across cultural, linguistic, racial, and other divides.

Third, diversity helps attract the best students, faculty, and staff. Suppose everyone at a particular university is a member of Group X, whatever group that may be. It is safe to say that no matter what the group, many of the people who could contribute most to the university will be members of other groups. But members of other groups likely will be reluctant to go to a university where they will find no one at all like themselves. The result is that the university will scare away many of the most able potential constituents.

Academic excellence and diversity go hand-in-hand because, to have excellence, you need diversity. Some faculty will argue that increasing diversity will reduce the academic skills of the student body. But this argument is based largely on scores from narrow standardized tests. When we have measured creative, practical, and wisdom-based skills in addition to the memory and analytical skills measured by conventional standardized tests, we have found that group differences, such as among diverse ethnic groups, are greatly reduced or even eliminated at the same time that the predictive power of the measures is increased. In other words, choosing students for diverse talents identifies students who can succeed academically who are not identified as potentially successful by standardized tests. Similar logic applies to faculty and staff.

In sum, diversity is actually not a matter of political correctness (although the concept can be perverted to be just that). It is a way of bringing together people into an organization that helps to ensure that the whole is more, rather than less, than the sum of its parts. Without diversity, true academic excellence is difficult, if not impossible, to attain.

Robert J. Sternberg
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Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University.


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