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Living in a Post-Affirmative Action World

Living in a Post-Affirmative Action World
Ruling against Michigan could boost minority achievement, says one scholar. But others are not so optimistic.
By Ronald Roach

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of the University of Michigan’s undergraduate and law school admissions plans, Americans already are living in a post-affirmative action world, opines futurist and academic administrator Nat Irvin II.

With increasing racial diversity on the rise in American society, the goal of having a diverse work force has represented a high priority for many corporate, education and political leaders, says Irvin, an assistant dean for MBA student development at Wake Forest University’s Babcock School of Management. People have to come to grips with the notion that race-conscious affirmative action, an important mechanism by which underrepresented minorities have attained meaningful representation at elite college campuses, isn’t going to last forever.

“I’m optimistic. I think a decision against the University of Michigan will have a positive impact in the long run,” he says.

Irvin says his optimism stems from the belief that a ruling against Michigan will spur Black and Latino families to become more competitive in the way they will seek out and use educational opportunities for their children. A boost in academic competitiveness among Black and Latino students can only enhance their life chances, particularly given that changes in the global economy are demanding a highly educated work force in the United States, Irvin says.

Others are not so optimistic.

“Ending affirmative action will only add to increased racial struggle and tension,” says Dr. Robert G. Newby, a sociologist at Central Michigan University.

“What they’re doing is re-legitimizing all-White institutions of higher education,” he says of the efforts by affirmative action opponents.

In Newby’s perspective, African Americans already are widely committed to the goal of academic achievement. And while some families may interpret a ruling against the University of Michigan as a message to beef up their focus on academics, such a decision will do more to fuel greater divisions between Blacks and Whites than to promote mutual respect and understanding.

“I think it’s one of those issues where Blacks see it one way, and Whites see it in another,” says Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander, an associate professor of employment law and legal studies in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, who supports the University of Michigan’s plan.

The fear commonly expressed by higher education observers and officials is that the numbers of Black and Latino students at elite institutions will fall dramatically as they did immediately after the use of race in higher education admissions was banned in California and in Texas in 1995 and 1996. Though the Black and Latino student numbers recovered to a degree in those states because of efforts to admit students from a wider variety of high schools, the current belief is that without a program to address diversity, Black and Latino admissions in elite institutions will fall and remain low for quite some time.

“I fear that a ruling against the University of Michigan will bring about the re-segregation of higher education at elite institutions,” says Cedric M. Powell, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Endorsing Racial Diversity, Percentage Plans

Over the years, affirmative action advocates have supported the use of race-conscious affirmative action because it has been seen as a necessary tool to level the playing field for underrepresented minorities who most often have to compete against highly privileged Whites and Asian Americans. After three decades of race-conscious affirmative action, the push for race-conscious policies enjoys wide support across American higher education. The American Council on Education (ACE), which represents 1,800 colleges and universities, reports that 38 leading higher education associations, including ACE, were signatories to a recent letter urging President Bush to side with the University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs.

Although President Bush announced his opposition to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action plans, he endorsed the idea that racial diversity represented a desirable objective on higher education campuses. “I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education. But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed,” President Bush declared on Jan. 15.

This endorsement naturally has angered conservatives who have argued that racial diversity is not a “compelling interest” justifying any remedy whether it be race-neutral or not. Many scholars, however, believe that even if the Supreme Court strikes down the Michigan plans, the court will likely say something positive about racial diversity, thus encouraging states to adopt percentage and other race-neutral plans, such as class-based affirmative action.

“The Supreme Court will likely say you can do something with race, but it can’t be as explicit as what Michigan has done,” says Jonathan L. Entin, a professor of law and political science at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

A great deal of attention is being paid to university systems in California, Florida and Texas where admissions have been guaranteed to the top students from every public high school. “In these states, race-neutral admissions policies have resulted in levels of minority attendance for incoming students that are close to, and in some instances slightly surpass, those under the old race-based approach,” President Bush has said.

Dr. Shelby Steele, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is among those conservatives who say that President Bush did not go far enough with his opposition to the Michigan affirmative action plan. Like many conservatives, Steele derides percentage and other diversity plans as corrupt “social engineering schemes.” What especially galls Steele is that Bush’s endorsement of racial diversity represents an example of the “White guilt” he claims has compromised Black American initiative and development since the 1960s.

“Affirmative action from the very beginning has always been a policy manifestation of White guilt. White guilt takes our problems away from (Black Americans), and the larger society says it’s going to solve problems for us,” Steele says.

For Steele, a ruling against the University of Michigan will not result in an unambiguous message being sent to the Black community that individual Blacks should be competing at the same level of Whites and Asian Americans to gain admission to elite institutions. In his writings and speeches, Steele, who is a well-known Black conservative, blames White guilt for compromising the call for excellence to which he believes Blacks will respond on their own. In Steele’s view, adopting percentage plans is precisely the wrong policy because it fails to enforce a common standard of admissions for all students.

The Rice University Model and Others

In addition to percentage plans, higher education officials have talked a great deal about adopting college admissions practices that carefully scrutinize individual applicants. For years, private elite schools have been known to devote considerable resources toward careful evaluation of individuals for consideration of his or her unique talents and diverse background. This practice contrasts with that of the undergraduate admissions process at the University of Michigan, which relied upon numerically weighted formulas. The case against the undergraduate admissions process has been largely based around the fact that Michigan used an admissions formula that awarded racial and ethnic bonus points to Black and Latino applicants.

That admissions tradition of individual scrutiny, however, has served at least one institution well. Rice University in Houston, a private school which bowed to the 1996 Hopwood decision that banned race in Texas college admissions, has found that meaningful representation of Blacks and Latinos is achieved when admissions staff learn how applicants overcame obstacles, and the details of their family and community lives. By considering a wide range of life experiences without discussing race among themselves, Rice admissions officials have admitted and enrolled freshman classes that have been racially diverse.

Annually, the university enrolls roughly 700 freshmen after having considered 7,000 applications. In 1996, the proportion of Blacks was 7.7 percent, and Latinos were 11 percent of the freshman class. In the fall of 2002, the freshman class was 7.1 percent Black and 11 percent Hispanic, according to officials.

“A program like that at Rice might survive, but it depends on having the resources to sustain it,” Entin says.

Currently, the University of Georgia is trying out an admissions system that allows for careful scrutiny of students not automatically admitted because of high test scores and high GPAs. In 2001, a federal appeals court ruled that UGA’s admissions policy was unconstitutional. In response, the school instituted a temporary policy that eliminated any consideration of race, gender, country of origin or relationship to Georgia alumni. Applicants for the 2003 freshman class will fall into one of three groups: academically superior, academically competitive and not competitive. Unlike the previous plan that was thrown out by the court, race will have no role in the new admissions system.

A longer application form is planned, giving students more room for essays and a teacher recommendation. Roughly 75 percent to 80 percent of the class, or those considered academically superior, will be admitted based on test scores and high-school grades alone, UGA officials say.

If a student falls in the not-competitive group, he or she will get a second reading by faculty reviewers to see whether an exceptional circumstance should allow the student to be admitted. Additional evaluation of students falling in the “academically competitive” group will go toward rounding out the class, with a focus on those who exhibit traits, such as intellectual curiosity, integrity, personal maturity, creativity, commitment to service and citizenship, ability to overcome hardship and respect for cultural differences.

“Critical to this admission process is that each application file will have a full academic review, and any file facing denial will have at least two reviews before a decision is final,” according to Delmer D. Dunn, UGA vice president for instruction.

It’s not clear how racially diverse the 2003 freshman class will be, but scholars and officials are hopeful about the new system’s prospects. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach,” says UGA’s Bennett-Alexander.

Wake-Up Call for the Black Community?

Instead of despairing the loss of race-conscious affirmative action, or waiting around for institutions to come up with race-neutral plans, Wake Forest’s Irvin holds out the hope that Black Americans would see a ruling against the University of Michigan as motivation for committing themselves anew to academic achievement.

“Ultimately it’s about competitiveness. We shouldn’t see this as a liberal or conservative issue,” he says.

Steele is skeptical that the loss of race-conscious affirmative action would stir Black Americans to better themselves academically because race-neutral policies will create a new round of Black dependency on White guilt. “The whole debate is always over what White institutions are going to do for Blacks,” he says.

Observers point out there’s been little or no discussion about admissions to graduate school programs. And some point to the fact that specialized academic programs that provide summer academic experiences for minority undergraduates are now under attack. Princeton University this month announced that it’s doing away with a minority-only summer program that helped prepare students for graduate study in public policy and international affairs. Unless such efforts are retooled as race neutral, more programs will face challenges and fold, according to experts.

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