Affirmative Action Fallout:
Graduate-level programs once aimed at minorities now opening up to all students in efforts to avoid legal challenges
By Ronald Roach
Race-conscious affirmative action in higher education survived a close challenge in 2003 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race was a valid academic admission criteria in the Grutter v. Bollinger case. Two years later, a number of “pipeline” programs to help under-represented minorities gain admission to and complete graduate school have modified their eligibility requirements, opening their participation to all students in an effort to avoid legal challenges.
Civil rights activists have used the two-year anniversary of the court’s landmark decision as a launching point to criticize the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. During the Bush administration, the office has prompted many colleges and universities to change or drop race- and ethnic-specific academic enrichment and scholarship programs.
The NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund made its dissatisfaction with the Education Department known in a June 23 letter to Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education.
“As we mark the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, we have a grave concern that the Department of Education is undermining these decisions. … Presumably with the backing of your office, groups opposed to affirmative action have sent out similarly worded letters to colleges and universities across the nation threatening to file complaints to OCR if any and all race-conscious measures are not eliminated.”
Those advocating such affirmative action programs are growing increasingly alarmed that the backlash will spread. Several organizations, which support high-profile graduate school diversity efforts, have taken steps to avoid attacks by anti-affirmative action groups. Influential graduate pipeline programs administered by the Ford Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and the Association of American Medical Colleges, for example, have undergone significant modifications since 2003. To many, such changes have raised the concern that these programs now face a dilution of their original aims and goals — which is to boost the number of under-represented minorities in specific academic and professional areas.
“If there’s a need for affirmative action in higher education, it’s clearly at the graduate level,” says Dr. Ansley Abraham, the director of the Southern Regional Education Board’s State Doctoral Scholars Program. “We need concerted efforts to steer and assist minority students in those directions. We have to have very intense and focused efforts.”
Ansley and others point out that at the graduate-level, pipeline programs have been critical to the growth of minority doctoral recipients. Ph.D. programs in particular are known for their high attrition rates. Programs such as Ford’s and SREB’s have been widely credited for improving the chances that underrepresented minorities complete their doctorates.
TARGETING THE PROGRAMS
What began prior to the Grutter decision as a campaign to target race- and ethnic-specific college enrichment programs for incoming and matriculated undergraduates has ultimately prompted privately administered graduate school-focused programs to broaden their race- and ethnic-specific criteria for eligibility. Opponents of race-conscious affirmative action say the push for widened eligibility is legally consistent with the 2003 affirmative action decisions.
“(The decisions) helped clarify that schools must give ‘individualized
consideration’ in selecting students, and thus have forced some schools to open programs to all disadvantaged or diversity-adding students, of all races and ethnicities. In my view, those reforms have strengthened these programs, making them fairer and less divisive, and providing help to a wider variety of deserving students,” says Roger Clegg, the general counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Va.
Over the past several years, the center, a staunch opponent of race-conscious affirmative action, has led the charge against diversity programs at colleges and universities. By threatening to file a complaint, or actually filing one with OCR in some cases, the center has succeeded in forcing many institutions to either adopt race-neutral policies or drop their special programs altogether.
Although the Supreme Court allows race and ethnicity to be taken into account when considering admission, Clegg argues “that race cannot be weighed mechanically or be an absolute requirement in determining eligibility for any program.” He adds that race- and ethnic-targeted programs deny ineligible students the individual consideration affirmed in the rulings.
“I think the logical reading of the 2003 Supreme Court decisions is that schools have to give individual consideration to students who are excluded from applying to certain programs,” Clegg says.
The LDF letter to Spellings, however, countered that assertion, saying that “the Supreme Court cleared a path for colleges and universities to increase and ensure access to higher education for African-Americans and other students of color.”
In a report, “Closing The Gap: Moving From Rhetoric to Reality In Opening Doors to Higher Education for African-American Students,” LDF contends that OCR, in association with anti-affirmative action groups, is seeking to close the door on race-conscious remedies to eliminate academic achievement gaps.
“While no one is suggesting that racial inequality can and should be addressed solely through race-conscious means, there is no basis — legal or otherwise — for limiting the nation’s options so that race-conscious measures can never be considered,” the report says.
NAME AND GAME CHANGES
A number of participants in the long-running Ford Foundation Fellowship programs say they were dismayed to learn last year that the foundation had altered the eligibility and name of the nation’s largest Ph.D.-support program for under-represented minorities. Since 1979 the program has provided fellowship funding for nearly 2,300 African-American, American Indian and Hispanic doctoral recipients.
Renamed the Ford Foundation Diversity Fellows program in 2004, the modified program has recently accepted its first cohort of students which includes non-under-represented minorities. The new mix of program participants will be funded for the 2005-2006 academic year, according to Foundation officials.
Dr. Yvette Maria Huet-Hudson, a biology professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and former Ford fellow, says it was disappointing that the foundation made changes in the absence of a direct challenge to the program.
“I would have preferred for the Ford Foundation to just wait and see the program challenged before taking action,” says Huet-Hudson, who volunteers as a regional coordinator in North Carolina to mentor current fellows.
Huet-Hudson is among several program alumni who have expressed anger at being left out of the decision-making process. She says she has participated in an online forum with other former fellows, many of whom expressed their dismay at not having been notified and consulted as foundation officials deliberated possible changes to the program.
In addition to funding, former Ford fellows say that a great benefit of the experience is the networking and mentoring made possible through the program’s national conferences and other activities. Huet-Hudson, who is Hispanic, believes the ability of fellows to speak bluntly and openly might be compromised in a broader program.
“The networking and interaction is a huge part of this fellowship,” she says.
Dr. Robbin Nicole Chapman, a Ph.D. candidate and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes that former and current Ford fellows should have had some input in the foundation’s decision to modify the program. But she acknowledges that it’s understandable why Ford officials didn’t consult with them.
“I can’t imagine that we would have been supportive of the changes,” says Chapman, who serves as a volunteer regional coordinator in the New England area.
Initially alarmed by the changes, Chapman has since taken a “wait-and-see” approach, she says. This September, former and current fellows will gather at the program’s national conference in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Janice Petrovich, the director of education, sexuality and religion programs at the Ford Foundation, said the Supreme Court decisions spurred the foundation to revamp the fellows program — which has been around in some form for 40 years — “to broaden the goals” of the long-term initiative.
“We needed more champions,” she says, adding that the inclusion of non-under-represented minorities should strengthen overall diversity in the academy. Petrovich adds that Ford has invested $175 million in the fellowship program over four decades.
According to Petrovich, Ford officials and staff followed standard procedure during the decision-making process. The organization sought expert consultation and presented the changes to the foundation’s board of trustees last September. But she acknowledges that the fellows themselves had no say in the planning process.
“We didn’t consult with former and current fellows in the planning process, but we got their feedback after the changes were made,” she says.
Another pipeline program, formerly known as the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship initiative, became the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program in 2003, not long after the Supreme Court decisions. The new name commemorates the legacy of Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, a former president of Morehouse College, who had a staunch commitment to social justice and social equality. Mays was a mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who attended Morehouse during Mays’ presidency.
Eligibility for the program, which matches promising undergraduates with faculty mentors at their respective schools, has broadened from under-represented minorities to all students. The program, like others, still includes among its goals increasing the ranks of minority faculty.
According to the program’s Web site, “The fundamental objective of MMUF is to increase the number of minority students, and others with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities, who will pursue Ph.D.s in core fields in the arts and sciences.”
Since 1988, the year the program began, 158 participants have earned Ph.D.s while remaining part of the MMUF network. Many of them are professors, including 12 who have gained tenure, according to MMUF assistant director Carma Van Allen.
“The MMUF program has had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on increasing diversity in the academy. This is a long-term effort and one that requires patience and persistence,” Van Allen says.
In 2003, the Association of American Medical Colleges changed the name of the Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP) to Student Medical Education Program (SMEP). Kevin Harris, director of the summer institute, which operates on 11 campuses each year, notes that since 1997 the program had been open to undergraduates and post-baccalaureate students of all races and ethnicities.
“We had been hearing from students in the program that it would be a good idea to change the name given that the program had been open to all students for several years,” Harris says.
Operating since 1988, the institute is aimed at helping undergraduates increase their chances of getting into medical school. More than 63 percent of its participants have been admitted into medical programs since its inception.
Staying The Course
Not all privately based pipeline programs have altered their eligibility criteria. The highly regarded PhD Project, which has sought to increase the ranks of under-represented minorities as business school professors, has remained committed solely to increasing the African-American, American Indian and Hispanic presence on business school faculties. Bernie Milano, the founding director of the PhD Project, says that the program is not affected by statutes that apply to public institutions and institutions that receive public funding.
By marketing itself directly to potential minority Ph.D. students and
hosting private conferences for them and those in Ph.D. programs, the project doesn’t require the direct participation of colleges and universities, Milano says.
“It’s one thing for a college or university and it’s something else for a private organization to do what we do,” Milano says.
Since 1994, the PhD Project, which is sponsored by the KPMG Foundation, has helped increase minority business school professors from 294 to 751, which is 3 percent of all business faculty. Currently, a group of 417 students, originally steered to business Ph.D. programs by the PhD Project, are in the doctoral pipeline, according to Milano. Aside from recruiting efforts, the PhD Project hosts academic association conferences for the students recruited and admitted to the business schools.
CEO’s Clegg acknowledges that private organizations are free to operate race- and ethnic-specific academic recruitment and support programs so long as they don’t involve cooperation from public educational institutions or institutions that accept public funding.
SREB’s Abraham says that the doctoral program he manages was established in 1993 in a way to avoid potential legal problems regarding whom it benefits. Minority students can apply to it only after they have been admitted and enrolled into a doctoral program, Abraham says, thus putting responsibility on the student to seek an available five-year package of financial support. Participation in the program also exposes students to networking and mentoring opportunities.
“Our motto is that we’re more than just a handshake and a check. If left to chance, I’m convinced it would take decades to achieve the progress we’ve had with minority doctoral recipients,” Abraham says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com