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NAFEO Urges Continuing Affirmative Action Efforts in Higher Ed

On Tuesday, July 3, President Trump rescinded seven guidance provisions from the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Division to discourage schools from achieving racial and ethnic diversity, including the Obama-era policies designed after successive Supreme Court decisions supporting the use of race among a number of other criteria to achieve excellence and diversity in education.

The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) and its 105 historically Black college and university (HBCUs) members – and approximately 80-member predominantly Black institutions (PBIs) – find deeply disturbing President Trump’s rolling back the progress this nation has painstakingly made in recognizing the educational value of diversity. Attaining the benefits of diversity in higher education is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race-conscious admissions policies, and which time and data have proven most often must include the use of race among other criteria.

Democrats and Republicans, the nation’s Fortune 100 and 500 companies, the National Association of Manufacturers, the United States Armed Forces and a broad and diverse group of others moved the nation to recognize the importance of diversity in higher education after acknowledging that because race still matters in America, race should be considered along with other factors in educating students who will lead the nation in overcoming racism in America.

The Supreme Court, researchers, civil rights, social justice, educational and religious leaders and associations,  American business associations, including the Business Roundtable, municipalities, the overwhelming majority of public and private American universities, and other institutions and associations have found that “through institutional diversity students are benefitting from the intellectual, cultural, civic, religious and personal experiences of a range of students, reflecting the richness of this heterogeneous, pluralistic society.”

It has been repeatedly affirmed for the past four decades that students in a diverse educational setting can learn the tolerance, coexistence and ecumenical spirit of shared values and common destinies that make America strong. Our nation arrived at the recognition of the value of diversity in higher education after some of the nation’s leading higher education researchers, the premiere architects of the standardized college admissions tests and a conservative Supreme Court found that the admissions criteria that have been used though the years – primarily consideration of test scores, grades, the financial contributions of an applicant’s family to the higher education institution and whether an applicant’s parents successfully matriculated through the same institution – have acted as barriers to the vast majority of those who are well prepared and desirous of attaining a higher education.

The Supreme Court’s opinions suggest that in an era when the value of an educated citizenry has never been greater, institutional diversity, as much as academic research and social service, must characterize great education institutions. A school’s responsiveness to diversity closely correlates with its standards of academic excellence and equity.

The court found that diverse student bodies on campuses lead to better learning outcomes and greater preparation for work, citizenship and civic engagement. The Supreme Court ruled in three successive cases that higher education institutions should consider a broader range of factors in determining student qualifications for matriculation in higher education institutions, including the mission of the college or university, standardized tests and a broad range of student success factors, including unique life’s experiences, special gifts and talents, e.g., oratorical, artistic, musical, dramatic, scientific, technological and athletic abilities; work experiences, foreign languages, culture, religion, overcoming major obstacles in life; and being differently abled, a student’s self-identification and self-expression.

The Supreme Court found that because race and ethnicity disproportionately affect the experiences and perspectives of people living in America, race and ethnic diversity must be important aspects of the diversity initiatives of colleges and universities.

The above findings and positions have been established, refined and affirmed three times by the United States Supreme Court since 1978. Affirmative actions to create diversity in American higher education institutions, including consideration or race and ethnicity among other criteria, have proven to be the most effective and efficient means of affording all our students the benefits of the richness of the diversity of our heterogeneous, pluralistic planet. Student characteristics, experiences, cultures, mores, religions, geographic groundings, race, ethnicity, self-identification and self-expression, unique gifts and talents – a holistic review of the students seeking admission into our colleges and universities – have proven to be the best way for preparing our students for our interconnected and interdependent diverse communities and nations, and to contribute to building our local and global economies, our families and creating a just world.

Reports abound about the educational value of diversity in colleges and universities. That President Trump overturned departmental guidance to America’s colleges and universities that are educating America’s increasingly diverse students, suggesting ways for our colleges and universities to comply with the law of the land as stated by the Supreme Court, is a reckless disregard for court precedent, proven promising practices, equity and 2lst-century sensibilities.

This recession will erode and undermine hard-fought civil rights progress, equity, excellence and diversity in education. Instead of promoting policies that create entering classes representative of the range of racial and ethnic backgrounds of our pluralistic nation, this recession will most assuredly have a chilling effect on those schools and universities working to promote diversity as a compelling state interest. Even worse, as college and university officials and school superintendents consider, revisit and renew admissions policies, they will not be able to depend on the U.S. Department of Education for advice, strategy and support to help shape important policies and regulations.

Every student benefits from inclusive and diverse classrooms, not just students of color. NAFEO urges all school systems, colleges and universities not to retreat from their thoughtful, holistic review processes of applicants that are resulting in diverse environments. In retreat, we will lose opportunities to move our envied educational institutions to a higher degree of excellence and to prepare diverse students for our labor forces, entrepreneurships and for full participation in the economic and civic life in America and abroad. Proceed by standing on the letter and spirit of the law. NAFEO stands ready to provide advice and counsel in these efforts.

Lezli Baskerville, is President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, based in Washington, D.C.. 

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