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Ending Affirmative Action: 25 Years to Go

Ending Affirmative Action: 25 Years to Go
By Dr. Charles V. Willie

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor repeatedly mentioned “the educational benefits of a diverse student body” in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that approved the way the University of Michigan’s law school selects applicants for matriculation to diversify its student body. Specifically she said, “The law school’s educational judgment that such diversity is essential to its educational mission is one to which we defer.” Moreover, she acknowledged that in our society “race, unfortunately, still matters.” For this reason, the law school uses race as one of several student characteristics in admissions decisions.

A school’s admissions policy that is concerned with equitable procedures that enhance excellence in education and that also invites underrepresented minorities may be called affirmative action. Justice O’Connor hoped that 25 years into the future affirmative action would not be necessary. Her hope can be realized if all colleges and universities develop recruitment strategies that yield diversified student bodies, today and forever.
My research and personal experience reveal that many pre-eminent public schools in the United States have diversified student bodies with good outcomes. Using 1996 data, I found that a Cambridge, Mass., public elementary school with the highest average achievement test score had a student body that was 51 percent White and 49 percent people of color. In 1994, when Boston had a “controlled choice” student assignment plan with racial fairness guidelines that desegregated all public schools, about one-third of its 117 schools were frequently chosen by students in all racial groups. These attractive elementary and middle schools, which we labeled “over chosen” schools, were fully diversified. They had average achievement test scores above the national norm and higher than the average scores in other Boston schools. In addition, they had lower dropout and suspension rates than those found in other Boston schools. Similarly, Lee County, Fla., implemented a “controlled choice” student assignment plan in the 1998-1999 school year. During the second year of implementation, this plan had diversified all public schools and the proportion of state-rated “A” schools increased from 16 percent to 32 percent while the proportion of state rated “D” and “F” schools decreased from 15 percent to 0 percent.
These public school districts have experienced the educational benefits of diversity because they decided to implement the desegregation requirements of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Justice O’Connor’s hope that affirmative action in college admissions will not be necessary 25 years from today will be realized only if our colleges and universities do the right thing and implement the opportunities for diversity made legally permissible by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.
What I am saying is this: whether affirmative action procedures will be necessary a quarter of a century from today will depend upon the will of college and universities to do what is fair for all applicants — minority applicants as well as majority applicants. The University of Michigan’s law school presents a tried and true model that other colleges and universities can use. And, of course, there are Harvard and Stanford, pre-eminent private universities on the East and West coasts, that have admitted students to the first-year class, one-third or more of whom are students of color. In these schools, excellence and equity complement each other, as they always should; one without the other is incomplete. Now that the Supreme Court has offered its opinion along with a desegregation “road map” prepared by the University of Michigan’s law school, colleges and universities cannot say they know not how to achieve a diversified student body.  
— Dr. Charles V. Willie is professor emeritus of education at  the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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