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Harvard scholars convene civil rights think tank – Cover Story

Cambridge, Mass.

Recent court rulings against affirmative action
have left some college admissions and financial aid officers asking,
“If we can’t consider race as part of the admissions process, then how
can we make sure Blacks, Latinos and other underrepresented ethnic
groups are not shut out of higher education?”

In response, more than one hundred scholars, lawyers, researchers,
advocates, admissions and financial aid officers and students met at
Harvard University to explore this question and identify ways to
maintain access to higher education in an anti-affirmative action

The conference was the third in a series convened by Harvard
University’s new Civil Rights Project. The project was begun by
Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law school professor who served as
President Bill Clinton’s advisor on affirmative action, and Gary
Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard.

“Gary and I decided last spring that we wanted to start,
essentially, a civil rights think tank rooted in academia, with a base
at Harvard, but with strong collaborative relationships with
researchers in institutions around the country,” Edley says. The
co-founder’s ambition is for the multi-disciplinary think tank to fund
research and publish academic papers on civil rights issues as they
relate to education, with the ultimate goal of influencing public

“We do not want to be propagandists in the way that the Heritage
Foundation is,” Edley says. “On the other hand, we want to focus
world-class research efforts on the most pressing civil rights issues
and take aggressive steps to disseminate or market the results so that
they help shape public debate.” (For a review of Edley’s new book on
affirmative action, please see pg. 25.)

The April 11 conference, titled “Non-Racial Standards and Minority
Opportunity,” reviewed the effect that judicial decisions such as
Hopwood, Fordice and Proposition 209, have had on admissions practices
in states such as Texas, Mississippi and California. It also featured
research presentations from scholars who have examined the alternatives
to current affirmative action admissions practices, and featured an
open discussion on the implications these court decisions and research
might have on public policy, admissions practices and advocacy.

The Research

Researchers Thomas J. Kane, of Harvard’s Kennedy School of
Government, and Jerome Karabel, a University of California at Berkeley
sociologist, explored what might happen if colleges substituted
class-based screening mechanisms for the race-based mechanisms, or
relied largely on test scores in their admissions practices.

Based upon the findings of his research, Kane’s conclusion is that
as long as institutions maintain a reliance on high school grades and
standardized test scores, class-based preferences would do little to
cushion the impact of ending race-based practices. “Blacks and
Hispanics are a minority among high-test-scoring youth,” Kane says. His
data show that this remains true even among students from families with
annual household incomes below $20,000.

If racial considerations are eliminated from the admissions
practices of the top 20 percent of the nation’s colleges and
universities, Kane’s research suggests that the enrollment of Blacks
and Latinos could be expected to drop by roughly 15 to 20 percent,
while the enrollment of whites would increase by only about two
percentage points.

The focus of Karabel’s research, presented under the working title,
“The Effects of Color-Blind Admissions: The Case of California and
Implications for the Nation,” is the effect that Resolution SP-1 has
had on the admissions practices in the University of California (UC)
system. Passed by the UC Regents in 1995, SP-1 prohibits the use of
race, religion, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in admissions

Although SP-1 did not officially affect undergraduate admissions
until January of this year, Karabel found that the action has already
had a chilling effect on the applicant pool. White and Asian applicant
rates for the 1996-97 class increased by roughly 10 and 11 percent
respectively, while Black and Latino applicant rates declined by
approximately 8 and 6 percent respectively.

SP-1 appears to have hurt the professional school applicant pool as
well. At the medical school, applications by Blacks and Latinos
declined by nearly 9 percent between 1995 and 1996. In 1997, the
downward trend continued, resulting in an unprecedented two-year
decline among these applicants.

Timothy Ready, assistant vice president for community and minority
programs at the Association of American Medical Colleges, offered a
more grim forecast. He predicts that if race-conscious admissions
practices are abandoned by the nation’s medical schools and rely solely
on standardized test scores and grade point averages, the country could
experience a 75 percent decrease in enrollment by people of color.

UC system law schools, which have a long history of relying heavily
on LSAT scores and GPAs, showed no clear pattern of decline yet in
Karabel’s research. However, Karabel notes that of the 3,619 students
nationwide who had LSAT scores of 165 or more and GPAs of 3.5 or
better, only twenty-two were African American and twenty were Chicano.

“It is an illusion that class would be a reasonable substitute [for
race],” Karabel said, adding that “color-blind” policies are more
likely to result in the resegregation of American higher education.

Karabel’s argument was supported by Orfield, who presented research
on the failure of class-based remedies to housing segregation. “Trying
to diversify with class has proven problematic in housing,” said
Orfield, arguing that problems rooted in race cannot be solved without
race-conscious remedies.

Jorge Chapa, associate dean and director of the Graduate Outreach
Program and an associate professor at the Johnson School of Public
Affairs at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, described the impact
Hopwood has had on his institution.

“African American admissions dropped from sixty-five students [in
19961] to five [in 19971] and Chicano admissions dropped from seventy
to eighteen,” Chapa said. (For a fuller discussion of events in Texas,
please see pg. 18.)

Whites represented 76.1 percent of UT-Austin admissions in 1996 but
their numbers increased to 85 percent in 1997, while African American
admittees sank from 5.9 percent in 1996 to 0.6 percent in 1997.
Hispanic admissions also dropped from 6.3 percent to 2.3 percent.

At the undergraduate level, the decline at UT was less dramatic.
Nevertheless, African American admissions dropped from 4 percent of the
class in 1996 to 2.9 percent in 1997, while Hispanics dropped from 15
percent to approximately 13 percent.

Dr. Susanna Finnell, executive director of honors programs and
academic scholarships at Texas A&M University, reported that
because the Texas attorney general interprets the Hopwood ruling as
forbidding the use of race in admissions, not only was she forced to
issue scholarships to fewer students of color but the burden of
administering the scholarship program increased too.

“The public doesn’t understand what is happening,” Finnell said.
“Unfortunately, the result of this, I feel, is institutional racism.”

Southern Education Foundation consultant Robert Kronley offered
more discouraging news from Mississippi, where the application rate to
two of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)
has dropped since the Hopwood decision. Citing a study published by
Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning, Kronley said freshman
enrollment at Alcorn State University dropped by 11.3 percent between
the fall of 1995 and that of 1996. At Jackson State University, the
decline was 16.2 percent during the same period.

Viable Alternatives

To try to ensure a diverse student body, UC-Irvine’s Director of
Admissions Dr. Susan Wilbur and Dr. Marguerite Bonous Hammarth devised
a pew two-pass admissions procedure. Students were first screened on
the basis of academic achievement and then on the basis of what Wilbur
and Bonous Hammarth characterize as a personal profile review, or PPR.
The review takes into consideration factors such as leadership and
initiative, honors and awards, geographic challenges, personal
challenges, self awareness, civic and cultural awareness, and any
specialized knowledge a student might have.

UC Regents require that at least 50 percent of UC admissions be
based on academic performance alone. Wilbur and Bonous Hammarth use
their PPR index when making decisions on who would occupy the remaining
50 percent of freshman slots.

“It was a labor-intensive process and there was a lot of staff training,” Wilbur said.

The extra effort was worth it, according to Bonous Hammarth, who
said, “The academic profile continues to have the greatest weight, but
the personal profile review added significantly to our information

The UCI system is more like the admissions review process used by
many private institutions around the country. Ultimately, it yielded a
slight increase in the number of students of color UCI admitted,
although the percentage distribution remained comparable to what the
university had achieved the previous year, when race had been taken
into consideration.

UC-Irvine will attempt to implement a similar strategy next year
under Proposition 209, when the admissions officers will not be allowed
to inquire into the race of applicants.

“But how do you keep this from looking like a squishy process?” Edley asked fellow lawyers attending the conference.

“I would argue that you have to have something to ameliorate the
harsh impact of testing,” said Penda. Hair, director of the NAACP’s
Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington, D.C.

Hair’s comments about the problems inherent in testing were later
illustrated during a presentation by the University of Michigan’s
Michael Nettles, who is heading The College Fund/UNCF’s Frederick D.
Patterson Research Institute. His data show that the vast gap between
the SAT scores of Blacks and whites has remained static. Affirmative
action strategies, according to Nettles, have enabled institutions to
consider students they might otherwise have overlooked. Nevertheless,
Nettles found that a great deal of weight continues to be placed on
test scores.

“The effect of test scores upon access and participation appears to
be greatest at more selective colleges and universities,” he said. The
group discussed the need to research the progress of students who
receive an opportunity to attend college despite mediocre SAT scores.

While roughly 130 institutions have experimented with eliminating
the SAT from their admissions practices, many find that students still
feel compelled to submit the scores, hoping it will give them an edge.
A conference participant from Bates College said that even though her
institution hadn’t required SAT scores for eleven years, roughly 75 to
80 percent of applicants send them voluntarily.

Participants in the conference agreed that more effective public
relations strategies are needed to convey what effect anti-affirmative
policies are having on higher education. Edley said the Harvard project
hopes to have a Web site soon and that it will eventually distribute
press releases to expand its outreach.

Emphasizing that messages must be crafted in terms that
non-academics can understand, Trevor Chandler, executive director of
academic advancement at University of California, said, “We cannot
fight political battles with academic tools. It doesn’t work.”

The manner in which Proposition 209 advocates used inflammatory anecdotal evidence was cited as an example of the problem.

“The nation is doing legislation by anecdote,” said Ernest Chavez,
Associate Director, of Colorado State University’s Tri-Ethnic Center.
“We must combat this with tons of anecdotes that support our research.”

“I am fairly optimistic about what the future holds,” Karabel said,
adding that he believes that once the public understands what these
anti-affirmative action policies mean for society as a whole, Americans
will reconsider.

The Harvard conference raised more questions than it answered, but
Edley and Orfield view this as the first step toward developing
effective solutions.

“Look, we’re trying too change the world,” Edley says. “In a very
real sense, what we hope is that the participants — through broader
dissemination of the papers, policy makers, administrators and lawyers
— will get the benefit of the best research available on topics that
are of immediate and critical importance. We also hope researchers will
develop a more sophisticated understanding of the challenges facing
lawyers and policy makers.

“There has been an under-investment by the nation in research on
racial and ethnic justice, and part of our goal here is to try and
stimulate more activity in the area by building a community.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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