More on affirmative action

Keeping you up to date on this issue: an asian student, Jian Li is filing suit against Princeton University for descriminatory policies against asian students. This Chinese high school student, in the top 1% of his class, with perfect SAT scores, was denied admission to Princeton after being wait-listed (he is attending Yale this year). His claim rests on recent research performed by Princeton’s faculty who found that at America’s elite Universities, Asian-Americans would be the group that would benefit most from eliminating affirmative action, predicting three-fold increase in their enrollment, from 12.2% to 33.7%. Conversely, enrollment of blacks and hispanics, the article claims, would fall from 9% to 3.3% and 7.9% to 3.8%, respectively.

The suit may not succeed, but it puts an interesting spin on the affirmative action policies. Is there a perception that grades + SAT scores = admission to elite Universities? Having just returned from France, where I stayed at the Ecole Normale Superieure, a true meritocracy, I can say that that system too has its disadvantages: students take two or three years after high school preparing for the entrance examination to be admitted; they are often overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, etc. (manifesting itself in nearly annual suicide attempts–this past year, resulting in the death of one student); the system is under-funded and lacks vitality; and almost no racial diversity apparent at the institution.


MCRI passes

Michigan voters choose to follow California in banning affirmative action practices at state Universities. It seems that, when put to a vote, the simplistic opposition of equality vs. discrimination wins out over evidence of the benefits to socially and racially diverse classrooms. Inside Higher Ed has all the relevant info.

Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, Democracy and Higher-ed

One of the interesting trends to notice in this year’s political season (apart from the fact that this is the first time that parties have spent more money in an interim election than in the preceding presidential race) is the current trend toward ballot initiatives: proposing ammendments to state constitutions on controversial “wedge” issues. The broad issue is certainly a failure on the part of legislators across the country to do their job. Constitutional ammendments are an ineffective and illegitimate way to push through controversial legislation. Unfortunately, because of the political polarization of these issues, legislatures themselves lack the political wherewithal to creat compromise, write appropriate legislation and open that legislation for judicial review. Instead, judges and the people at large are forced to make decisions on issues that are beyond their capacity or authority.

One particular issue that should have all educators ears perked is MCRI. The ammedment essentially states that no publicly funded institution of higher education can base the decision for admission, employment or contracting of work on the basis of race, sex, gender, ethnicity, color or national origin. University of Michigan provides all the relevant information about the ammendment and its impact on current school policies.

This issue goes well beyond the typical scenario where a well-qualified white candidate is denied admission to the college of his or her choice in favor of less well-qualified candidates of color. First, it would directly effect the hiring policies of college employees and faculty, as well as potentially effecting other government programs, like health services, targeted toward specific genders and races. Second, the fact that it is addressed through a ballot initiative raises an additional concern from the point of view of democracy and an informed public, as a recent Inside Higher Education article demonstrates. Are voters at large the right ones to be making these kinds of choices? And are they receiving adequate substantive information about the topic through the news media?

In general, this is an issue I have rarely understood. Ordinarily, affirmative action debates are framed in terms of the fairness and equality of preferential treatment: either you think it is just and right to treat certain people preferentially for whatever reason, or you don’t. From this perspective, the debate hardly has any hope of reaching a reasonable compromise. Add to that the usual scary scenario of losing a job or a place at the University of your choice to a less well-qualified candidate based on race, and there is almost no hope for even reasonable dialogue. However, in higher education it seems clear to me that the whole purpose of the institution is to design an environment (albeit at times artificial) that will contribute to the kind of education one want students to receive. Universities achieve this by hiring certain types of employees and by admitting certain kinds of students. Now the formula for success here is difficult to guage, but there is good evidence that a diverse student body produces a better prepared work-force for the global economy; one more responsive to issues of racial integration and immigration of foriegn nationals; one prepared to integrate into a diverse work environment and make political decisions that benefit all Americans, not just a particular ethnic or social group; in short, it produces good citizens.

Justice O’Connor, writing the majority opinion in the Grutter v. Bollinger case that upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action criteria cites:

numerous expert studies and reports showing that such diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession. Major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints. High-ranking retired officers and civilian military leaders assert that a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps is essential to national security. Moreover, because universities, and in particular, law schools, represent the training ground for a large number of the Nation’s leaders, Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 634, the path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. Thus, the Law School has a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body.

The same conclusion was upheld by Justices Scalia and Thomas in their opinion (assenting in part and dissenting in part):

The “educational benefit” that the University of Michigan seeks to achieve by racial discrimination consists, according to the Court, of “ ‘cross-racial understanding,’ ” ante, at 18, and “ ‘better prepar[ation of] students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society,’ ” ibid., all of which is necessary not only for work, but also for good “citizenship,” ante, at 19.

This is exactly the point. Higher education is meant not only to provide an avenue for success and to prepare graduates for the workforce, but also to produce “good citizens” in the broadest possible sense of that term. As long as Universities can demonstrate that affirmative action programs are directed toward this end, they should be encouraged to continue that project.