On My Mind
by Michele Tolela Myers, president
“A prohibition on the consideration of race in admissions would drastically reduce minority participation in the most selective professional programs. Does it make sense to resegregate, de facto, many of the country's most respected professional schools and to slow the progress that has been made in achieving diversity within the professions? We don't think so.”
William G. Bowen and Neil L. Rudenstine, in “Race-Sensitive Admissions: Back to Basics,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 3, 2003*
Another war is being waged in this country by some who would have us roll the clock back in our quest for equal educational opportunity. The battle: affirmative action. The battlefield: the United States Supreme Court, which is hearing two cases involving race-conscious admissions at the University of Michigan and will make a decision by summer—a decision that I hope will reaffirm the 1978 Bakke decision allowing race-conscious decisions in college and university admissions.
Sarah Lawrence, along with 28 other highly selective liberal arts colleges, filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the University of Michigan. Our reason for joining our colleagues in this matter is simple: Affirmative action is in the national interest — and it works.
At Sarah Lawrence, admission is not a numbers game. We look carefully at each student, weighing high school academic performance, personal accomplishments, challenges overcome, talents and passions. We assess how we think the student would contribute to Sarah Lawrence. We seek to recruit a diverse class, a class that will reflect the diversity present in our country: ethnic, religious, political, geographic, socio-economic. We seek diversity of academic interests: we want students interested in the sciences, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences. We seek students who can write since writing is such an integral part of the central pedagogy of the college. To be truly educated, students must have exposure to ideas different from their own, to perspectives derived from differences in life experiences. For us, this is not just an academic notion: Our students don’t sit in large lecture halls hearing only a professor deliver information to them; in every seminar they take, they actually interact with their peers and teachers. Classroom discussions are powerful vehicles for learning the subject matter, for understanding the self, for taking a critical look at one’s own deep-seated assumptions. It is essential that we not curtail our ability to bring in a class as diverse as possible.
Paying attention to ethnicity as one factor among others is essential for achieving this goal. Some believe that affirmative action is a process that involves taking a group of “qualified” students and replacing them with “less qualified” students, and is therefore a racist policy. The reality is that affirmative action is practiced only at the most selective colleges and universities in the country, those schools who receive applications from far more qualified students than they can admit (about 5 percent of all colleges and universities). Only these selective institutions have a choice of whom to admit and considerations that go well beyond test scores and GPAs. Athletes are routinely given special consideration in admission at many selective institutions, as are alumni children, or—in some less well publicized cases—students whose families might conceivably become large donors to the school. Different considerations yield classes with different profiles, but the one common denominator is the ability to succeed academically in the particular institution. In each class there are students stronger than others in one or more areas. Not every senior is tops in the class, not everyone is first chair violin, not everyone has already written a play. The goal of affirmative action is to create a society in which a diverse population has access to the most selective institutions and the highest possible level of education possible. To say that using race and ethnicity as one factor in admission is the same as admitting lesser qualified students strikes me as a racist position, one few of us in education endorse. Alternative ways of pursuing diversity have serious limitations. State universities could, for example, admit the top n% of the high school graduates in their state. In states where high schools are highly segregated, this system would yield a large number of minority students (although actual results have been less than expected). But this strategy would not work for private institutions that recruit nationally. Finally, it is troubling to rely on an approach that depends on the segregation of public high schools.
Race matters, and it matters profoundly in our country. When students have the same access to academic preparation and social advantages, affirmative action will not be necessary. Until then, it would be a mistake to erode the gains we have made in making admission to our highly selective colleges and universities more than a dream for talented minority students.
*William G. Bowen has been the president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation since 1988, and served as the president of Princeton University from 1972-1988. Neil L. Rudenstine, chair of the advisory board for ARTstor at the Mellon Foundation, was president of Harvard University from 1991-2001