Friday, January 26, 2007

Affirmative Action Facing Turning Point Nationally

This morning's New York Times has an update on the developing politics of affirmative action nationally. With the electoral success of Michigan's Measure 2 last November -- which banned racial preferences in the state -- universities and activists across the nation are rethinking how they can maintain desired racial balances in college admissions. Here's some background:

With Michigan’s new ban on affirmative action going into effect, and similar ballot initiatives looming in other states, many public universities are scrambling to find race-blind ways to attract more blacks and Hispanics.

At Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, a new admissions policy, without mentioning race, allows officials to consider factors like living on an Indian reservation or in mostly black Detroit, or overcoming discrimination or prejudice.

Others are using many different approaches, like working with mostly minority high schools, using minority students as recruiters, and offering summer prep programs for promising students from struggling high schools. Ohio State University, for example, has started a magnet high school with a focus on math and science, to help prepare potential applicants, and sends educators into poor and low-performing middle and elementary schools to encourage children, and their parents, to start planning for college.

Officials across the country have a sense of urgency about the issue in part because Ward Connerly, the black California businessman behind such initiatives in California and Michigan, is planning a kind of Super Tuesday next fall, with ballot initiatives against racial preferences in several states. He is researching possible campaigns in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, and expects to announce next month which states he has chosen....

Mr. Connerly said that a decade ago, when California passed its ban, Proposition 209, he thought the state was ahead of its time, but that now, he believes “the country is poised to make a decision about race, about what its place in American life is going to be — and I really believe the popular vote may be the way to achieve that.”
A decisive national statement on race preferences is needed. The Rehnquist Court by the 1990s had been requiring more strict scrutiny of race conscious policies, but the Court's 2003 decisions coming out of Michigan preserved the use of affirmative action in admissions decisions. Sandra Day O'Connor argued that in 25 years the nation would no longer need race preferences in determining seats at America's campuses -- and for some the 25-year limit can be seen as a last chance timeline for disadvantaged groups to get their achievement levels up to par. Connerly hopes to speed up the process, as do I. Blacks and other minorities can and should compete on equal ground in the academic realm. Affirmative action simply provides a crutch for the less prepared and discriminates against those most qualified for the rigors of university life.

I'm not surprised by the supportive positions on continued racial preferences expressed by some of those interviewed in the article:

“You’d think public universities are charged with special responsibility for ensuring access, but it could come to be exactly the opposite, if there are a lot of these state initiatives,” said Evan Caminker, the dean of the University of Michigan Law School, adding, “in terms of public values, it’s a big step backward.”
No, I would think that the special responsibility of public universities is to remove all formal barriers to enrollment, and let measures of academic excellence determine which students are accepted. But wait! Academic achievement's not the most important thing to diversity mavens. The college experience is getting to be all about "comfort levels" for minorities on campus. Or at least one gets that idea when listening to college administators. Check out this quote -- in reference to the low numbers of blacks currently enrolled at the University of California -- which I see as basically supportive of self-segregation among underrepresented groups:

“Folks look for a place that’s comfortable,” said Richard Shaw, Stanford’s admissions dean. “They want a sense that there’s kids like them at the institution.”
Stanford's student body is 11 percent African-American, and the larger black enrollment there allegedly creates a greater happiness zone for black students. I blogged about this phenomenon in my earlier post on UC Riverside's high diversity, which is held out as a key attraction for qualified minorities applying to the school. Diversity's fine, as I've said many times. My hope remains, though, that traditionally underrepresented groups will seek the highest levels of academic attainment, and that they won't make excuses about gaps in achievement when not everyone makes the grade.

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