Responding to Attacks on Affirmative
Recent political developments highlight higher education's failure to
communicate the importance of affirmative action policies to a larger public.
In response to frequently asked questions and commonly held myths and
misconceptions, we provide succinct arguments to help you communicate the
benefits of diversity and affirmative action programs on your own campuses.
The answers are excerpted from a report issued by the AAUP Commission on
Governance and Affirmative Action Policy (May 29, 1996) that examines the
decision by the Board of Regents of the University of California to end
affirmative action. The chair of the AAUP committee was Joan Wallach Scott,
professor of social science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton,
What were the original motivations for affirmative action?
[When initiated in California as early as 1964] there were at least three
motives for affirmative action. The first followed from the university's
public responsibility to provide higher education, in as inclusive a way as
possible, to the citizens of the state. The second followed from a social
commitment to rectify discrimination against minorities and women. The third
followed from an educational theory, untested in 1964 and now widely subscribed
to as the result of thirty years of experiment, that a diverse and
heterogeneous campus provided important educational benefits for all students.
Not only would students experience a richer, more dynamic intellectual
environment, but they would also learn how to negotiate their differences as
members of an academic community.
How has affirmative action actually affected admissions policies?
To achieve its broadly representative goals without compromising high academic
standards, the university developed a number of criteria for selecting students
for admission....A great deal of thought has gone into elaborating mixed
standards of admissibility to college. The system is based on a
belief--confirmed by years of experience and systematic study--that
merit and potential cannot be assessed solely on the basis of grades and test
scores....Typically, admissions committees seek balance with respect to
geography, socioeconomic background, race, gender, ethnicity, alumni ties,
parental wealth and/or fame, academic interests, extracurricular activities,
and so on.
It is wrong to call this system of selection a system of racial preference,
because many considerations go into creating a freshman class. And, [in most
cases] race is not given priority over these other considerations....Race is
only one of the factors taken into account about an individual's
characteristics and achievement when he or she is under consideration for
What has been the educational impact of affirmative action?
[S]urprisingly, the educational impact of affirmative action was barely
considered by those who supported the regents' decision. And yet some thirty
years of experience suggest that there have been, on the whole, important
educational benefits. (Information on a survey of the most recent research
demonstrating these educational benefits.)
First, at least one study has documented increased cultural awareness and
greater sensitivity to race on the part of students. Where concerted efforts
have been made to address racial tensions, students have a greater sense of
their own ability to influence interpersonal dynamics and social
Second, students have acquired familiarity with a range of disparate
cultures and styles; they have learned that their perspective is not the only
way of understanding a situation. The exposure to ideas and attitudes
fundamentally different from one's own is never easy; these encounters can be
difficult, even painful. The result, however, has been to prepare those who
will be the future leaders of the state and nation to understand the different
perspectives of their employees, students, and constituents.
Third, the curricular expansions that have accompanied affirmative action
and the diversity of faculty hired have given students the knowledge they need
to deal with an increasingly global economy and an increasingly interconnected
pattern of world affairs.
Fourth, universities have provided important experiments in democracy. The
diversity of the population has made the negotiation of differences a fact of
public life in the university, and this has opened important discussions about
tolerance and identity and about the forms of trust and mutual respect required
for the creation of democratic communities.
To receive a copy of the entire report, send $1.00 to cover
postage to AAUP, 1012 Fourteenth Street, NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20005;
Myths and Facts About Merit and
Affirmative action programs are unfair because they
undermine the meritocratic history and spirit of higher education.
Access to higher education has never been based exclusively on academic merit;
rather, colleges have historically favored those with the most financial
resources. Admissions officers at many colleges give preferential treatment to
alumni children and "development cases," or students from families that have
potential to make significant financial contributions to the college. In
addition, institutions of higher education do not admit students solely on the
basis of standardized scores or high school transcripts but often use a range
of information that attests to a student's unique qualities.
There is an objectively determined and straightforward
definition of a qualified student.
Most selective institutions have a broad definition of ideal students that
places relatively strong weight on students' personal characteristics,
including leadership, overcoming adversity, and unique talents which might
contribute to the educational environment.
The use of race as a factor in college admissions is
inconsistent with the way the admissions process normally works.
All candidates, including those admitted with affirmative action as a
consideration, are first evaluated according to some acceptable level of prior
academic achievement and future academic and leadership potential. There is a
plethora of objective and subjective criteria that admissions officers use to
determine if an applicant merits admission including geographic representation,
the mix of specific academic majors, the balance of in-state and out-of-state
residents, the number of athletes, and the mix of race/ethnicity in the student
Affirmative action leads to unfair exclusion of many white
students who are then forced to attend second and third choice schools.
Whites do not appear to be disadvantaged in the admissions process. In fact,
of all groups, African Americans and Asian Americans were most likely to report
having to attend second and third choice institutions. Latinos were
about as likely to attend their first choice institutions as white students,
but Latino and Native American students are highly concentrated in community
colleges and low-cost institutions with low selectivity which are close to
their respective communities.
Sylvia Hurtado and Christine Navia, "Reconciling College
Access and the Affirmative Action Debate," Affirmative Action's Testament of
Hope: Strategies for a New Era, edited by Mildred Garcia (Albany, N.Y.:
SUNY Press, forthcoming).
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