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Responding to Attacks on Affirmative Action

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, N.J.

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 admission.

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 interactions.

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; 202/737-5900.

Myths and Facts About Merit and Access

Myth:  Affirmative action programs are unfair because they undermine the meritocratic history and spirit of higher education.

Fact:  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.
Myth:  There is an objectively determined and straightforward definition of a qualified student.

Fact:  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.
Myth:  The use of race as a factor in college admissions is inconsistent with the way the admissions process normally works.

Fact:  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 body.
Myth:  Affirmative action leads to unfair exclusion of many white students who are then forced to attend second and third choice schools.

Fact:  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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