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The Executive Officer’s Column

Affirming Action in Higher Education

While the social sciences don’t tell us how to build the American ideal of a fair and just society, social scientists have documented that changes in laws, retraction of contrary laws, and new legislation do work but are sometimes insufficient to change the subtle behaviors of individuals and vestigial practices of institutions. Full integration of American higher education is an intuitive goal that is a sine qua non to achieve this American ideal. Many individuals and the federal government recognize the national economic advantages that derive from inclusive, rather than exclusive, educational policies—heightened productivity, higher earning power of a better-educated and skilled population, and higher international competitiveness—but do not agree on the means to achieve them.

Higher Education Context

Some of the nation’s most salient domestic policy issues are about higher education as evidenced by recent intense presidential, congressional and public debates. This year’s Chronicle of Higher Education national public opinion poll on higher education shows continued high public trust in colleges (with 90 percent of the 1,000 respondents ranking colleges near the top of all types of institutions) and belief that higher-education institutions are among the most valuable resources in the nation. At the same time, 75 percent believe that certain routine practices in higher education (e.g., “legacy” admissions, and overemphasis on athletics) should be eliminated. With more parents perceiving college admission to be increasingly difficult for their children and the cost of college to be skyrocketing, the Chronicle poll shows Americans overall wanting access to higher education to be fair and democratic. But, 45 percent opposed race-conscious admission policies. Among white and black respondents, 50 and 71 percent, respectively, support affirmative action.

Paradigm Shift Meanwhile, congressional legislators heatedly debate legislation to renew the Higher Education Act of 1965 in ways that impact college accessibility for financially disadvantaged (low- and middle-income) students. At issue is the cost of student aid programs (e.g., Pell grants, loan restrictions) in the context of increasing deficits and uncommon drains on the federal treasury from permanent tax cuts, overseas war, homeland security, and a baby boom generation approaching retirement. In this context, modest and often obscure federal programs are on the public radar screen, drawing controversy because they were designed specifically to encourage greater numbers of minority students into higher education and into fields in which their low numbers have been considered both a national embarrassment and a significant and meaningful gap in our science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce.

Higher education institutions are also under mounting legal pressure. In early April, Washington University in St. Louis announced that members of any race could apply for scholarships that had previously been restricted to minority students. The university made this change based on guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), following legal challenges by the Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute. Washington University’s program change is but one example of many recent ones at other institutions and in the government (e.g., National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, National Merit Scholarship Corporation) that, for fear of legal challenges, are either discontinuing race-exclusive programs or opening to all races those minority scholarships and other programs that had initially been designed to remedy previous discrimination.

Central to this new socio-legal context is last year’s Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger decisions by the United States Supreme Court. Although the Court upheld race-conscious university admissions on diversity grounds, it also created ambiguity over the “narrowness” of practices tailored to achieve educational diversity. The decisions have also generated challenges to remedial programs based on race and widespread legally cautious responses by educational organizations that sponsor them. The current double-bind-like situation stems partly from the absence of socially and legally vetted systems ready to replace long-practiced and more clear-cut remedial practices sometimes perceived as functionally indistinguishable from quota systems. To add to this complexity, federal pressure persists for affirmative action in those 11 states that have made insufficient progress, by government standards, toward eliminating vestiges of “separate but equal” higher education systems (across both predominantly minority and white educational institutions). The OCR and federal courts continue to monitor these states’ programs and contribute to educational institutions being pulled mercilessly in different directions by finely tuned but not finely integrated or coordinated laws, judicial decisions, and national economic and market consequences.

Strategy Shift

What these developments (and many other challenges) suggest, as the nation commemorates this May the 50th anniversary of the Oliver Brown et al. vs Board of Education of Topeka decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, is that we need to engage more aggressively in developing new strategies if we are to continue vigorous pursuit of the American ideal of fairness and equality in higher education and retard disturbing trends toward resegregation. Social division and its consequence, racial inequality and segregation, are expensive to the nation, but judicial decisions and congressional actions are moving toward recreating a legal context that threatens to legitimize these costly arrangements once again.

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer