A candid discussion on race-conscious college admissions policies and affirmative action ruffled feathers, as representatives from both sides of the issue met in Washington to debate whether colleges and universities could achieve significant diversity without using race or ethnicity as a factor in admissions decisions.
Hosted by Cox, Matthews and Associates, the publishers of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine, the seminar, “Diversity Without Preferences: Is it Possible?” launched a two-hour discussion on the role historic, systemic discrimination, socioeconomic status, substandard primary education and other societal impediments play in the college preparedness of minority applicants. No consensus was reached. Opponents and proponents of using race in college admissions stood their ground.
Roger Clegg, a panelist and president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit social justice organization, was firm in his belief that race and ethnicity should not be used in college admissions decisions.
“We cannot do that in 2008 if we are admitting the most academically qualified students,” he said. “That is a problem, but it can be solved only if we get rid of the disparity in academic qualifications. Disparities, Clegg insisted, are caused by “illegitimacy and culture.”
“If you have an ethnic group that has 7 out of 10 children born out of wedlock, they are not going to have the same academic qualifications as an ethnic group that has a 1 out of 10 illegitimacy rate,” said Clegg, comparing African-Americans to Japanese Americans.
Clegg and his organization are aligned with a group of advocacy organizations that believe race and ethnicity should never be used in college admissions.
Offering a counter argument in support of affirmative action, Shirley Wilcher, a panelist and executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action, said “preference” was a loaded term.
“I take issue with the use of the word preferences in this discussion,” said Wilcher, “giving it any legitimacy adds to the arguments of those on the right who would do away with any and all forms of affirmative action.”
Wilcher, whose work in civil rights began with a legal clerkship with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1978, has served as staff attorney at the National Women’s Law Center and as deputy secretary for contract compliance from 1994-2001 at the U.S. Department of Labor.
She added that in the cases of higher education, business and employment, “affirmative action doesn’t mean preference, and it doesn’t mean quotas. Affirmative action is a set of positive steps taken to promote equal opportunity. We have to acknowledge that the playing field simply isn’t level.”
The affirmative action debate has raged on for decades, offering various court rulings that temporarily appeased advocates on both sides of the issue. The U.S. Supreme Court limits the capacity of colleges and universities to use race as a factor in admissions.
Still, California businessman and activist Ward Connerly, who opposes affirmative action programs based on race and gender, has prevailed three times in elections, with voters in California, Michigan and Washington state approving proposals banning government-sponsored race and gender preferences in public education, state hiring and public contracts.
Connerly targeted five states with similar measures this year, but the campaign already has suffered two defeats — conceding that too few signatures would be gathered by the deadline in Missouri, and bowing out in Oklahoma in the face of challenges to the signatures gathered there.
Instead of taking sides in the debate, Dr. Juan Gilbert, an associate computer science professor at Auburn University, presented what he believes to be a technological solution to the affirmative action debate within higher education, a holistic evaluation of college applications that he claims is effective and objective.
“Applications Quest allows you to achieve a diverse group of admitted applicants in line with school academic standards and objectives, without giving preference to any racial group or ethnicity in admissions decisions,” Gilbert said. (The owners of CMA Publishing have an ownership interest in AQ.)
Applications Quest, a computer software program, groups a school’s applicants into numerous clusters, each containing students with similar backgrounds and qualifications. The students are grouped using a broad range of common attributes rather than a single criterion such as race. Applications may then be selected from each cluster to ensure a diverse group of accepted applicants.
“In order to give preference, you must identify the thing you want to give preference to,” said Gilbert. “The software has no ability to say this is race, let me [apply a few] extra points to their application. Every difference [race, gender and GPA] is treated in an equal way,” Gilbert says.
Joyce Smith, a panelist and chief executive officer of the National Association of College Admission Counseling, remained neutral on the issue of affirmative action but insisted on the necessity of programs that make higher education accessible for underrepresented minorities, who will soon be a majority in this country. Colleges have to change to become more inclusive, she said.
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