Hit and Myth: Conference examines successes, fallacies of affirmative action
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Ever since Hopwood vs. Texas, the court decision that nullified minority admissions practices at the University of Texas Law School, the pundits have gleefully predicted the demise of campus affirmative action programs.But if a recent conference held at the University of Virginia provides any measure of the contrary view, the commentators need to stop the presses. Affirmative action is not going gentle into that good night. So said the crowd gathered here last month for “Charting Diversity: Commitment, Honor, Challenge.”The speakers were all battle-scarred veterans in the nation’s diversity wars. One panel featured Ohio State President Dr. William Kirwan, who led the losing battle to save the University of Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker scholarship program. The University of Michigan, headed to U.S. District Court this summer to defend its undergraduate and law admissions practices, sent two representatives. Michael Olivas came from the University of Houston, where he is a chaired professor of law and director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance, to talk about the impact of Hopwood. And activist attorney Angela Oh, a member of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission and the President’s Commission on Race, flew in from California to share accounts of her state’s battles with diversity foe Ward Connerly and Proposition 209.They came to a university that could not have imagined such a gathering a few short years before — a fact of which University of Virginia President Dr. John Casteen appeared intensely aware as he gave his charge to the conferees. “This issue matters here at the University of Virginia,” Casteen noted, “because segregation, legally mandated single-sex education and massive resistance to the integration of public schools are matters that have touched every family that has lived in Virginia over the course of this century.”The number of Black applicants to the University of Virginia is down 25 percent this year, and some school officials believe a controversy over affirmative action is partly to blame.According to Casteen, the conference is intended to kick off “a year of reflection,” in which working groups composed of students, faculty, administration and members of the local community would research the legal issues involved and develop a plan of action.Armed with a blizzard of statistics, the panels set out to attack the myths that have fueled the backlash against inclusion.Chief among those myths is that of merit — or as University of Virginia Board of Visitors member Terence Ross phrased matters last September, “clearly, in some cases (the university is) reaching a little bit down in our academic standards to recruit Black students.”Such attitudes are strikingly common —even fashionable — these days, noted Kirwan. But they’re based on myths that are in no way borne out by objective research. At the heart of those myths is the notion that merit is a quality that can be objectively quantified, noted Oh.But research by Dr. Michael Nettles, professor of education at Michigan and director of the United Negro College Fund’s nationally renowned research institute, explodes that notion. The conventional wisdom among diversity foes is that poor test scores make minorities undesirable at top schools — there is a fear that students will drop out or flunk out of the best schools because they can’t compete. But Nettles found that graduation rates at the nation’s top-tier schools were at 86 percent for Black students, 91 percent for Hispanic students, 97 percent for Asian students and 96 percent for White students. At less competitive schools, graduation rates actually dropped for minorities, dramatically in some cases. “The fact is, we just feel so much more comfortable when we have numbers,” Oh said as she noted the importance of grade point averages, class rankings and test scores in admissions decisions. Test scores are “the easy way out, but they’re not the smart way because … they can’t measure creativity or commitment and willingness to go the extra mile. They can’t measure leadership capacity.”Thus, in the post-Hopwood legal landscape, universities have to look to other strategies to affirm their commitment to inclusion — strategies that may be much more costly in terms of time, energy and creativity for administrators, faculty and even students. But Olivas says this is already happening.“When Brown v. the Board of Education was handed down in 1954, every school in the South said, ‘It doesn’t apply to us,’ ” he said. “So why is it with…Hopwood, so many schools are just rolling over, giving up the keys to the store?” At the University of Houston, for example, Olivas noted that the admissions committee used to base 25 percent of its decision on “full-file review” of the 3,000 to 4,000 applications received annually, while the rest were accepted on the basis of a numerical algorithm. “We’ve reversed those percentages,” Olivas said. And even though full-file review of 75 percent of the applications sounds like an onerous task, he argues that this method is an important principle at work, both for Texas and for the nation.
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