Universities Need to Take a Stand and Defend Affirmative Action
In a world preoccupied with outer appearances and organized hypocrisy, it is truly no surprise that we have seen the demise of affirmative action in higher education. I am not surprised, nor am I shocked over the Hopwood decision, Proposition 209 and now the One Florida Initiative. Not only are attempts made to ensure that affirmative action becomes a thing of the past, but America has once again turned its back on the primary issue affecting this place we call the home of the free. My question is free from what? From whom? It is no secret that many in the academy truly believe that we have reached a point of equity, equality and justice in our hiring practices. As educational leaders, we are still forced to spend countless hours debating the legitimacy of affirmative action programs.Recent attacks on affirmative action programs across the country have caused many institutions in the academy to pause and ponder just how far they are willing to go for equality in the work place. Some institutions have completely eliminated plans to diversify the student body and the work environment, while others have waffled and become baffled about just what to do. Still others have successfully involved themselves in what I call “image management” — strategically manipulating the image of the institutions to avoid public criticism. Despite the fact that many reports and empirical studies have shown that underrepresented communities have not been the major beneficiaries of affirmative action, there are those surrounded by ivy-covered walls who still believe that it is about quotas and hiring unqualified people. This cannot be further from the truth. There have been many debates and political fallout about what some consider separatist programs for students of color in higher education. Some of these debates have been educationally and intellectually stimulating, while others have proven to be a game of persistent ignorance and vicious politics aimed to maintain the status quo. Although “affirmative action” and “ethnic and racial diversity” are closely related, we need to understand that maintaining access for underrepresented communities is a prerequisite for addressing and ensuring a climate that is inviting and livable for all who have to coexist. There is no doubt that that these are very delicate and sometimes dreaded issues to discuss. We must understand that, as a society, and certainly as educational enterprises, we must at least talk openly and freely about the reality of the changing demographics we are experiencing in this country. If there were ever a time to address these issues, the time is now and the place is in the academy.As our nation grapples with the reality of the demographic shifts of its citizenry, we in higher education must be willing to take the lead to challenge overt and disguised attempts to take away the one thing that aims to provide ethnic diversity in our institutions. I would like to think that we are at a point in history where we can rely on the good will and ensure the consistency of Americans to make fair and equitable hiring and admissions decisions. But we are simply not there.For policy makers in higher education, it is no longer acceptable to pay lip service to the development of strong recruitment initiatives for underrepresented populations coupled with a strong campus climate where all students can matriculate and ultimately graduate. University recruitment and retention programs for underrepresented populations must have the unequivocal support of all policy makers if we hope to reap positive results. When racial and ethnic communities have to constantly fight over a small piece of the pie, and when we have to constantly debate over the need for strong recruitment and retention programs, we all lose. If the academy is to demonstrate its greatness, it must not participate in situational commitment.There is tremendous strength in achieving racial and ethnic diversity on our campuses. Maintaining complacency with minor adjustments in enrollment is dangerous. Hence, an image without substance is counterfeit. We have many challenges and choices that confront us as they relate to retaining underrepresented students, faculty and staff of color. The moral and ethical mandate for all of us — certainly for policy makers — is to manifest our commitment to justice, equity and equality. We must first invest in educating ourselves to better understand racial and ethnic diversity beyond the rhetoric. Allow ourselves to move to a point where we are willing to be personally challenged and to challenge systems designed to maintain the status quo. Simply put, universities must make difficult decisions during a time of racial polarization. Achieving diversity is our greatest resource, and if we fail to recognize this, we have all failed no matter what our individual successes are. I know the capacity lies within each of us. Our choice is to take the personal lead to make it happen. The bottom line is results. Anything else is Rhetoric.
— Dr. Lee Jones is the associate dean for academic affairs and instruction and an associate professor of educational leadership in the College of Education at Florida State University.
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