- By Kenneth T. Walsh
How are the nation's engineering schools responding to the renewed
debate over affirmative action?
The issue is again a hot topic because the Supreme Court has agreed
to review the University of Michigan's controversial admissions policy
that uses race as a factor in determining who gets into the school.
Conservatives say admissions decisions should be colorblind, and
President George W. Bush announced in January that his administration
would oppose the university's policy as unconstitutional in a brief
before the high court. In effect, Bush sided with three white students
who sued the university, arguing that they were denied admission in
favor of less qualified minority students. Bush said this was a quota
system—which advocates of the Michigan approach deny.
" Somehow President Bush has gotten misinformed that this is
a quota system," says Steve Director, dean of Michigan's engineering
school. "Race is taken into consideration but it's not the deciding
factor." He added: "We rely on the use of affirmative action
to make sure we have some kind of diverse class." About 12 percent
of Michigan's current freshmen class is African American. Director
says that if the president's view prevails the student body will become
even more homogenous.
Director and other academic leaders point out that engineering schools
have a harder time bringing in underrepre-sented minorities because
engineering is not the first thing many minority students think of
when they assess possible careers. Complicating matters, math and science
curricula at predominantly African-American high schools tend to be
less rigorous, which puts them at a disadvantage in competing with
other college applicants.
Many other academics have rallied around the Michigan approach. "We
stand with the University of Michigan," said Jim Johnson, dean
of the College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Science at
Howard University in Washington, D.C. Johnson said that race is a legitimate
factor in building a "diverse group of individuals" in
a student body.
This is a common view in academia. "For our students to better
understand the diverse country and world they inhabit, they must be
immersed in a campus culture that allows them to study with, argue
with, and become friends with students who may be different from them," says
Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and former president
of the University of Michigan.
Yet in an unusual twist, Howard, a historically black school, stands
to benefit either way the Michigan case comes out. If Michigan loses
in the Supreme Court, more African Americans will probably apply to
Howard, where 80 percent of engineering students are black. This would
give Howard a bigger pool to choose from. But Johnson considers that
an "undesirable positive." He would prefer that Michigan
win the case, partly because that would give students more options
across the country.
The irony of the current debate is that it comes after the largest
increase among first-year African-American engineering majors in seven
years, according to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.
NACME found that U.S. institutions enrolled 8,552 African American
engineering freshmen in 2001, an increase of 4.4 percent from 8,192
Using these figures, one would think the current system is working,
at least in the sense of bringing minorities into the engineering world.
But Daryl Chubin, senior vice president of NACME, says the enrollment
of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans should in fairness
be a lot higher. And Chubin says the picture looks substantially worse
when one considers graduation rates. In 2001, the retention rate—those
who actually got bachelor's degrees in engineering—for minority
students was just under 39 percent. For white students it was 62 percent.
He argues that the disparity is not unrelated to the furor over affirmative
action. Some institutions are much more welcoming than others, and
minority students quickly get the message.
Researchers who have studied competitive systems, Chubin says, find
that "people will self-select out of competition if they feel
the competition is unfair." Ending the Michigan system of affirmative
action, Chubin adds, "will send a cultural signal that certain
kids not apply."
Kenneth T. Walsh is chief White House correspondent
for U.S. News & World Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.