Prism Magazine - March 2003
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On Politics

- 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 in 2000.

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

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