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Pro/Con - Mend it or End it?

Is affirmative action working or making matters worse?

Prism ForumAfter garnering considerable legislative support over the last several decades, affirmative action is now under attack-most notably via Initiative 200 in Washington state and Proposition 209 in California, two successful ballot initiatives that banned race and gender preferences in government hiring and public college admissions. The divisive issue has added significance for engineering schools, which perennially enroll a low percentage of certain minority groups and women.

PRISM quizzed affirmative action foe Roger Clegg and supporter George Campbell on their views.

George CampbellGeorge Campbell is the president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. (NACME), an organization with a stated mission of increasing the representation of African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians in the nation's engineering workforce.

Roger CleggRoger Clegg is vice-president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C., which opposes racial and gender preferences, as well as bilingual education.

 

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What do you think is driving the passage of the propositions eliminating the use of hiring and admissions preferences?

Campbell: The unfortunate use of the term "preferences" highlights pervasive misconceptions about affirmative action, and the press has greatly exaggerated public opposition. Proposition 209 and Initiative 200 resulted from strategic initiatives developed and implemented by a small number of organizations driven by conservative politics. Post-election surveys indicate that many supporters of affirmative action voted for Proposition 209 and Initiative 200 as a result of their deliberately confusing language. In short, the success of the anti-affirmative action movement is more a function of highly effective political strategies and often duplicitous tactics than of changing public attitudes.

Clegg: People believe it is wrong for the government to discriminate against people because of race, sex, or ethnicity. It's as simple as that.

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If this trend continues, how can universities achieve racial and gender proportions that better reflect the makeup of our society?

Campbell: Ironically, the current trend could lead to some positive outcomes, in that universities committed to the value of diversity will be forced to reexamine student assessment practices and to adopt truly objective and more compelling admissions criteria. Standardized test scores, which are much more highly correlated with parental income and parental education than with student academic potential or outcomes, will be the first to go. Authentic assessment criteria are inherently more equitable and will lead to greater access for women and minorities.

Clegg: If universities change their admissions criteria or recruitment policies to achieve certain "racial and gender proportions," they will be violating the laws against race and sex discrimination. Put the shoe on the other foot: Suppose a college thought it was admitting "too many" minorities and women and decided to revise their admissions and recruitment policies accordingly. That would clearly be discriminatory, wrong, and illegal.
Universities should make sure that they recruit and admit the best students they can, but they should not be driven by a bottom line defined in any way by race, ethnicity, or sex.

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Women and minorities have historically been underrepresented in engineering and the physical sciences. Do you have suggestions for improving representation in these fields?

Campbell: Despite accomplishments at the B.S. level, progress at the Ph.D. level continues to be slow, and participation in engineering and science still does not come close to reflecting the makeup of our society. Even more disturbing, while the demand for engineers rises, the enrollment of minorities and women has begun to decline. To reverse this trend and get back on the path to progress, we must raise standards, increase expectations, and provide more equitable, higher quality K-12 education for students in minority communities. In schools with high minority enrollment, students have a less than 50 percent chance of getting a certified teacher for any math or science course.
In the interim, we must provide second-chance opportunities for capable, motivated students to fill in the gaps our neglect has created in their educational experience. We must increase access to engineering education by adopting authentic admissions criteria and providing adequate financial aid, countering recent trends away from need-based scholarships. And we must upgrade the ability of faculty members to mentor students across gender and ethic boundaries and to manage classrooms with diverse student populations.

Clegg: This question has two flawed premises. First, there is no reason to strive for some particular demographic "representation" in every profession. It doesn't bother me that Jews are "overrepresented" as lawyers and Hispanics are "underrepresented" as hockey players-so long as the reason for the over- or underrepresentation is not discrimination.
The question also assumes that the only minorities are blacks and Hispanics. But Asians, Jews, and so forth are usually considered minorities, and they are not underrepresented.
My suggestion for what we can do is simply to ensure that any person has the chance to compete-free from discrimination-for a position in any field he or she chooses. Over the last 30 or 40 years, there has been a dramatic decline in the amount of discrimination that exists, such discrimination is now generally illegal, and we should continue to enforce our anti-discrimination laws. Nonetheless, different demographic groups will inevitably and voluntarily choose to be "overrepresented" in some fields and "underrepresented" in others. There is nothing sinister in that. It is not a failure of progress that a higher percentage of women than men, for instance, choose to stay at home with their children or enter nontechnical fields.

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After passage of the I-200 ban in Washington, Gov. Locke issued a directive that said, in part: "Affirmative action plans and goals are themselves not in conflict with I-200 and shall be maintained, but shall not be binding." He also encouraged state schools to intensify recruitment and outreach programs to maintain diversity. Do you agree with his interpretation and intent?

Campbell: Aspects of Initiative 200 are not inconsistent with affirmative action, which demands not preferences but proactive measures to create access and to eliminate inadvertent as well as overt discrimination. Governor Locke's proposal is very much in consonance with the original intent of affirmative action.

Clegg: "Goals" inevitably become quotas. If you are part of a college admissions office and your bosses give you a "goal" of recruiting and admitting a given percentage of some group, of course you will end up preferring members of that group to others-and that's discrimination. Is there any doubt that it would have been discrimination had Governor George Wallace announced that the University of Alabama would "intensify recruitment and outreach programs" to meet his "goal" of an all-white school, even if he assured one and all that his goal was "non-binding"?

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It has been written that race-conscious admissions policies have allowed minorities to begin to catch up and overcome historical discriminatory barriers, and also that at least some of the gains have come at the expense of others who were more qualified for admission based on objective criteria. If both statements are true, can we justify continuing these preferences?

Campbell: The question embodies implicit assumptions that are incorrect. Race-conscious policies are not equivalent to preferences. Truly objective admissions policies must take into account the realities of students' backgrounds. Race consciousness remains very much a part of the American way of life, and, consequently, race plays an important role in students' educational experience prior to their applying to college. African American children, even those from middle- or upper-middle-class families, are confronted by a different set of assumptions, presented with a different set of attitudes, subjected to a different set of experiences from their peers-both inside and outside of the classroom.
Fair-minded people do not favor preferences but do favor fairness. Is it fair to exclude highly capable students from higher education when America's K-12 education system delivers to them only watered-down high school curricula, poor teachers, and crumbling facilities? Is it fair that, in California's premiere state institutions-supported by tax dollars paid by citizens from all ethnic backgrounds at the same tax rate-only four percent of the freshman engineering class is from minority groups that comprise nearly half of the state's college-age population?
Given the current participation levels of minorities in the scientific enterprise, it borders on the absurd to suggest that minorities in general are benefitting at the expense of the majority population.

Clegg: No. It's not worth it. Even if we consider only the groups that supposedly benefit from preferences, the resulting stigmatization outweighs any benefit. Every member of a minority group who attends an institution or works for a company that uses preferences for that group will be assumed to be less qualified-even if he or she is not.
And generally, the "historical discriminatory barriers" were faced by those who lived and died in slavery or the Jim Crow era, and not by, say, high-school seniors born in 1980. Add this to the fact that clearly members of other groups are being discriminated against, the resentment that it causes, the lowering of standards and loss of productivity, the illegality of discrimination under the civil rights laws: it's just not worth it.

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Any final comments?

Campbell: Affirmative action, as it was originally conceived and subsequently interpreted by the Department of Labor, explicitly prohibits preferences on the basis of race or gender. It does acknowledge, however, that a society with deeply rooted prejudices demands proactive policies to eliminate both conscious and subconscious discriminatory practices. The conservative movement has capitalized on isolated cases where policy was inappropriately administered-in a large society, one can always find isolated cases of well-intentioned misuse of policy. In the final analysis, unless one race is inherently superior to another, it's clear that unfairness much more profoundly burdens America's minority populations.

Clegg: We have made enormous progress against discrimination in this country over the past generation. For that progress to continue, women and minorities-and their achievements-must be respected. But that respect cannot come if there is an affirmative action asterisk next to them. The apologists for preferences are apparently convinced that the same groups that have achieved so much and overcome so many barriers in the past are now, for some reason, incapable of succeeding without discrimination in their favor. I reject that pessimistic and condescending view.

What do YOU think?
Share your opinion with us on this issue and suggest other Pro/Con topics for PRISM. See
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