ASEE Prism Magazine - September 2003
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Last Word

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AFFIRMED—SO WHAT NOW?

- by Stephen W Director

On June 27, while Shirley Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first African-American woman to lead a national research university, was delivering her keynote address at the ASEE annual meeting, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision on the two University of Michigan affirmative action cases. These landmark rulings by the court upheld the consideration of race as a factor in university admissions as well as the University of Michigan Law School's individualized, holistic review process, but disapproved of the race-based “point system” used in the university's undergraduate applications decisions. The ruling upheld the 1978 “Bakke decision,” declaring that the government had a compelling interest in racial diversity, and affirmed diversity as a factor in creating a robust learning environment that benefits all students. This victory was due in part to the strong support the university received from industry and former U.S. military leadership. As Justice O'Connor stated in her opinion, “...major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”

As I walked around the ASEE annual meeting, it was clear to me from the comments I received that this victory was shared, and celebrated by many. With the guidance provided by the Court's ruling, the University of Michigan will develop an alternative undergraduate admissions process that will comply with the law.

However, it is imperative that we realize that our collective efforts to achieve diversity do not end with an admissions process that considers race. We need to ensure that the environment within which our students live and learn supports diversity and results in graduation. As a nation, we are wasting valuable human resources when only about 25 percent of the underrepresented minorities who enter our colleges of engineering graduate within six years.

That is why our College of Engineering developed a “Strategic Plan for Diversity” in 1998. This plan, which is continually evolving in response to changing realities, goes well beyond the admissions process to ensure a truly inclusive and supportive college environment—one in which all students interact and learn from each other's unique backgrounds and perspectives.

The college's diversity plan features four main components:

  • Clear institutional commitment to diversity and a set of well-articulated goals
  • Strong financial support through scholarships, fellowships, and outside funding for program initiatives
  • Departmental incentives for diversity plans and outcomes
  • Shared responsibility and accountability for achieving diversity among departments, student societies, faculty, staff, engineering employers, and parents

We have been both encouraged and challenged by the outcome. Indeed, we have seen academic progress and improvement by students who have participated in our initiatives. Yet, while our retention rate for underrepresented minorities is well above the national average, we remain challenged by the retention gap that exists between underrepresented minority and majority students.

The Supreme Court's decisiveness and clarity about the pivotal role of affirmative action in the two UM cases demonstrates that it took guidance from the educators—the people closest to the student community. The court let us know that it respected the research-backed conclusion that diversity adds concrete and measurable value to the educational environment. It upheld the concept of “critical mass”; that instead of specific quotas, universities should look to develop substantial communities of students from all backgrounds who will then interact with each other and with faculty and staff in a way that will be instructive for all.

The spotlight is now on those of us in the academic community who are committed to diversity. We are in a pivotal position to shape the national conversation on diversity, environment, retention, and graduation.

But make no mistake: This is not the end of the battle. There will surely be a redoubling of efforts to reverse the impact of these decisions. The next targets have already been chosen—the programs and initiatives that already exist within our institutions to encourage and support diversity. We must remain vigilant, stand firm, and develop creative strategies to continue the momentum created by this victory. We welcome engagement with all those involved in this effort as we work toward a time when this conversation is no longer necessary.

 

Stephen W. Director is the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering
at the University of Michigan College of Engineering.
He may be reached at director@umich.edu

 

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