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
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
human resources when only about 25 percent of the underrepresented minorities
who enter our colleges of engineering graduate within six years.
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 environmentone in which all students
interact and learn from each other's unique backgrounds and perspectives.
college's diversity plan features four main components:
- Clear institutional commitment to diversity and a set of well-articulated
- 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,
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
Court's decisiveness and clarity about the pivotal
role of affirmative action in the two UM cases demonstrates that it took
guidance from the educatorsthe 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
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
on diversity, environment, retention, and graduation.
no mistake: This is not the end of the battle. There will surely be
of efforts to reverse the impact of these decisions.
targets have already been chosenthe 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.