Redefining affirmative action
The nation needs to "move toward another kind of affirmative action, one in which the emphasis is on opportunity and the goal is educational equity in the broadest possible sense," said Richard Atkinson, president emeritus of the University of California (UC) system, as he delivered the third annual Nancy Cantor Lecture on Intellectual Diversity May 18 in Rackham Auditorium.
"We need a strategy grounded in the broad American tradition of opportunity because opportunity is a value that Americans understand and support," Atkinson said. "We need a strategy which makes it clear that our society has a stake in whether every American succeedsand every American, in turn, has a stake in our society.
Atkinson's lecture, "Opportunity in a Democratic Society: A National Agenda," served as a centerpiece for the "Futuring Diversity Conference" May 17-18, and was based on a paper co-written with Patricia Pelfrey, visiting research associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley.
He began with a look back to 1967, a time of racial turmoil in the United States, when the Kerner Commission issued a report characterizing American society as pervasively and systemically racist. "That report was a milestone in the nation's movement from anti-discrimination to affirmative action, from color blindness to race consciousness," Atkinson said.
He also cited a commencement address by President Lyndon Johnson given at Howard University in 1965 in which Johnson articulated the need for affirmative action to help offset centuries of discrimination in America. "It is no accident that Johnson chose a university as a place to announce a new chapter in the effort to confront the social and educational inequities of American society," Atkinson said. Colleges and universities have come to be one of the important arenas in the national debate about race, he said.
The recent U-M cases, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the educational value of diversity in higher education and the use of race as one of many factors in college admissions decisions, were a victory for higher education, Atkinson said. But that success has not ended the debate, he noted, citing decisive choices to end racial and ethnic preferences in admissions and employment by voters in California and Washington, a similar ban in Florida by executive order of the governor, and the effort currently underway to accomplish the same end through a ballot initiative in Michigan.
Atkinson described ways in which UC responded to both the resolution by its board of regents in 1995 banning affirmative action in admissions, and Proposition 209 that outlawed its use in employment.
In its effort to maintain a diverse student community, UC reoriented outreach programs once targeted for underrepresented minorities to focus on low-performing high schools in order to qualify more African American, Latino and Native American students who are disproportionately represented in those schools; changed standardized admission test requirements to shift emphasis from aptitude tests to achievement tests; instituted comprehensive review of admissions applications; created a new path to admissions called Eligibility in Local Context, which made the top-performing 4 percent of each high school eligible for UC; and expanded transfer programs from community colleges.
There have been some positive results from these efforts, Atkinson reported. For instance, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in the UC system has begun to recover from a low point after the passage of Proposition 209.
"We have also increased the number and proportion of students from low-performing high schools, and the use of comprehensive review has created an admissions process that is fairer to students. Yet, if we look at enrollment overall, racial and ethnic diversity at the University of California is in great trouble," Atkinson said. "In 1995, UC Berkeley and UCLA enrolled 469 African Americans in a combined freshman class of 7,100. In 2004, the number was 218 out of 7,350.
"Despite enormous efforts, we have failed badly to achieve the goal of a student body that encompasses California's diverse population."
Atkinson pointed out two lessons from the California experience. "The first is that race-neutral admissions policies drastically and demonstrably limit the ability of elite universities to reflect the diversity of a multicultural state in any meaningful way. The second is that we will never resolve the conflict over affirmative action by an appeal to the values invoked on both sides of the issue. The dynamics of the public debate create a situation in which compromise is impossible because each side claims the high moral ground," he said.
Atkinson, along with other conference participants, offered suggestions to help set the agenda for a new Center for Institutional Diversity (CID) at U-M. With funding from the Ford Foundation, U-M is launching the CID "to prepare people for active engagement in a diverse society and work toward building productive inclusive communities at the University of Michigan and beyond."
Atkinson said the CID should:
• Think through what affirmative action and the pursuit of diversity means in the 21st century as the issue has broadened beyond race;
• Be an active participant in articulating a bold and comprehensive vision of how universities will serve society;
• Question long-held assumptions about academic merit and potential by looking at the criteria universities traditionally have assumed are valid indicators of academic achievement; and
• Broaden its focus beyond higher education to K-12 and early childhood education programs that seek to expand opportunities.
A number of the papers discussed during the conference, including the one by Atkinson and Pelfrey, are available on the CID Web site, http://www.diversity.umich.edu/futuring/conference.html.