The University Record, January 31, 2000

Schools must continue to use race as admissions factor, speakers say

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

Social scientists have admittedly been playing catch-up in providing evidence to affirmative action foes that diversity is a key value in higher education and that the need continues for affirmative action in admissions, especially to selective universities. Three scholars showed plenty of such evidence in a panel discussion on Jan. 26 in Rackham Amphitheater sponsored by Dialogues on Diversity.

“Race Relations and Education: Research on Equity and Opportunity” featured researchers who have contributed essays to a new book, Compelling Interests: Examining the Evidence on Racial Dynamics in Colleges and Universities, forthcoming from Stanford University Press. Panelists William Trent, professor of education and associate chancellor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Shana Levin, assistant professor of psychology, Claremont-McKenna College, and Jeff Millem, assistant professor of education, University of Maryland, joined Sylvia Hurtado, professor of education, who served as moderator.

Using the pipeline metaphor, Trent presented data on the continuing blockages that people of color encounter moving through the public education system. As a result, he said, “There is a growing disparity between what I call the pool of students eligible for higher education and the pool of those who are available,” students who are prepared to compete for places at selective universities. “The percentage of people of color in the population is increasing. The primary and secondary schools in which there are concentrations of people of color, especially African Americans, continue to have poor educational resources,” he said.

Trent also presented data showing that percentage of African American enrollment is on the decline among highly selective universities. The less selective the institution, the greater the percentage of African American enrollment and the greater the increase in segregation. He said these patterns hold true through the Ph.D. level.

“Opportunity to learn should be fairly distributed,” he said, but current data show that efforts to provide opportunities have negative effects on students of color. Because of that, Trent concluded, “major public institutions like the U-M cannot afford to limit the use of race as a factor without continuing past patterns and negative effects.”

Levin addressed the issues of whether race matters in society and whether it should matter in institutional policy decisions. She said that with the demise of legal segregation, there was a sharp decline in the support among whites of blatantly racist attitudes. “However, though there is conscious endorsement of egalitarian values by whites, unconscious biases persist, shown in levels of discomfort with minorities rather than bigotry, avoidance of contact rather than hatred.”

In her research, Levin found that overall opposition to affirmative action is highest when Blacks—as compared with the handicapped and the elderly—are the target and when the institutional policy lacks justification. She has found that racism is very much a part of contemporary American culture, both in individuals and institutions. With institutions, including higher education, the remedy involves re-structuring their practices, including testing. “SAT scores for Blacks continue to lag behind those of whites.”

An alternative explanation for this disparity could be drawn, she suggested, from research done by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, which they call “stereotype threat,” anxiety or fear of confirming or being judged by stereotypes. “Their research clearly shows,” Levin said, “that when African American students are tested in an environment in which they think their race is not an issue, they do far better on the same test than if they think their race is taken into account.”

Diversity issues today, Levin said, are based on such questions as, “How do we create contact among individuals from diverse backgrounds?” “How do we make that contact beneficial for all?” “How can institutions treat people both as individuals and members of a group?”

“One way to approach these questions,” Levin said, “is for institutions to ‘re-categorize’ individuals, so that students can be treated as individuals while not having to give up their group identity.” When this kind of environment is created, “the research shows that opposition to affirmative action is reduced.”

Milem’s presentation spoke directly to the issues faced by universities in determining diversity policies. He gave high marks to psychology Prof. Patricia Gurin and her colleagues for their research released last year giving strong evidence that diversity is a value in higher education in terms of learning and democracy outcomes, the latter referring to preparing students to be good citizens.

Milem’s research looks at the benefits of diversity in student bodies in terms of four categories—individual, institutional, economic and private sector, and societal.

Milem also cited positive outcomes of a diverse faculty in the teaching, research and service.