The University Record, January 23, 1996

Affirmative action goals misunderstood by most,
panelists say

By Rebecca A. Doyle 

"Affirmative action is the way through which we seek to attain equity in our institutions and our society," said Ana Cardona, representative from the Michigan Department of Education and a U-M doctoral student. "It is a goal to be sought---not a spontaneous reality.

"Affirmative action is not about quotas. It is not about preferential treatment for unqualified minorities. Affirmative action is an opportunity for qualified candidates to compete," she said.

Cardona joined four other panelists for "Affirmative Action in Higher Education," a presentation sponsored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium planning committee and the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic and Multicultural Affairs. The panel was moderated by Michael Nettles, professor of education.

Many people perceive affirmative action initiatives as a threat, Cardona continued, something that would grant a job opportunity to a less qualified minority rather than to a white male. Affirmative action's real goal is to simply allow minorities to compete and show that they are qualified.

Many universities and other public institutions understand that we "need to open doors to that diverse talent pool," she said, although the private sector has been less willing.

Her remarks brought agreement from Trevor Chandler, executive director of academic affirmative action and diversity for the University of California system, who pointed out that educators have placed emphasis on the importance of good grades for so long that "now they believe it." And, Chandler said, since "Black kids score worst on tests, now we have to justify why we admit minorities with scores lower than the whites we don't admit."

Chandler pointed out that the University of California system admits only the top 12.5 percent of graduating high school seniors, and that 3.95 is still a very good grade point average and probably is held by a student for whom the institution can expect success.

The University of California system has "linked preferential treatment with affirmative action," he said, and "put us in a situation where we have to change our practices." California's recent rulings do not allow race to be considered in public employment, contracting or education opportunities.

Carol Hollenshead, director of the Center for the Education of Women and chair of the President's Advisory Commission on Women's Issues, compared the physics class of 1880 to the class of 1950, which she said was "likely to be much the same." In the graduating class of 1880 in physics there were 21 men, two of whom were African Americans, and 11 women, one of whom was African American.

Hollenshead pointed to the job market as an example of where women stand compared to men. Women are still paid .72 for each $1 a man is paid for an equal amount of work. She also noted that the ratio of tenured and tenure-track faculty at the U-M shows that women are underrepresented, particularly women of color, who make up only 4 percent of the tenured and tenure-track faculty.

She expressed a hope that eventually affirmative action programs would not be necessary, but "now they are critical to meet the goals of equity and excellence," she concluded.

"Statistics show that the need is far from over" for programs that allow opportunities for women and minorities to compete in both education and employment markets, said Patricia Mendoza. Myths that so many minorities are employed that cases of reverse discrimination abound, that affirmative action stigmatizes minorities, that the program is just another form of welfare, or that racism is dead are all false and damage the possibility for growth and balance, she added.

"Exposure to different viewpoints is important," she asserted. "We need to challenge our existing perspectives."

Sarida Scott, a law student at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke briefly about her experiences there.

"Affirmative action is a promise from America that it will give me a chance to succeed or fail on my own," she said.

Students at the university want to see the return of affirmative action, she said, a program that they see as the way to achieve an equal chance to prove their abilities.

Panelists fielded questions from the 50-member audience about support for minorities after admission to the universities, why affirmative action was based on gender and race instead of socioeconomic status, and why women deny having benefited from affirmative action.

There is support for minorities after admission, they were told, but in the University of California system all programs that are linked to affirmative action are now in jeopardy, Chandler noted.

Chandler also spoke to the issue of socioeconomic status by saying that the goals of affirmative action were to assist those who were qualified to get the opportunities they would not have had regardless of that status.

Hollenshead fielded the question about women by saying that it was an intentional strategy and that people should be reminded of the reality of history that shows how women have benefited.