The Band-Aid of Affirmative Action
This article appeared in the Port Side‘s December 2012 print issue.
In 2003, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor upheld the importance of affirmative action policies, yet asserted that in 25 years, affirmative action would no longer be necessary. Although only roughly a decade has passed, the hearing by the Supreme Court of the recent case Fisher v. University of Texas suggests that it is time for affirmative action admission policies to end.
This new affirmative action case is unique in that it combats the holistic admission approach used by many educational institutions today, including the Claremont Colleges. The upholding of Fisher v. University of Texas has the potential to have monumental implications for the admission policies of the Claremont Colleges.
Thus, the Fisher case has rehashed the 50-year debate regarding affirmative action both in the courtroom and on college campuses. The deciding question is, does a concern for diversity warrant unfairness to white students in the admission process?
For Abigail Fisher, a white student denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2009 and the plaintiff in the UT case, it does not. Fisher blamed her rejection on the University’s affirmative action policies that favor minority applicants, claiming that had the school not instituted affirmative action in its admission policy, she would have been accepted and was thus treated unfairly.
Affirmative Action in the Courts
Affirmative action is a complex issue largely dependent upon context. In 2003, two affirmative action cases swept through the Supreme Court. In Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court ruled against affirmative action in the case of a point system or quota method. However, in the second case, Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court ruled in favor of affirmative action in the situation of a careful, holistic review of applicants, where race is never the deciding factor for admission.
It was in the majority opinion of the Grutter case that Justice O’Connor wrote “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” However, this idealized future appears far from the reality when considering the diversity statistics at the five Claremont Colleges, where although numbers are not abhorrently low, there is certainly room for growth.
Whereas O’Connor addresses specific policies related to race, Vice President of Enrollment at Scripps College, Victoria Romero, anticipates a continuation of holistic review at universities in order to make sure each class is diverse. “I would expect colleges and universities to continue those practices because of the educational enhancement experienced by having a diverse student body,” Romero said.
Affirmative Action at the Claremont Colleges
The cases that have appeared before the Supreme Court regarding affirmative action have all dealt with public institutions of higher education, but because the five Claremont Colleges receive federal funding, these decisions have the potential to set a precedent for 5C admissions processes.
“Anytime a big system like the UC or Texas system is mandated by the state government on how to run their admission process, we absolutely worry about that, because if this were to be a mandate that comes to all colleges and universities, we would definitely have to talk about our process,” said Angel Perez, Vice President and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Pitzer College.
In the holistic admission process at Pitzer College, one of the prime indicators for admission is the student’s fit with the College’s core values, including the principle of intercultural understanding.
“We want to make sure that this is a diverse place. That people are learning from each other. That’s the whole point of higher learning,” Perez said.
However, when it comes to the actual application review for the Pitzer admission team, race is not even considered until the very end of the process.
“We look at our numbers and ask, ok, well how did we do? What is the freshman class going to look like?” Perez said. He also disclosed that very rarely does the Pitzer admission team struggle to find capable minority applicants to place into the incoming class of students.
Similar policies apply to admission at the other Claremont Colleges. Scripps admits students based on a variety of factors, including how well that prospective student would fit within the Scripps community.
“Within the framework of [Scripps’] strategic plan our admission efforts support the overall strategic goals of the college,” Romero said. “We have a commitment to recruit, admit and enroll a diverse class.”
Furthermore, Perez stated that the Pitzer admission team is not looking to admit the very top percentile of applicants with perfect grade-points and test scores. It is far more important to Pitzer’s core values and status as an elite institution that students come from diverse backgrounds. Perez described the College’s overall goal to enroll students who are going to move Pitzer, as an institution, forward.
“We want to make sure that we’re giving opportunity to students that have potential, but didn’t necessarily have the resources available to them that other students had,” Perez said.
The Student Perspective: The Band Aid
When considering affirmative action’s effectiveness, one must also consider the inequality behind the need for race-based admission policies.
“Affirmative Action is a band aid for a much larger issue we are facing in this country,” Nicole Rufus SC’16 said. In Rufus’ opinion, affirmative action is an important step in the direction of equality, but it does not solve the larger problem of lack of educational resources for racial and ethnic minorities.
While others, like Abigail Fisher, assert that affirmative action is unfair, Rufus sees the need for affirmative action arising from the unfairness of the application process itself.
“Application testing is inherently unfair. If you can pay $4,000 for an SAT tutor, then that lack of resource needs to be accounted for somewhere else,” Rufus said.
Rufus is a member of Wanawake Weusi, the Scripps African American female empowerment organization, and Black Student Affairs, two student groups that champion diversity.
Rufus said that much of what the affirmative action discussions in these organizations center on is the feeling of belittlement.
“People think that you are here because of the color of your skin and don’t think you have actual merit,” Rufus said. This is exactly the perception that Fisher’s case is perpetuating.
The Stigma of “Affirmative Action”
Over the summer, Victoria Wong, SC ’15 facilitated discussions with predominantly Asian American high school students who felt, like Fisher, that affirmative action policies were a negative influence on their college admission.
“There is a stigma attached to affirmative action. Not a lot of people really know what it is,” Wong said.
To confront these misconceptions, Wong explained to the students the historical advantages that Asian Americans received from affirmative action when it was first instituted and its continuing benefits today.
“Affirmative action led to better financial aid for a lot of students. You can’t just look at it as just helping African American or Latino students. [Affirmative action’s] introduction led to all these other policies that benefit students and colleges,” Wong said.
Wong was Assistant Head to the Asian American Student Union (AASU) last year and is still a prominent and active member. She described how conversations in the AASU concerning affirmative action reflect mixed attitudes. Wong attributes these reactions to the stigma attached to affirmative action
“I do not know if affirmative action in its current form is as useful as it used to be because a lot of people proclaim stances on it without knowing what it is,” Wong said.
Fisher’s major argument in her case exemplifies this stigma. Fisher argued that she was denied by the University of Texas at Austin because her place was given to another student belonging to a racial or ethnic minority profile. However, when considering holistic approach to admissions, that argument is simply not applicable.
“We admit classes by the hundreds…We never sit as a committee and say it’s either her or her because the reality is we have hundreds of other spots in the freshman class,” Perez said. “If we like them both, we’ll take them both.”
Toward a More Diverse Student Body
There is no clear cut solution to increasing diversity on America’s college campus, but very few will deny that diversity plays a central role in the vitality of a student body. For now, it appears that the holistic approach utilized by the Claremont Colleges is considered the fairest way to approach applicant admission.
“Affirmative action is doing something good, but it is covering up a larger problem,” Rufus said.
It is not clear yet whether the Supreme Court will rule in support of affirmative action or, as O’Connor predicted, it is time for the policies of affirmative action to draw to a close.
For Perez, one thing is certain.
“You would be hard pressed to find anybody on this campus who is willing to say that [diversity] is not still important. We still live in an unjust society and we still have many people who are applying to college who just didn’t grow up with the same resources as other students did,” Perez said. “We want to make sure that everybody has a fair shot at a place like this.”