Affirmative Inaction: Opposition to affirmative action has drastically reduced minority enrollment at public universities
July 23, 2012
In his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, President Lyndon Johnson declared, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” The affirmative-action approach President Johnson proposed in that speech was to be a moral and policy response to the losses, both material and psychological, suffered by African Americans during and after the time of slavery: “We seek not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.” Johnson’s speech was followed in 1965 by executive orders aiming “to correct the effects of past and present discrimination.” Universities and colleges across the land soon adopted affirmative-action policies. More than 45 years have passed since that June afternoon on the Howard campus. What is the fate of Johnson’s triumphant vision in the world we now occupy?
If you listen to Roger Clegg, who heads up the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank devoted to “colorblind public policy,” the answer is that the practice of affirmative action in higher education has put the country on the path to grievous error. Clegg believes, as he said in a 2007 speech to the Heritage Foundation, that the policy “passes over better qualified students, and sets a disturbing legal, political, and moral precedent in allowing racial discrimination; … it stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries … fosters a victim mindset, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism; it compromises the academic mission of the university and lowers the overall academic quality of the student body.” He contends, as do his many allies, that anything diluting academic excellence hurts teachers and students alike because colleges and universities exist primarily to protect and exalt the life of the mind.
A very different response to Johnson’s speech came, 38 years after its delivery, from within the chambers of the United States Supreme Court. In 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, having just voted on two cases involving the admissions policies of the University of Michigan, predicted that affirmative action would soon end because it would no longer be needed:
Finally, race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time. The Court takes the Law School at its word that it would like nothing better than to find a race-neutral admissions formula and will terminate its use of racial preferences as soon as practicable. The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.
We stand, as a country, somewhere amid President Johnson’s vision, Roger Clegg’s hostility, and Justice O’Connor’s expectation. Anyone interested in higher education should want to contemplate, on behalf of colleges and universities, students and faculty, alumni and paying parents, the fate of affirmative action. How should it now play out on campus after campus? Will it continue until the year 2028? If not, why not? If so, should it then end? If not, for how long should it be sustained?
To begin to answer these questions, it is important to acknowledge the educational milieu in which affirmative action has been practiced. Two fundamental ambitions have long characterized the culture of our colleges and universities: they have sought to be meritocracies, and they have sought to be egalitarian communities. The first goal gives primacy to intellectual accomplishment, the second to community rapport. Students are prompted by the first to demonstrate their full mental powers, by the second to be citizens of what Plato’s Republic as well as John Henry Newman’s ideal university were to be: a model commonwealth. In his book The Idea of a University, Newman said, “I cannot but think that statesmanship … is learned, not by books, but in certain centres of education.” The one is not the other. “Being as smart as you can be” is only hazily connected to “learning from each other in a mutually beneficial way.” The tension between the two is never resolvable; that tension is where arguments about affirmative action find their campus home.
Those people who champion affirmative action assert that much of what education offers is social, participatory, and communal. Enrolling students of many different ethnic backgrounds and of unequal educational achievement, they say, only helps the institution and, again, its students. They believe that the educational process is itself corrupt if it does not bring together the full spectrum—the diversity—of American young people. Using the helping hand, they argue, means creating a better education for everyone and fulfilling a civic obligation to enroll a given number of students for the purpose of creating a stronger and more democratic society.
The history of affirmative action includes the graduation of thousands of young men and women who otherwise would not have passed within the gates of a college or university. Many of those graduates have gone on to professional careers where their success has helped to reinvigorate the American dream. They have become physicians, diplomats, lawyers, Army officers, stockbrokers, journalists, high government officials, scientists, and business leaders. Why, advocates of affirmative action now ask, should their number not be augmented?
But before all else, it’s worth asking whether affirmative action is really needed. For all their differences, both critics and advocates acknowledge that some classes of students, particularly African-American and Hispanic, cannot gain admission to many colleges and universities solely on the basis of their academic preparation. They need preferential treatment to enter the model commonwealth. The College Board last measured mean Scholastic Aptitude Scores by Ethnicity in 2008; the results are sobering…