Sunday, January 25, 2015

Courting diversity in university enrollment

By Dan K. Thomasson

Diversity in college enrollment is a most desirable thing. In the elusive perfect world, it would be achievable without the pain it causes both those who must rely on it and those who are victimized by it.

One person who is both a beneficiary of race-conscious admissions policies and who claims to abhor the stigma attached to that good fortune recently voted with the majority in the Supreme Court’s decision to keep affirmative action alive in higher education but make it more difficult to use. Both those opposed to affirmative action and those wanting to keep it alive claimed victory in the 7-1 decision.

Justice Clarence Thomas — who was admitted to Yale Law School through an affirmative-action program — was instrumental in pressuring the court to take the Texas University at Austin case, although it did not initially have enough votes required under the panel’s rules for acceptance. Thomas has long opposed racial preference for college admission, contending that such policies taint those admitted under such circumstances and cast a shadow over their careers.

This argument particularly applies to professional schools for law and medicine. Many opponents ask questions along these lines: Would you like to be operated on by a doctor who got into med school because of his race or would you like to be defended in a criminal case by a lawyer, etc.? We’ve all heard these arguments and they do no justice to either side.

In reality, the court ducked the issue, sending it back to an appeals court to demand that the Texas school exhaust other ways to promote diversity before triggering preference based on race or ethnicity. That ruling, however, also will affect most other state-supported institutions, forcing them to find less painful ways to achieve diversity. Meanwhile, the court next term will hear another affirmative action case, this one over a Michigan law that bans preferential treatment in public university admissions.

The answer to this thorniest of issues obviously is raising the level of primary and secondary education to the point where students are competitive in their classroom and test scores, where the field of endeavor is not tilted. But the current way public education is financed works against the struggle for equality. Better neighborhoods have better schools. Charter schools and vouchers help some, but still have a long way to go.

Unfortunately, the most important missing ingredient in improving K-12 learning — parental involvement — seems in short supply, especially among the economically and environmentally disadvantaged. Too many single mothers, struggling to support a family, are unable to provide a daily infusion of school help.

Head Start, the wonderful preschool program from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society days, has been a major achiever in improving the education prospects for thousands of children. Even when youngsters get that federally financed early learning, some may return daily to an environment that is far from satisfactory.

A Hispanic caller to a recent National Public Radio discussion on the court’s decision noted that she was admitted to college even though her grades and test scores were marginal. Her good friend with excellent scores and grades was put on a waiting list. The caller said she found out almost immediately that she was in over her head, academically, and she struggled to make a .09 grade-point average her first semester. She said it taught her quickly that it would take special effort to reach her goals in this environment. She had gotten the opportunity through racial consideration, and she took advantage to double down and achieve. She supports the program.

Thomas and those who decry the policy as frequently demeaning and stigmatizing would argue that hundreds of others who were admitted under similar circumstances have been set up to fail.

The policy will continue until another court decides otherwise. The solution now is as elusive as that perfect world.

— Reach Dan K. Thomasson, former vice president of Scripps Howard News Service, at



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