Affirmative action is again under fire in the Supreme Court as Fisher v. University of Texas may provoke the court to reverse its 2003 landmark decision, Grutter v. Bollinger. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote Grutter’s majority opinion that the promotion of diversity in colleges is a legitimate reason for upholding affirmative action with the caveat that race would constitute only a small part of the admission process. However, there is mounting evidence that race is often the decisive factor in a person’s admission to or denial from a university.
For example, many universities maintain an unofficial bias against Asian-American students. According to a 2005 study by Princeton’s Office of Population Research, banning race-conscious affirmative action policies would increase Asian-American enrollment at elite universities from 23.7 to 31.5 percent. In 1996, California actually banned race-conscious affirmative action by passing Proposition 209. Currently, 43 percent of undergraduate students at UC Berkeley identify as Asian-American. Many of these students might not be able to attend a peer institution that practices affirmative action. Their biological information would be a handicap because their racial group is already over-represented in many colleges.
Although race-conscious admissions negatively impacts Asian-American students’ applications, I support its fundamental goals: to establish student bodies that are representative of the United States’ diverse demographics and to provide opportunities for racial groups that have been marginalized in our shared history. Frequent state budget cuts often relegate underrepresented minority groups to failing schools. Members of such minority groups never receive the opportunity to become educated women and men. It seems sensible and honorable that colleges aggressively recruit students from these underrepresented groups.
Equity and equal opportunity might not necessarily be the sole reasons that schools maintain their current admissions policies. A year ago, I met the director of admissions of a top liberal arts college. She was invited as the guest speaker for my American studies seminar in Equity and Access in Higher Education. A student asked her how her staff creates the freshman class. She gave the following answer: Before each application cycle, the trustees of the college supply a wish list of all the types of students they want, including underrepresented minorities, radical liberals, right-wing conservatives and a student from South Dakota. They select students based on this list.
Every now and then they come across a student who does not fit any of the archetypes provided in the wish list. In this case, the committee would think long and hard about whether the student fits well with or contradicts the values of the college. Before admitting each applicant, they ask this ultimate question: Will this applicant threaten the image of this institution, should he or she become a student here? While I appreciated her frankness, this particular aspect of the admission process alarmed me. They seemed to select students based more on their popularity with university administrators than on their potential to achieve success and personal fulfillment.
On that day, I encountered a form of affirmative action that was different than one I had expected. I thought the point of affirmative action was to provide disadvantaged students equal opportunities as privileged students and to replicate the demographic diversity of the United States. Instead, the type of affirmative action that I heard was one that pursues diversity as a commodity, as long as it does not contradict the profile of the average student.
As a group, Asian Americans are incredibly diverse and come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. In fact, specific Southeast Asian ethnicities are actually underrepresented in our colleges. But embracing this diversity would be too risky, because doing so would result in more schools like Berkeley or Caltech. Race-conscious admissions allows universities to control the number and type of minorities they accept. This highly subjective process allows colleges like Columbia to maintain a critical mass of non-minority students, which ensures that their image and prestige can be maintained. And so admission officers continue to seek diversity in its most superficial form possible. They travel around the country to aggressively recruit students from exotic backgrounds, which are easily marketable in a brochure.
I argue that affirmative action in our nation’s leading universities has been misguided. Colleges have focused only on a form of diversity that would raise the reputation of their institutions. However, the second purpose of affirmative action, which is equal opportunity, has been overlooked in admission policies. For example, a school may be giddy to recruit a minority student with a very rare profile, without making the following responsible considerations. Does the school offer sufficient accommodations for this student to be truly happy? Will this student succeed despite the discrepancy between his background and that of the average acepted student? Finally, will this student benefit from the school as much as he raises the profile of the incoming freshman class?
Even the Fisher v. University of Texas case reveals the deficiency in current affirmative action practices. During the Supreme Court hearing of the case last Wednesday, the attorney defending UT spoke largely about the benefits of diversity in producing competitive, global leaders. However, UT failed to adequately defend why race-conscious admissions enables fairness in all Americans’ access to higher education. The dialogue only considers the benefits that institutions as a whole reap when there is diversity. In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, former Justice O’Connor predicted that affirmative action would need to be reevaluated in 2028. It is clear that only nine years after the decision, America already needs to make extensive reforms in the affirmative action policies in higher education.
James Yoon is a Columbia College senior majoring in environmental science. Yooniversity runs alternate Thursdays.
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