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Questioning Affirmative Action

By Elizabeth Baranger

In the past year, there have been several very well publicized events that indicate an increasingly open criticism of affirmative action. The most dramatic scaling back of affirmative action in American higher education occurred when the University of California Board of Regents voted to end racial preferences for hiring by January 1996, and in admissions by the following year. More recently the Arizona Board of Regents ordered the state's three public universities to determine if affirmative action was still necessary. Last May, the Supreme Court let stand an Appeals Court ruling that the University of Maryland's minority scholarship was unconstitutional.

This continued questioning of affirmative action ranges from whether it is truly effective, to the ethics of giving preferential treatment on the basis of race and sex, and to the morality of merging minorities into fields with a grim job market. I believe that most of the people who have criticized affirmative action are not directing their objections to those programs aimed at making the playing field level.

There are people who believe that African Americans can never be successful in a subject as complex and sophisticated as physics, and that they should stick to subjects such as music and drama. Likewise, there are people who believe that women should not enter physics, but should stay home and take care of their children. But they constitute a minority. The vast majority of people agree that playing fields should be level and do not object to affirmative action efforts for achieving this.

There are some affirmative action efforts which are viewed as leveling the playing field by one group of people, and as being unfairly discriminatory by others. For example, if there are no women on the faculty at a university, many would say that they are needed to provide role models for women students, and that one should give preference to women candidates. Similarly, if a university has only a handful of African-American on its arts and sciences faculty, special efforts, such as cognitive opportunity appointments, should be advocated, based on the belief that an African American student is educationally disadvantaged if he never has an African American professor. However, there are others who would say that this constitutes discrimination based on race and sex.

It is often stated that affirmative action means hiring unqualified people simply because they are a minority. One sets a quota and hires people to fill that quota, even if unqualified. I believe that reasonable people who support affirmative action do not support putting unqualified people in any position. However, there may be differences of opinion about what determines qualifications for a position. For example, when appointing a teacher for an inner city classroom, ability to interact with the children would mean that a minority teacher would be preferable. But under no circumstance would it benefit the children to be taught physics by someone who does not understand the subject, even if he or she were a minority.

The claim is also made that affirmative action produces a feeling of inferiority in minority men and in women of all races, and creates a negative stereotype in the minds of white males. For instance, some claim that affirmative action does nothing to alleviate the worst problems of black America, such as the state of the poor in ghettos. Their argument is that it benefits those blacks who are economically advantaged, who, by being put above their academic or career level by affirmative action, are set up for failure in a way that damages their self-confidence and reinforces white prejudices about black inferiority.

These statements are repeated so often that people start believing that there is a semblance of truth in them, although no hard evidence exists for the claim. Other groups _ for instance, children of alumnae who are given preference at many private institutions _ don't feel any stigma about having been admitted as children of alumnae. Furthermore, the assertion that affirmative action creates negative stereotypes implies that none of these stereotypes existed before affirmative action. I think that all of us know this is not true.

The claim is made that when race and/or sex is included as one of the criteria used to determine the outcome of a decision _ such as university admissions, minority scholarships, or faculty appointments _ it is, in essence, discrimination based on sex and/or race. In a recent article, Dinesh D'Souza, commenting on the action of the California Board of Regents, states, "It is simply untruthful for institutions to assert in their catalogs and other literature that their policies are anything but... biased based on race, sex or national origin. They are practicing discrimination against individuals for the purpose of admitting members of minority groups who do not represent the same levels of academic credentials as white or Asian Americans."

D'Souza continued, "One can hardly maintain that preferential policies strictly serve the goals of social justice. Take the case of Asian Americans. Members of this minority group have experienced both de facto and de jure discrimination, and they have played no part in the historical crimes that affirmative action was designed to remedy. In fairness, why should the burden of preferential policy be placed on historically innocent parties?" Further, D'Souza argues that SAT scores aren't biased, that grades are relevant, and that therefore, his argument is that affirmative action discriminates on the basis of race, and discriminates against an individual in order to produce products from the group.

There are many arguments one could make against this. For instance, traditionally, we have given preference to other groups, such as athletes. Preference is given to in-state students at a state institution. But this strikes me a little bit as saying that two rights make a wrong. I think a stronger argument is that we don't discriminate, that many factors are taken into account when making admissions. The purpose is to admit students who will succeed, based on a variety of criteria, and race or gender may be taken into account to offset possible discrimination in educational opportunities, or possible cultural or gender bias in the SATs and GREs.

In hiring faculty, the point can be made that we are discriminating against a white male when we give preference to a woman, or when we establish a targeted opportunity position for a minority. Here I think the argument against affirmative action is less strong than in the admission of students. We hire faculty to create a group that meets the needs of students, or who can conduct research at the top of their fields. We hire faculty to further the mission of the college and university, and we all discriminate against people trained in certain fields. We may decide we're only going to hire experimentalists, or go after the next Nobel Prize winner. Similarly, if we are educating a large number of women, we should try to hire a woman the next time we do a search, or try to have targeted opportunities for African Americans to attract them to our department. It doesn't seem to me that this is very different from our usual hiring procedures.

There is one type of preference I find more troubling. The University of Maryland created a fellowship program only for African Americans to attract undergraduates with exceptional academic qualifications. The students admitted to the program came from upper middle class families whose parents could have paid their tuition, and if they didn't go to Maryland, they would have been eagerly accepted someplace else. What is the rationale? It does not best address the needs of minority students who lived in the most disadvantaged areas. It does not educate students who would not otherwise obtain an education.

I think we do it because we are committed to diversity. Universities are the principle institutions where citizens, professionals and leaders are and will be educated and shaped. Each university believes it must have on its campus minority students who will be the future leaders and the future faculty, and who will also be perceived by all students as smart and educated. This is the way to right past discrimination beyond the individual level: by changing the climate on the campus and thus educating all students as to the benefits of diversity.

Finally, it is very difficult to find a job in physics these days, and the situation will probably not improve. Why, then, are we encouraging more people to go into physics, and seeking to recruit women and minorities into a field where they may not be able to get a job? I do think we should cut down on our production of Ph.D. s, and probably on the numbers of international students. But we should also broaden the education of our students so that they will be more employable. I believe we should continue to encourage women and minorities to enter a field which has been closed to them in the past.

In short, affirmative action is under attack. I believe that universities must be the leaders in affirmative action in order to create a diverse environment at their institutions. This will help ensure that the next generation will produce a society in which there is true equal opportunity for all.

Elizabeth Baranger is Associate Provost and Professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin