November 15, 2002

Panel Discusses Battle Over Affirmative Action

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In colleges across America, affirmative action is a topic of heated debate. The issue has been brought back to national attention recently with lawsuits challenging the affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan’s undergraduate and law school admissions offices.

To address common questions about the policies, a panel discussion called “How Did You Get Into Cornell? The Truth About Affirmative Action in American Universities” was held last night at Ives Hall’s Pepsi-Cola Lecture Hall in front of 25 to 30 students.


Featured in the panel was Shanta Driver, national coordinator of United for Equality and Affirmative Action and national director of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and to Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). Also in the panel were Prof. Rupert Nacoste, psychology, North Carolina State University and Angela Griffin, dean of undergraduate admissions. Ednita Wright, assistant dean of students for diversity and outreach, introduced the panel.

Driver stressed the importance of the Michigan lawsuits because the results will directly affect affirmative action across the nation. She organized a student intervention during Grutter v. Bollinger, the case against the affirmative action plan of the University of Michigan Law School. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the current policies 5-4 on May 14. However, the Supreme Court will hear the case in March, when the legality of the policy will be determined. The Court instituted affirmative action nationwide in 1978.

“Affirmative action is a set of anti-discrimination activities designed to neutralize unfairly closed-off opportunities” for members of certain groups, Nacoste said in the opening.

He emphasized that the aforementioned “activities” are not restricted to admissions practices but they also include making information available to high schools. As a social psychologist focusing on the effects of affirmative action, Nacoste also touched on the psychological processes set off by the policy.

“If you don’t know how you got in, how do you know why you didn’t get in?” he asked, referring to students who blame rejection from certain colleges on affirmative action but hesitate to single out factors which get them into other schools.

Nacoste also clarified that affirmative action “cannot be preferential treatment, cannot be reverse discrimination,” because legally race, ethnicity and gender can be given weight but not predominant weight over other factors.

“It is not race-based, it is discrimination-based,” he concluded.

Griffin then gave Cornell’s perspective on affirmative action. “Cornell has always had a long-standing commitment to diversity,” she began.

She then discussed how admissions decisions are made. Out of over 21,000 applications, she said, only about 3,000 can be admitted. Of the total applicant pool, 80 to 90 percent are qualified, she added. Thus, she explained that race can become a deciding factor to distinguish among equally qualified applicants.

Griffin also brought up the issue of groups other than females and minorities that are given preferential treatment.

“There are other special-interest groups we look at as well,” she said, including students with legacy, athletes and students with special talents in art, dance or music.

Driver then ended the panel in the longest presentation of the group. “Within the next six months, this nation will either be moving in the direction of greater integration and democracy,” she said, or back to “the dark days of segregation.”

Driver cited “the experiment of ending affirmative action” in California, a decision which resulted in extremely few minority students in the incoming classes, she said. The decision was reversed this year to reinstitute affirmative action. Last year, Driver said, there was one African-American student admitted to Boalt Hall, the School of Law at the University of California-Berkeley and two at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law.

“We cannot allow the re-segregation of higher education to take place,” Driver said.

She then discussed bias in standardized tests.

“The LSAT is a white-privilege test,” she said, citing a study which found an average difference in LSAT scores of 9.8 points — 25 percent of the highest possible score — between black and white students from the same schools and with the same GPAs and majors.

Driver explained that such differences can be attributed partially to stereotype threat, a psychological phenomenon by which minority and female students experience anxiety over pressure to succeed which often results in lower test scores.

The panel concluded with a question-and-answer session in which students both for and against affirmative action raised points and made comments on the presentations.

“I thought that all the speakers had good points and I liked how there were different fields [represented, such as] the psychologist and the admissions officer,” said Anasstassia Baichorova ’05. “I thought the speech by [Driver] was very inspirational; it was very good.”

Kendall Lucas ’05 was also impressed with the panel.

“I was very satisfied, but I wish more people would have gone because it’s such a big concern for a lot of people,” she said.

Baichorova and Lucas were inspired by the panel to continue Driver’s work at Cornell. They plan to open a chapter of BAMN on campus soon.

“I thought [Driver] was a very intelligent woman and really respected everything she had to say, and she kind of gave me a basis to [pursue action on campus],” Lucas said.

Archived article by Andy Guess