February 3, 2003

Students Debate U. Mich Policy

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About one hundred students packed into the Community Lounge of the Latino Living Center (LLC) to discuss the issue of affirmative action on Friday night.

Audience members shared their thoughts on various aspects of affirmative action and debated the University of Michigan undergraduate and law school case that is currently before the Supreme Court. The discussion was sponsored by the Latino Living Center and Ujamaa.

The question before the court is the legality of the University of Michigan’s admissions system, in which applicants are assigned various point values based on certain academic and nonacademic factors, including race. Minority applicants receive 20 points because of their status as a member of an underrepresented minority group. The total amount of points applicants can receive is 150.

According to the presentation, the Michigan case is crucial in determining the future of affirmative action because it could resolve inconsistencies among rulings on affirmative action practices and give schools more specific guidance as to how to legally implement affirmative action practices.

Currently, the only Supreme Court decision relating to affirmative action is the Bakke case. This decision said that while race can be taken into account in admissions decisions, schools cannot set “quotas” to determine the racial makeup of a class. There is considerable debate as to what sorts of practices legally constitute quotas, and many hope that the Court’s decision in the Michigan case will provide a clearer interpretation on the matter.

While the legal aspects of affirmative action in general and the Michigan case in particular constituted a significant portion of the evening, the bulk of the discussion was devoted to the philosophical and historical underpinnings of affirmative action. Ray Dalton, senior lecturer and the executive director of the Office of Minority Educational Affairs (OMEA) at Cornell, spoke at length on the subject.

“The use of words like racial preferences and quotas racializes access to higher education … Affirmative action has never meant [admitting] the unqualified,” Dalton said. “Before affirmative action, there was a mindset that if you weren’t white you wouldn’t be considered.”

According to Dalton, affirmative action was instituted to break down the barriers to access that minorities faced in such areas as college admissions and employment and to remedy what he calls “the under-utilization of people of color in this country.”

Dalton said he believes strongly that the factors that necessitated affirmative action are still present today, pointing to the underrepresentation of minorities in several professions and corporate positions.

A large portion of the attendees were members of minority communities. Based on audience questions and responses posed by the leaders of the discussion, those present appeared to be largely supportive of affirmative action, though there were people who had a few reservations regarding the way it is implemented.

Among those who expressed such doubts was Elliott Reed ’05, vice chair of the Cornell Republicans.

“I think that this is a pretty important issue that affects not only minorities … Affirmative action is not inherently wrong but it is flawed in execution,” Reed said.

“I think that socio-economic based affirmative action is much less of an evil than stereotyping and discriminating against people based on attributes which are beyond their control. [Poor] Ithacites and people from the streets of Harlem are more similar than they are dissimilar. And the question is who is more qualified,” said Reed.

Archived article by Daniel Palmadesso