April 26, 2004

Experts Discuss Affirmative Action

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A cornucopia of experts in fields ranging from law to economics converged on campus on Friday to participate in the “Now What? Affirmative Action and Higher Education in 2004 and Beyond” conference.

The Cornell Law School and Center for the Study of Inequality-sponsored conference sought to examine issues surrounding recent Supreme Court rulings, current race-based programs and the future of affirmative action. The Supreme Court’s June 23 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, which stated that race could be used non-mechanically in the admissions process, played a prominent part in the discussions.

The day-long forum was split into four sections featuring eight different speakers. The first two sections, held in the Biotechnology building, examined associate justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s court opinion in the Grutter case. O’Connor was the swing vote in the 5-4 Grutter decision for the University of Michigan Law School, and the close nature of the ruling still merits a great deal of discussion, according to Prof. Deborah Malamud, law, New York University.

Malamud, who was teaching at Michigan at the time of the suits, said that the decisions her former law school had to make were very difficult and that the fate of affirmative action rested on O’Connor. In her presentation, she examined the issues surrounding O’Connor’s opinion and made the distinction between Grutter and Gratz — the latter involved Michigan’s use of a point system in undergraduate admissions.

“In the view of O’Connor, the law school’s program required individual evaluation of each application while the undergraduate program did not,” Malamud said.

In adjusting their undergraduate admissions processes to comply with the court’s decision, Michigan enforced changes such as requiring more essays, conducting multiple reads of applications and providing an increasingly holistic evaluation, according to Marvin Krislov, vice president and general counsel of the University of Michigan.

Krislov said that the school has also followed the court’s ruling in creating a narrowly-tailored program and have been examining their financial aid and outreach programs to see if they comply with O’Connor’s opinion.

“I think there’s a general belief that schools have a certain amount of slots [for different groups of people]. [But] it’s exactly the opposite,” said Prof. Stephen Morgan, sociology. Morgan added that in his experience working with Cornell admissions, evaluators do not know if a student is a minority or not, and rather consider whether they could do well at East Hill.

In attempting to construct a color-blind admissions system, one section of the conference, held in Ives Hall, was devoted to examining alternatives to affirmative action. One such alternative which was discussed was the 10 Percent Plan — a system which guarantees Texas public high school seniors who are in the top 10 percent of their class admission into a University of Texas institution. Although the plan is based largely on merit, there are still many questions surrounding it, according to Prof. Marta Tienda, sociology, Princeton University.

Tienda, who has studied Texas’ program in great detail and presented a variety of statistics from her research, said that many smart and qualified students still miss out in attending these state schools even though the plan reaches out to a variety of groups.

In addressing O’Connor’s statement that affirmative action might not be needed in 25 years, Prof. Michael Heise, law, was skeptical that conditions concerning this issue would change. Heise said that because of the unequal distribution of education in the K-12 system, it would be difficult to deviate from the current status quo.

“The major reason why the University of Michigan has to engage in these policies is because this system generating their applicants forces them to [engage in affirmative action],” Heise said.

Conceived after the court’s ruling, one of the main goals of the conference was to discuss the court’s decision and how people and institutions around the nation are responding, according to organizer Prof. David Harris, sociology, and director of the Institute for the Social Sciences.

Harris said that after he separated the issue into different parts, he chose speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds. He was impressed with the turnout, which reached numbers of 50 to 60 audience members in the conference’s afternoon portion.

“There was a great diversity not only in the people there, but also in the … types of questions being asked,” Harris said.

Many attendees, including Charlene Morales ’06, found the conference to be informative. Morales said that the variety of speakers and their views helped broaden her perspectives on affirmative action.

“I think the structure of the conference was very helpful,” In Paik grad said. “One of the biggest problems [the speakers] were able to tackle was defining the law … There needs to be more discussion about [affirmative action].”

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Senior Editor