October 23, 2012

Cornell Pledges to Support Diversity as Supreme Court Considers Affirmative Action

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As the Supreme Court considers a case about the legality of affirmative action in colleges across the nation, University administrators and professors have split on their views of how the decision could affect the diversity of Cornell’s campus.

In a case that has drawn national attention, Abigail Fisher, 22, sued the University of Texas at Austin for allegedly denying her admission because of her race. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Fisher, it could bar the use of affirmative action in admissions at colleges including Cornell, University professors and administrators said.

“There is a good reason to be concerned about the possibility that the court might strike down race-conscious policies altogether across the country,” Prof. N’Dri Assie-Lumumba, Africana studies, said in an email.

In part because one of the more liberal Supreme Court justices, Elena Kagan, has recused herself from the case, conservative justices could strike down affirmative action, Assie-Lumumba said.

With the Supreme Court’s decision yet to be made, Lee Melvin, associate vice provost for enrollment, said that Cornell has already started to think about how the case may affect the University’s consideration of race in its admissions process.

Cornell has considered race a factor in admissions for years, according to Melvin.

“Race is just one factor, [but] can it be a factor that provides you with a different opportunity than another student? It can be. It really can be,” he said.

While acknowledging that, should the Supreme Court strike down affirmative action, the racial diversity of Cornell’s student body could be affected, Melvin said that it is difficult to say how big of an effect the ruling could have.

“It could impact our numbers; it just depends on how detailed the court writes [its] decision,” Melvin said.

Melvin said that in addition to looking for racial diversity among its students, Cornell works to have a student body that is diverse in areas such as socioeconomic status and educational background. If affirmative action is struck down, admission committees at Cornell may be asked to more strongly consider applicants’ diversity in these other areas, according to Melvin.

Although Melvin said that, until the Supreme Court releases its decision, it will be “very difficult” to tell exactly how Cornell will be affected, Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students, said that she thinks that Cornell will only be marginally impacted if the Supreme Court decides to strike down affirmative action.

Because of its competitive applicant pool, the University will continue to attract talented students from a variety of backgrounds, Alexander said.

Additionally, Alexander said that the University will be able to continue drawing a diverse student body through the New York State Education Opportunity Program –– which provides underrepresented, promising students the opportunity to attend Cornell even if they do not fulfill academic requirements for admission.

The program does not solely consider race but recruits a diverse group of students through working with “students whose financial and academic environments have not allowed their potential to come to fruition,” according to Cornell’s website.

“Given our land grant mission and commitment to touching and changing the lives of underserved New York residents, we shall remain committed to these critical programs,” Alexander said.

Like Alexander, Karim Abouelnaga ’13, the political action chair of Black Students United, said that Cornell’s commitment to initiatives such as the NYSEOP will prevent the University’s student body from losing much of its diversity if affirmative action is struck down.

“The obvious answer is that the student body will become all the more homogenous, but I don’t see the effect being too drastic,” Abouelnaga said in an email. “If Cornell is truly committed to diversity, then they will utilize other factors that have for generations told stories about race.”

For instance, he said, the University can infer a student’s race through factors such as their educational background, family’s income and name.

“If an applicant is applying from the South Side of Chicago and the familial income is in the lowest quartile …  they attended a public school, and their name is Derrius — there is a greater probability that they are African American than not,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision could have a limited effect on Cornell if it is limited to the University of Texas’ admission policy, Assie-Lumumba said. The admissions policies of the two universities are distinct enough that if the Supreme Court rules only on the specifics of the University of Texas’ policy, Cornell will not be affected, she said.

Prof. Noliwe Rooks, Africana studies, feminist, gender and sexuality studies, said she is worried that the Cornell’s commitment to diversity may not be strong enough to protect diversity on campus if the Supreme Court bars affirmative action.

In an interview with The Sun, Rooks referred to an Oct. 4 opinion piece published by The New York Times, in which Prof. Thomas Espenshade, sociology, Princeton University, claimed that college campuses will be drastically affected if the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action.

In the article, Espenshade said that, at selective private schools, eliminating affirmative action policies will decrease the number of black and Hispanic students by about 60 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

Should universities become less racially diverse, Rooks said that there is a risk that minority students will not perform as well in the classroom and even beyond college when they enter the workforce.

In schools that are racially diverse, “African Americans and Hispanics learn more in integrated schools, get better grades in college, graduate in larger numbers and secure better jobs,” Rooks wrote in an article she published in Time Magazine on May 24.

But affirmative action has faced opposition from some Supreme Court justices, including Justice Clarence Thomas.

“I was taught there’s no real difference between blacks and whites, and I never thought there was supposed to be an easier or different road for us,” he said in a Feb. 28 interview with Businessweek.

Amid uncertainty over how the Supreme Court will rule on the case, Brennan Cumming ’15 said he hopes that the court will protect affirmative action.

Cumming said that he has benefited from Cornell’s diverse student body both in and out of the classroom, and expressed concern about the possibility that the University would have to eliminate its affirmative action policy.

“It’s a lot more rewarding in terms of a real world education to be exposed to people of different backgrounds in college,” he said. “I think affirmative action, to some extent, helps accomplish that.”

Original Author: Margaret Yoder