College Affirmative Action: How Serious Is the Backlash?


Have affirmative action programs at America's universities--whatever their merits in helping minorities and improving diversity--begun to spark a serious backlash?

The question was catapulted into the limelight earlier this month, when Georgetown University Law School became the site of the latest controversy over admission policies, faculty hirings, speech codes and diversified curricula that revolve around race.

The flap began when Timothy Maguire, a third-year law student at Georgetown, wrote a biting commentary in the weekly law review decrying the school's affirmative action admissions program and calling its policies for accepting black and white students "dramatically unequal."

Citing data he gathered while a clerk in the law school's admissions office, Maguire wrote that white students admitted to the school had significantly higher test scores and grades than the blacks--implying that the school used lower standards for admitting blacks.

Although the Georgetown episode stirred a wave of student protest and Maguire eventually apologized, Dr. Blandina Ramirez of the nonprofit American Council on Education said it was only the most recent in the growing debate over race-related issues in education.

Two years ago, Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, who is black, took an unpaid leave of absence to protest the lack of a woman on the faculty who is black or a member of another minority group. Last year, a black federal appellate judge refused to participate in a students' moot court at the University of Chicago because that school had no tenured black law professor.

This year, Dinesh D'Souza, a founding member of the Dartmouth Review, stirred controversy with a book arguing that when schools skew their admissions in favor of racial diversity and "multiculturalism" they encourage race-consciousness and tensions.

Signs of racial unrest have been rumbling through universities and colleges since the early 1980s, when the Ronald Reagan Administration began openly criticizing affirmative action plans as "reverse discrimination" and "quota systems." Karen Friedman, a second-year law student at Georgetown, said: "The fact that (Maguire's) small article in our little weekly made such news is an indication of how intense the racial tension is here."

It was in the early 1970s that colleges and universities began setting up admissions policies designed to ensure higher minority enrollment. In 1978, a case before the Supreme Court challenged such policies. Allan Bakke, a white student, said he was a victim of reverse discrimination when the UC Davis medical school denied him admission because of the school's racial quota system. The high court found that admissions programs as explicitly preferential as the one used at UC Davis were unconstitutional, and Bakke was admitted.

The court, however, allowed race-conscious admissions programs that did not rely on rigid preference.

Since then, educational institutions have generally avoided outright quotas but have held fast to policies aimed at promoting diversity on campus, Ramirez said. But she argues that students and officials are facing the issues more consciously now--partly because the number of minority students has increased.

The questioning also is part of a broader social challenge to the concept of affirmative action, in the view of Dan Fleshler, an official of the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund.

Fleshler says support for affirmative action on campuses has ebbed in the past decade and racial and gender bigotry have risen, along with arguments about curriculum and speech codes.

"I don't know if it's part of the growing conservatism in this country," he said, "or that most students now were born after the civil-rights movement, so they . . . don't know what steps we had to take to get to where we are now."

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