Emory Report

December 7, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 14

First person:

New book strengthens argument for affirmative action

The argument about affirmative action in colleges and universities has been put on an entirely new and much more solid footing by virtue of the publication of The Shape of the River: The Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions.

Written by William Bowen and Derek Bok, former presidents of Princeton and Harvard, respectively, the book changes the debate on affirmative action by forcing people to argue for or against the practice much more cogently and substantively, rather than engaging in rhetoric about what's a "free country" or other such fetching phrases. What this book demonstrates, because it is so rich with statistical information, is that affirmative action as practiced in college and university admissions has been good for three parties: the students involved, the institutions and, in the long run, the nation.

Emory is one of the 28 universities studied by Bok and Bowen, which is one of the reasons I want the Emory community to know about the book. The study validates what I have believed intuitively for a long time: strictly for pedagogical reasons, affirmative action has been and is a positive social instrument.

Bok and Bowen do acknowledge that in order to achieve a racially diverse student body we have admitted students whose test scores were less strong than those of other students. Yet the authors also find that, once admitted, African-American students have done very well strictly in terms of academic achievement (although not quite as well as their counterparts); in particular they have also found that African-American students have gone on to achieve advanced, their earning power is very strong and, more than their white counterparts, they are more active in civic affairs.

According to this research, both blacks and whites looking back at their college experiences said they had good social interaction with members of other races, even expressing the wish that affirmative action programs had been stronger at their alma maters.

That certainly is true for me. When I was growing up in Maryland, schools were segregated until 1954, when I first encountered black students--very few of them--in high school. When I went to college at Haverford, there were only three or four African Americans in a student body of some 500, and what I remember is the singular oddity of these students, the fact that they were clearly feeling, if not isolated, quite prominent in the visual spectrum. If the rest of the students learned anything about black people, what they learned was limited. Until you have a rich variety of people, it is very easy to categorize a race, often wrongly, by the meager number of examples you're offered.

I hope this book will take its proper place in the current national debate, particularly in those courts that will decide cases involving affirmative action. I regret that the citizens of the state of Washington passed an anti-affirmative action referendum last month, one that has led to the University of Washington scrapping its affirmative action program. Now that both California and Washington have taken such a step, I fear other states may follow. Certainly public schools are being challenged. The University of Michigan has had a lawsuit filed against it; a federal appeals court recently stuck down a race-based admission policy at a Boston public high school; and I anticipate it could be only a matter of time before private universities are challenged and the issue ends up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

I hope that the Bok and Bowen book will reinforce the case for institutional diversity and play a role in such litigation, much like the works of Kenneth Clark and Harry Ashmore did in convincing the Supreme Court that "separate but equal" had a negative impact on the education of young black children and led to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

The Shape of the River gives Emory an opportunity to consider its own history. It has been only in the last five decades that women have been admitted in large numbers to Emory College. It has been only 36 years since Emory successfully sued to overturn state legislation preventing private colleges in Georgia from admitting black students without losing tax exemptions. But among the Top 25 schools in the nation, none has a higher percentage of African American students or faculty than Emory.

Emory got here by focus, dedication and conscious effort, and I will make sure that we continue this commitment. It's important for Emory to retain this leadership role, not only for our students, but for this city, the state of Georgia and for the South. I think our institutional identity is rooted in what has been done with respect to the diversity of our student body. And I'm immensely proud of that achievement. We have become stronger as an institution because of our commitment to diversity.

The more understanding I could have had about societal diversity when I went to college in the late '50s and early '60s, the better off I would have been. That's a selfish point of view. But when you're being educated, it's right to be very selfish-- it's right to be greedy about knowledge. And I wish I had acquired more knowledge about the overarching issue in regards to life in the United States: our black/white division It remains an unhealed scar in our history.

Now I'm at an institution where people can feel immensely proud about the diversity we have accomplished in Sanford Atwood's time, in Jim Laney's time, and now, in our time. I want what the critics of affirmative action want: a color-blind society. But as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell said in the 1978 Bakke decision, "You finally can't have a racially healthy country until you use race in admissions and employment."

It's a paradox, and a cruel irony, but if a people has been kept down for 300 years, and we've only practiced affirmative action for 30 years, we shouldn't--and can't--quit now.

President Chace served as a host at a Dec. 3 meeting of the Atlanta Regional Consortium of Higher Education that featured The Shape of the River co-author William Bowen. Chace is former chair of the consortium of 19 public and private instittions of higher learning in the Atlanta area.

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