Affirmative action in the form of creating a diverse student body will be front and center as the U.S. Supreme Court considers appeals of lower court decisions supporting the admissions process at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Based on the currently conservative bent of our Supreme Court, I fear the worse.
Critics of affirmative action characterize it as social engineering. And it is. Critics believe that the admissions process, particularly as practiced at the selective schools, should be based on one criterion and one criterion only: academic and extracurricular qualifications, regardless of color, creed and gender identification. They eschew preferences given to any specific ethnic group. Simply, affirmative action overlooks the free market of purely merit-based admission, minus social factors, critics assert.
Based on my experience in the mid-1960s at the University of Pennsylvania, out of a class of 1,500 students, we had two Black classmates. That fact stands on its own, sadly so. When my daughter attended Penn in 1997, campus demographics had changed dramatically for the better.
I believe that affirmative action in college admissions has been well-debated. The Supreme Court will be plowing old ground, as is its wont. The plaintiffs are counting upon a court receptive to demolishing “liberal” concepts and rulings. Staunch legal jurists whose rulings (and politics) decidedly veer rightward are fair game for those who wish to alter nearly 50 years of legal precedent.
Our democratic process favors dissent and legal challenges.
The admissions process is aimed, properly so, at designing a student body that represents the composition of our nation. Our students and faculty benefit from an education that includes students who reflect our country’s diversity. A mélange of opinions and voices enriches the academic experience both inside and outside the classroom.
If affirmative action is considered social engineering, so be it. It works efficiently and effectively. As a parent of two daughters who attended two vastly different universities, I welcomed—and so did they—the diversity they experienced in the classroom and common spaces. Besides being the right way to educate, I viewed diversity pragmatically: exposed to a wide range of people with highly varied upbringings, my daughters entered the “real world” better prepared to work for, and with individuals who did not look or think like them.
Misperceptions, accompanied by prejudice, would have handicapped my daughters in their work and social lives.
Walk across any campus, whether it is Salisbury University or Chesapeake College or the U.S. Naval Academy, and you will see, thankfully so, students of all colors and ethnic make-ups. As noted, all I saw on my campus was white; there were no shades. The same was true when I played lacrosse not only in Philadelphia but at selective colleges in the northeast. The only Black opponent played at Harvard.
In retrospect, I suffered from a lack of awareness, and appreciation for people embodying all nationalities and racial qualities. My outlook was narrow. Only my military experience changed my perspective.
Concerning the Supreme Court case, initiated, at least in the case of Harvard, on behalf of Asian applicants who felt discriminated against by the admission of people of color, I would hope that the court views the admission process as one that considers diversity as essential to a learning environment. I am not confident it will.
I am fully aware based on numerous conversations, often unpleasant, that my university classmates look askance at the admissions process. In two cases, they are angry that their very bright and gifted grandchildren were rejected by their alma mater. One of my friends believes his granddaughter fell victim to our university’s intention to develop a diverse school body.
Of course, my two friends pay little attention to the 56,000 applications and five percent acceptance rate. The competition is fierce. Unfairly so, I suspect in the minds of many disappointed alumni. They express their dissatisfaction by forswearing their donations.
The Supreme Court decision is expected in 2023. The entire admissions process might be in shambles after the court’s deliberations. That would be a significant hit to higher education.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.