Action From the Students' Perspective
By Ronald Kahn, James Monroe Professor of Politics
and Law, Oberlin College
Ten Oberlin students, reflecting
a diversity of majors, hometowns, ethnicity, and
class years, discussed their views on racial consideration
and admissions with Professor Ron Kahn. Here, he
summarizes their three-hour meeting and predicts
the outcome of this issue as it faces continued
I teach a course on American Constitutional
Law. Every year we discuss issues of the constitutionality
and fairness of benign race and gender classifications
in the law. To supporters of this practice, it's
affirmative action; to opponents, it's reverse
The participants in this
group met at my home. All had taken one or more
of my classes, and our discussion was very lively.
Our students are well-informed about affirmative
action on the national level and in their respective
states and at Oberlin. For the most part, they
view the policies as positive. Stories were shared
of how it is perceived by black and Latino students
as giving them a second, and better, chance to
attend college; an extra incentive to keep trying
during difficult times.
This group sees the goals
of affirmative action as leveling an uneven playing
field and building a community within disadvantaged
groups of college-educated people. Oberlin is
an exception to the situations at the colleges
and universities in their home states, they believe.
It is a refuge from the politics of racial and
ethnic competition and hatred, which is an important
reason for coming here. "I was an affirmative
action baby as far as admissions goes," said one
student, "but the way the students and faculty
treat me, I don't feel that way."
The students believe that
SAT and ACT scores are important measures of one's
ability to learn, but taken alone, are inadequate
in determining future success or failure in college.
Affirmative action has always existed, they feel,
for family legacies, athletes, and those with
a stellar extra-curricular history. And while
many students have overheard others complain about
affirmative action, they believe Oberlin students
overall see the need for it.
Finally, the group views
Oberlin as a diverse place where one can discuss
affirmative action with liberal-leaning peers.
But they are chagrined
by the fact that too much group self-segregation
As usual, I came
away from our discussion with great respect for
our students. It appears they have learned about
affirmative action in their classes and hold sophisticated
views of the effects of our nation's social, economic,
and political systems on racial inequality. They
understand the complexities of what constitutes
individual merit and the difficulty in measuring
it. The students have a general understanding that
Oberlin makes individual determinations in its admissions
decisions, and that race is considered one of numerous
factors used in the process of creating a diverse
My own thoughts on possible outcomes
of the Michigan case are this: If the Federal
Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which
includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee,
accepts the premises of the Hopwood decision,
it would be refusing to honor the Bakke case and
subsequent affirmative-action decisions. To date,
the Supreme Court has not said that the use of
benign race classifications in admissions is outlawed,
as a matter of constitutional principle. These
cases allow public and private schools to use
race as a factor in admissions. As long as race
is not the only or primary factor in admission
and individual determinations for each student
are made, racial quotas are not employed.
If the Michigan case were
to be decided in a way similar to the Hopwood
decision, I believe the Supreme Court would take
the case on appeal. Moreover, I do not think the
Court would support the Hopwood decision and outlaw
processes, like those used at Oberlin, make individual
determinations of admittance, employ no racial quotas,
and use race as only one among numerous factors.
It is quite clear that Oberlin students come to
Oberlin, at least in part, because of the diverse
community which its affirmative-action policies
help create. It would be sad, indeed, if the Supreme
Court and lesser federal courts deny to our students,
faculty, and staff the opportunity to be part of
such a community.
the Minority Pool /
By Ben Gose
same time that Oberlin is paying attention to the
legal wranglings over affirmative action, it is
reaching out to minority students in innovative
ways. Over the past five years, minority students
(African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and
Native Americans) have made up somewhat over 20
percent of the entering first-year class.
office knows that students who visit the campus
will be more likely to apply. It has long had
a special weekend for admitted minority students
in April, but it recently began holding a fall
program as well. A group of 90 minority students
are flown to the campus, at no charge, for a four-day
weekend. "We're trying to show them all the incredible
things that Oberlin has to offer and get them
to turn that into an application," says Tammy
Dowley-Blackman, director of multicultural recruitment
partnerships in Oberlin's admissions office.
is also trying to cultivate relationships with organizations
outside of schools that are heavily involved in
the lives of minority youth. During the past year,
Dowley-Blackman has spent considerable time in more
than a half dozen urban areas--including Dallas,
Houston, New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Raleigh-Durham--building
contacts with groups such as the Urban League and
the Boys and Girls Clubs.
Chermonte, Oberlin's director of admissions, says
the partnership program may eventually provide
Oberlin with a way to, in essence, "grow its own"
pool of minority applicants.
to be that Oberlin was in the very unique and
enviable position of being able to attract and
retain students of color, particularly African
Americans," she says. "We're still working very
hard at that
endeavor, but so are others."
are competing aggressively, particularly in
music, where the pool of prospective minority
students is small.
to have ten or more years of preparation in
your specialty even to qualify for admission,"
says Robert Dodson, dean of the Conservatory.
"Because of social inequities, it's extremely
difficult to have significant representation
of a variety of subsets of the population that
tend to be identified with affirmative-action
personal view, at least in music, is that the
answer to these questions needs to come much
earlier than college admission. It goes back
to very early development and schooling where
there needs to be a great deal of intervention.
We should be doing much more to reach out to
needy parts of the communities, particularly
the inner cities and lower socioeconomic areas."
little question that Oberlin was welcoming minority
students well before most other institutions.
Within roughly a year of its founding, in 1834,
the trustees of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute
passed a resolution to admit black students.
"Students shall be received into this institution
irrespective of color," they wrote.
didn't look back. A century and a half later,
in 1980, 8.2 percent of the undergraduates were
black. The college had a greater proportion of
black students that year than any other highly
selective institution, according to a recent study
of 50 colleges by the Journal of Blacks in Higher
Education. Oberlin continues to have an enviable
reputation: earlier this year Black Enterprise
magazine ranked it first among national liberal
arts colleges for the education and social environment
it provides African-American students.
Ben Gose is a senior editor at The
Chronicle of Higher Education.