Affirmative 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 legal scrutiny.

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 discrimination.

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 occurs.

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 student body.

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 affirmative action.

Affirmative action 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.

Filling the Minority Pool / By Ben Gose
At the 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.

The admissions 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.

Oberlin 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.

Debra J. 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.

"It used 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."

Colleges are competing aggressively, particularly in music, where the pool of prospective minority students is small.

"You have 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 needs.

"My own 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."

There's 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.

Oberlin 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.


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