Jewish World Review March 25, 2004 /3 Nissan, 5764
Colleges doing away with their racially exclusive programs
Years ago, once colleges and universities had decided to make race and ethnicity "a factor" in their admissions, many of them cast about for additional ways to advance educational opportunity for minorities. So they came up with scholarship and financial aid programs, freshmen orientation programs and academic-enrichment programs, to name the most prominent. And they made sure that the programs were, as the lawyers say, racially and ethnically exclusive. Only minorities were eligible.
Now comes the news that colleges and universities are having second thoughts about the wisdom of retaining their minority-exclusive programs. Indeed, according to a recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, many schools have opened such programs to "students of any race." A trend appears in the making, and it's worth applauding.
Yale University, for example, has opened to all interested students a summer orientation program formerly limited to just black, Hispanic and American Indian freshmen. Amherst College has taken a two-day, on-campus program designed to give high school "students of color" a sense of college life and said white students also may participate. And St. Louis University has changed a scholarship program named after a former black faculty member so that it no longer is just for black students.
The trend now evident began before the Supreme Court's decisions last summer in the Michigan affirmative action cases. But those decisions are proving to be a powerful agent of change.
In the Michigan cases, virtually every selective college and university in the country advised the Supreme Court to declare as law what Justice Lewis Powell had said in the 1978 Bakke case: that educational "diversity" is an interest strong enough to justify the use of race in admitting students. The court agreed, and higher education rejoiced in its victory.
But the court also insisted that the use of race must be "narrowly tailored." Specifically, the court said that no student may be rejected solely on account of race or ethnicity and that all students must be treated as individuals.
The court didn't spell out all the implications of narrow tailoring. But the lawyers who advise colleges and universities are having a hard time believing that most racially exclusive programs really are narrowly tailored - and therefore legal.
What the court said is affecting how the executive branch sees the issue, as well. Government agencies that once gave grants to universities earmarked for certain minorities are starting to extend eligibility to everyone. And the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights has told higher education officials that "programs that use race or national origin as sole eligibility criteria are extremely difficult to defend."
The law, then, stands opposed to racially exclusive programs. And it's a good thing it does, for the country realized long ago that it was wrong to use race to deny whole segments of the population access to programs of general benefit.
Higher education officials will tell you that when they created their race-exclusive programs, their motives were pure. But too often the "help" can strike even those being helped as patronizing, and the race-based exclusivity of the programs can divide students.
It's better for everyone if programs are open to all and if eligibility is conditioned on race-neutral criteria, such as social and economic disadvantage. Texas A&M, for example, has taken the admirable step of creating scholarships for students whose families earn no more than $40,000 annually and who are the first in their families to attend college.
No doubt many schools that are opening their minority-only programs to all students won't follow A&M's lead but will make race "a factor" in some circumstances. Under the Michigan decisions, race may be used in that way. Even so, the court also has said that even that use of race "must be limited in time."
In other words, admissions - indeed, everything a university does - is going to have to be race-neutral someday soon. Opening racially exclusive programs to all students is a necessary step in advancing toward that morally worthy goal.
Correction: My column last week incorrectly stated the electoral vote for the 2000 presidential election. In fact, George W. Bush received 271 electoral votes and Al Gore 266. One Gore elector abstained.
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