Senior Faculty and Affirmative Action at UPenn

A recent editorial lamenting the lack of diversity among senior administrators at UPenn reminded me of some of the old diversity issues students and faculty debated when I was an undergrad at Wesleyan. The editorial, penned by UPenn’s Africana department, suggests that the university’s president isn’t really committed to diversity, despite making a show of it on occasion. Like a lot of universities, one of UPenn’s objectives is to have a diverse student and faculty body, and affirmative action programs are one of the means they use to achieve that aim.

People get so up in arms over the “injustice” of affirmative action, however, that it’s easy to forget how, just a few decades ago, there was virtually no desire to bring white women or people of color (regardless of gender) “into the fold” at the nation’s top-tier companies, colleges, and universities — at least, not in any significant way. In the 1960s, Pres. Kennedy declared by executive order that government institutions and contractors could not discriminate based on race or sex, but just saying “no more discrimination” wasn’t all that effective so LBJ issued a new order during his tenure encouraging federal contractors to create policies meant to attract diversity. For reasons ranging from psychology to the nature of the old boys networks, hiring policies that seemed neutral were discriminatory in practice.

Since the 1960s, the Supreme Court has placed a few restrictions on affirmative action programs — such as banning quotas — but the practice has pretty much stayed intact at universities, large government institutions, and corporations large enough to come under fire, potentially, for discriminatory hiring practices.

All the signs suggest that the traditional affirmative action programs will soon be ringing the death knell, however, since the Supreme Court, for reasons known primarily to themselves, decided to take up the issue again despite having just ruled in favor of affirmative action in 2003.

I’ve read a few articles about the girl bringing the current case, and from what I’ve gathered, the main argument she and her supporters are rallying behind is that the organizations practicing affirmative action are making race-based decisions instead of merit-based decisions. That argument assumes, however, that other than affirmative action programs considering race, everyone else is admitted to universities based on merit. In fact, “The numbers” are just one of the criteria universities use to chose their students. Great squash players and tennis players, for example, are also recruited and accepted by elite colleges, despite sometimes having lower grades than other students who applied and were not accepted.  Legacy students also usually get a bump in the admissions process. Are we going to do away with these types of preferences as well?

Other types of organizations make similar, qualitative judgements in their hiring practices. A company may hire a sales representative who fits the company culture and who it thinks it can groom to be really successful over a job applicant with higher sales figures. Oftentimes, executives can’t really make an “apples-to-apples” comparison between people, so they have to “go with their gut” and chose the person they favor the most among all the qualified people.

Of course, when people “go with their gut,” they tend to pick people who remind them of themselves, which tends to hurt people of color and white women when you’re talking about the private sector. In short, you could argue that affirmative action programs may be necessary, in some instances, in order to prevent discrimination.

That’s not the Fisher argument, however, and given the current composition of the Court, their argument is looking more auspicious than ever. And so, to return to the original issue, the qualms of UPenn’s Africana department are looking increasingly isolated from the direction that the nation, on the whole, appears to be heading toward.

On the other hand, since affirmative action programs were actually meant to prevent discrimination, if those programs are ruled unconstitutional, then we may see a rise in lawsuits regarding discriminatory hiring practices. Larger organizations may come under increasing levels of pressure to prove that they are actually abiding by fair labor laws and not just hiring the guys who are the most natural fit in the old boys club.

**Check out this video clip from 60 minutes where they interview justices Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas about race and affirmative action. There isn’t much question on how Clarence Thomas will vote on the issue, but it gives you a peak into why he sees things the way he does. The interview was prefaced on the idea that they would talk to the two justices on the court who had benefitted from affirmative action — people always forget that white women have also benefitted — and at the end of the interview she addressed it by saying that it was probably graduating summa cum laude from Princeton, despite not having had the upbringing or elite high school education of much of Princeton’s population, that had the most to do with her getting into Yale law school.**

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