Last week President Bush slated affirmative action programs like the one at the University of Michigan as, “divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the constitution.” And he should know.
To gain his place at Yale, Bush stomped all over some better qualified Yale aspirants’ dreams on the back of his family name. An undistinguished scholar at the prestigious Phillips Academy, Bush was the beneficiary of a legacy admissions policy that gives preference to the children of alumni; Bush Sr. also graduated from Yale. It’s just a hunch, but the fact that his grandfather sat on Yale’s Board of Trustees may also have helped.
Legacy admissions would seem to fail all the criteria Bush has leveled against Michigan’s admissions policy. It allows students admission at the expense of more qualified students and could, therefore, by virtue of not treating applicants equally, be said to fail Bush’s test of being compliant with the constitution. At the very least it is unfair. Yes. It’s nice for a child to attend the old man’s alma mater, but should they really get a place at the expense of a more gifted student?
Yet when Bush spoke out last week against the University of Michigan’s admissions policies, a denunciation of legacy admissions was absent. One would have thought a man of his education would be able to see the contradiction.
Instead, the president declared that Michigan’s admissions policy was tantamount to a quota system. His unfortunate use of such an emotionally- charged term does not stand up to analysis. Michigan receives 25,000 applications for only 5,000 freshman places. To determine admissions, the school employs a 150 point system in which African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians receive 20 points automatically for being a member of a minority. In contrast, applicants are awarded up to 110 points on the basis on academic achievement. With such an emphasis, the selection of students from minority groups over white students is only likely to occur where they are approximately equal in academic ability.
But affirmative action programs are having an effect, according to a study of admissions conducted by former Princeton President William Bowen and former Harvard President Derek Bok.
Campus diversity at many top universities is influenced by affirmative action programs. The absence of such programs, according to Bowen and Bok, would reduce the overall chance of admission for an African American from 42 percent to 13 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of African-American students admitted as freshmen at the University of California at Berkeley, which eliminated its affirmative action programs in the fall of 1998, fell from 6.8 percent in 1997 to 2.4 percent in just one year.
On the day the United States commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bush acknowledged that racial prejudice is still a reality in the United States. He has proposed increasing spending by 5 percent for grants to historically black colleges, universities, graduate programs and Hispanic education institutions.
But the president would do well to heed the advice of his Secretary of State Colin Powell, who spoke out Monday in favor of affirmative action programs and the policy of the University of Michigan in particular. Affirmative action programs were certainly not part of King’s dream, but they may just be one more steppingstone on the way to his Promised Land.
Chris O’Donnell is a sophomore majoring in Mass Communications.