The Access Debate

Whilst the war in Iraq raged on, US politicians, companies and even military officials all weighed in on the all too familiar issue of diversity in universities, and how to achieve it.

The US Supreme Court is currently hearing a lawsuit filed against the University of Michigan by three white students who believe they were unfairly denied a place as a result of the university’s race-conscious admissions program. Under the system students of black, Hispanic, or Native American backgrounds are automatically awarded 20 out of a possible 150 points in the admissions process. A Supreme Court decision is expected by June.

As with previous affirmative action verdicts, the case is being depicted as an historic ruling, with far-reaching implications for many universities around the country. Behind the three students: President George W. Bush and his administration. Behind the University of Michigan stands an incredibly diverse range of companies, politicians and activists including: Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Reverend Jesse Jackson and, awkwardly, Colin Powell (though not the administration’s other black member, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice).

As hearings began in the midst of a war against Iraq, crucial to Michigan’s defence is the express support of a large number of military officials, including Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of coalition forces during the first Gulf War. Military academies such as West Point have long used affirmative action as a means of increasing diversity in the officer ranks of the US army.
But opposition to affirmative action must not necessarily be synonymous with anti-diversity. A recent Newsweek poll found that even racial minorities in the US oppose admissions preferences for blacks, by 56% to 38%.

Opponents argue that equally effective ‘race-neutral’ measures exist, which do not result in so-called ‘reverse discrimination’, felt particularly among white students from poorer backgrounds. One such initiative is the so-called ‘affirmative access’ policy, which has been introduced over the past few years in the states of Texas, California and Florida, in place of affirmative action. Under this system, the top students from every high school in the state are automatically guaranteed admission to a state university. The percentage of those automatically accepted varies between the states, from the top 4% in California, to the top 20% in Florida.

With racial segregation in schools remaining a large part of life in the US, minority students are thereby still given an edge. But it has the added effect of also aiding students from low-income families of any race, which have been educated in poorer, less reputable schools. George has been spearheading calls for such affirmative access systems to be implemented on a national basis.
Opponents have argued that such a system actually encourages racial segregation in schools, currently on the rise again in the US. The key to such a programme’s success therefore, would in part depend on the simultaneous introduction of other measures to counter any such side effects.
There is no question that racial discrimination remains a problem in the US, even if it has come a long way from the violent and legal discrimination that permeated the US all the way up to the 1960s. Those who argue that minorities require no protection at all, and that diversity will be achieved all by itself, fail to recognise this.

But as those minority students of middle-class backgrounds are already mostly able to attend university, focus should be shifting to students from poorer backgrounds. Such measures will still largely favour minorities as well, but will at least go some way towards lessening the resentment among disadvantaged white students, who feel subject to ‘reverse discrimination’.

Of course, any system that favours certain students based on their background, is liable to cause bitterness among those academically more qualified whom it rejects. Looking at the current situation in the UK, class-based affirmative action might cause an even bigger stir.

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