Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Affirmative Action Strategies -- 2

Yesterday's announcement (2/21/12) of the Supreme Court's agreement to hear a major affirmative action case brings this controversial initiative to the top of the nation's education policy agenda once again. See "Justices Take Up Race as a Factor in College Entry" (NY Times, 2/21/12), "U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Texas Affirmative Action Case" (Diverse Issues, 2/22), "Counting Justices" (Inside Higher Education, 2/22/12), and "Supreme Court Takes Up Challenge to Race-Conscious Admissions at U. of Texas", (Chronicle, 2/21/12).

Perfect Storm
It's possible that the Court's decisions will be narrowly focused, resulting in marginal expansions or restrictions of the use of affirmative action by the nation's colleges and universities. Unfortunately, the stated broader objectives of the plaintiffs in this case make it likely that the Court will be asked to hand down sweeping decisions that may substantially reduce or possibly eliminate the use of affirmative action altogether. If so, this would unleash yet another adverse wind in a perfect storm of rising disadvantages imposed on America's minorities in general, its blacks in particular:
  • Rising economic inequality, wherein the rich have grown richer through deregulation, i.e., the nation's top one percent are accumulating grossly disproportionate shares of the nation's wealth and income
  • Rising political inequality, wherein the Supreme Court has empowered the rich and super rich to make unlimited campaign contribution to Super Pacs
  • Rising educational inequality, wherein the use of affirmative action is severely restricted or banned by the pending Supreme Court decisions
The irony of the source of these adverse winds demands notice: government policies -- legislative and judicial, enforced by the executive. Who would have believed back in 1981 that President Ronald Reagan's dictum would ever again have such powerful applicability to the plight of black Americans, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" (First Inaugural Address). Fifty years after the federal government banned segregation and promoted equal opportunity in the 1960s, the policies of that same federal government now pose increasingly insurmountable obstacles to the achievement of Dr. King's dream.

HBCUs as Keepers of the Dream
Readers of previous notes on this blog can anticipate my assertion that HBCUs must play a leadership role in the effective use of whatever affirmative action opportunities remain after the Court's decision in the case before it now. As the keepers of the dream, HBCUs must not only ensure that the 10 percent of the nation's black students who attend HBCUs gain access to the benefits of well-designed higher education programs; they must expand their agendas to include oversight of the affirmative action programs offered by non-HBCUs in order to ensure that the other 90 percent of the nation's black students also have access to well-designed opportunities.

To be specific, HBCUs should collaborate to provide collective oversight of the major affirmative action initiatives run by public and private non-HBCUs, especially the non-HBCUs within their own states. We cannot continue to stand by and watch bright, ambitious young black students recruited into compensatory affirmative actions programs that are so poorly designed that the failure of these unsuspecting students is so predictable as to be preordained, failures that will then be blamed on the student victims themselves instead of on the incompetent and/or irresponsible designers of these defective programs.

Perhaps the most critical component of good design is sufficient funding to pay for the additional resources that will be needed for black students to overcome the deficiencies in their preparation. These students are likely to require special tutors and mentors, have access to developmental courses, take longer than usual to graduate, and need more financial aid to cover the costs of their longer enrollments. Nor should affirmative action be too ambitious. For some degree programs, black students whose GPAs and SAT scores are substantially lower than the GPAs and SAT scores of the non-black students may not pose a substantial disadvantage over the course of their four or five years of study. But for other programs, especially the harder degree programs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), such gaps will be insurmountable. For example, the notion of engineering programs admitting black students whose SAT scores are one standard deviation below the average scores for non-black students is a cruel absurdity.

HBCUs should conduct periodic assessments of the effectiveness of the affirmative action strategies implemented by non-HBCUs. Effective programs should be lauded; ineffective programs should be damned. If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, it is all the more terrible when wasted by poorly designed programs wherein such waste is inevitable. Innovations within the effective programs should be identified and disseminated; and the deficiencies of the ineffective programs should be highlighted and discouraged.

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Related notes: