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  From the September 2003 Anthropology News, p 8

Affirmative Action Is Still Alive,
but Is It Enough?

Roberto A Ibarra
U of New Mexico

Colleges and universities across the nation are celebrating the US Supreme Court’s recent landmark decisions to uphold affirmative action in college admissions in the two cases against the University of Michigan. Although the court found against the university’s bonus-point undergraduate admissions system, the ruling in favor of upholding the admissions process in the Law School confirmed that affirmative action is still alive.

As long as racial and ethnic factors, among others, are considered for admission, and if policies are narrowly tailored to further a compelling interest in “obtaining educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body,” affirmative action will continue throughout much of the US for quite awhile. The decisions, in fact, prompted officials at institutions affected by restrictive district court rulings such as the U of Texas, Austin to proclaim that “Hopwood is no longer the law (in the 5th district),” and they are moving quickly to reinstall a race/ ethnic-conscious admissions policy.

As Roberto Ibarra noted in his AN commentary, the educational pipeline model continues to be the focus of affirmative action, as seen by this June 24 political cartoon appearing in The Record (New Jersey).

However, the court rulings will not likely stem future debate on the social/cultural implications of affirmative action. Neither will they prevent opposing factions from achieving successful ballot campaigns, state legislation or gubernatorial mandates to end the use of racial and ethnic preferences in public institutions as they have in California, Washington State and Florida. In fact, opponents claim they will continue their legal battles to end affirmative action on a school-by-school or state-by-state basis beginning with Michigan. Fueled by public sentiment that generally opposes “preference” systems, the battle lines will be drawn around larger constitutional issues.

  The educational pipeline model continues to be the focus of affirmative action, as seen by this June 24 political cartoon appearing The Record (New Jersey)

Pressing Problems
While the conflict rages on in the court of public opinion, the debate over affirmative action has been put to rest for a while in the federal courts. Educators and anthropologists can now focus their attention on more pressing problems that generate from, but lay beyond, traditional affirmative action issues. For instance, despite the success of higher education, why do we continue to see academic gaps and performance differences among women and minorities throughout the educational system today? Why, despite long-term efforts by affirmative action programs, do many segments of the national population remain grossly underrepresented in our science, math and engineering programs? Our current efforts to increase the diversity of both students and faculty in these fields seem stalled at a cultural crossroads, unable to find new ways to attract and maintain women and minorities at a time when our nation is trying to increase underrepresented populations in our institutions.

Reliable recruitment and retention programs that arose to address affirmative action legislation in the 1960s are still necessary and viable, but they may be losing their effectiveness. They simply are not capable of addressing the cultural changes and developments that have taken place in higher education over the years. The critical mass of underrepresented women and minority students has yet to reach expected levels in most campus science programs, for example, because the issues and systems driving the goals for diversity today have shifted and changed.

Shift to Academic Culture
Time-honored solutions for enhancing campus diversity rely on three essential ingredients: access, retention and increasing the critical mass of historically underrepresented populations. These solutions, designed to assist underrepresented populations through the educational pipeline and into higher education, generate positive results when first implemented. Minority student enrollments may increase or more women may join the faculty, but the initial gains tend to level out or drop off over time.

In the long run, it appears that the traditional solutions may be running out of steam for a number of reasons: First, the traditional solutions and their function have changed little over the years. For decades, admission to and through the educational pipeline has been the biggest concern on our campuses. It still is the driving force behind minority recruiting and retention programs today. But the programs often become marginalized, focused exclusively within offices of minority student affairs and their momentum diminishes over time. Second, the traditional solutions focus mainly on the human resource functions of our institutions. The pipeline model places greater emphasis on processes modeled after the business functions of personnel offices of colleges and universities (eg, recruiting and retaining minority employees and students) than on the content and methods of delivering education to students, the actual business of education. Consequently, few programs are designed to deal with critical issues such as campus climate and academic culture that exist outside the arena of student affairs. Third, the traditional solutions do not address all the current problems. The prevailing analogies about pipelines that emphasize the need for educational access are giving way to concerns about improving the academic culture and climate for women and minorities on campus, a small shift in thinking to include the processes of teaching, research and learning.

Students are pressing for institutional changes in the classroom and campus culture that go beyond adding multicultural courses to the curriculum—activities that anthropologists focused on in the past and might rethink in the future. Thus, some educators concede that the traditional programmatic remedies address only part of the problem or, at best, treat only the symptoms.

If diversity remains elusive, anthropologist’s can play an important role in creating greater cultural awareness and understanding in our society by reexamining basic assumptions about diversity and their traditional solutions. Institutions and their academic disciplines may be reluctant to change or find it difficult to do so because they have no alternative cultural models to pursue. This paralysis is partly the result of a lack of incentives to explore new ideas and partly a lack of direction from looking in the wrong places for new solutions. The task is still the same, only now it is more urgent: how can we include and reach beyond affirmative action initiatives today to ensure that our campuses and especially our science and engineering programs reflect the general population? This is the rich and welcome arena for anthropologists to explore.

Roberto A Ibarra is Special Assistant to the President for Diversity Initiatives and Associate Professor at the U of New Mexico. He is the author of Beyond Affirmative Action: Reframing the Context of Higher Education (2001).

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