Affirmative Action on Trial

On Tuesday night, Middlebury students crowded into McCullough Social Space to engage in a valued Middlebury pastime—having a difficult conversation. Although it was two weeks before finals and everyone was undoubtedly busy, a panel discussion about affirmative action attracted a diverse and vocal group.

Several organizations on campus convened the panel to open up dialogue about the Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which is currently being deliberated and could overturn affirmative action in admissions decisions. Middlebury joined more than 30 other liberal arts colleges in filing a brief in support of the University of Texas and affirmative action.

This was no esoteric, theoretical evening in which public policy points were debated. It was personal to many in attendance, and the questions posed to the panel were respectful, but pointed, probing, and sometimes heated.

The five-member panel, composed of Murray Dry, a constitutional scholar in the political science department; Greg Buckles, dean of Admissions; Shirley Collado, dean of the College; and students Kim Banford ’15 and Andrew Snow ’15, kicked off the discussion.

Banford and Snow offered a student perspective. Banford, from San Francisco, wanted to see more people involved in bringing students of color to campus and helping them feel comfortable here. Snow, from New York City, described how he would not have attended or even heard of Middlebury without affirmative action, and how his mother sent him to a private high school, telling him “you are not going to go to the system’s drop-off point for students who look and identify like you.”

Shirley Collado explained that she understood personally the value of opportunities made possible through programs such as affirmative action; she was the first in her family of Dominican immigrants to attend college, which opened many doors.  “Middlebury has a huge role to play,” she said, “when we think about the disparities in this country that create major barriers to the kind of individuals who could benefit from an education like the one that you all get here.”

Murray Dry took the legalistic view. He outlined the constitutional history of affirmative action. He spoke about the constitutional basis for “color-blind” and “strict scrutiny” standards that are used to evaluate when preference based on race would be permissible. Affirmative action has been viewed as a means of “redressing the effects of racial segregation,” he said. But the Supreme Court also has “constitutionalized racial diversity in education as a compelling interest,” and as a result, affirmative action programs extend to other minorities in addition to underrepresented groups.

Greg Buckles discussed how the admissions office “looks for the candidates that best further Middlebury’s educational mission,” which requires a diverse student body.   And, he said, the very best students are looking for diverse colleges. “Since 2003” he said, referring to the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger case, “it’s been affirmed that race, used as only one factor among many in a holistic evaluation of candidates, is interpreted as being permissible.” Speculating that if the court overturns affirmative action, he said, “The result will not be a colorblind meritocracy. Affirmative action may go, but college admissions decisions are always going to be controversial and potentially affected by race.”

The ensuing discussion rolled around the room like a fast moving weather front. Audience members were encouraged not to hesitate to raise questions for fear of offending anyone and to bear in mind that questions are not intended to offend.

The audience’s opinions and questions ranged widely. Here are some of the statements made and questions asked:

Why are admissions decisions made “behind closed doors”? The end result of admissions decisions is very public. What constitutes a critical mass of students of color? Is there a difference between general diversity and focusing on underrepresented groups? People should focus on being recognized for their mind instead of their ethnicity.  Are affirmative action students less qualified? Greg Buckles: “Every single student here is qualified, and every single student earned his or her place here.” More needs to be done to help students of color feel comfortable here and to thrive.

Anthony Perez ’14 proposed that one stumbling block prevents minorities from feeling comfortable here—their belief in the stereotypical Middkid. “Break down the idea that everyone here is rich and comes from the same place in Connecticut. It’s not true,” he said, “but we all think it is. So we won’t shift the atmosphere until we shift that stereotype.”

A remarkably short question sparked one of the most involved discussions of the evening: “Does diversity in the classroom standard apply to hiring faculty?”

Shirley Collado answered that there is an “intense need to have very intentional, thoughtful ways to diversity our faculty.” But individual departments, not a central office such as the admissions office, hire faculty members. Murray Dry explained that sometimes certain faculty positions are created on a temporary basis for recent minority PhDs, and sometimes the positions are converted to tenure-track positions, gaining Middlebury a minority faculty member. “I’m inclined to be very concerned about this,” he said, referring to the fact that the normal vetting process and reviewing of the individual’s scholarship may have been shortened or circumvented.

Christal Brown, assistant professor of dance, stood to speak. “I’m the only African American female on the faculty. It’s a wonderful responsibility.” She began teaching at Middlebury, she said, in a temporary position. “You guys are at a very pivotal point of your life where we are supposed to be making you global citizens, but if there’s no one here to give you a global perspective, then we’ve failed.”

This conversation ended at 8:45 p.m., but it has just begun.

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