Tuesday, June 28, 2005 | This is part two in a three-part series. Read part one.

Richard C. Atkinson was president of the University of California when affirmative action was banned with the passage of Proposition 209. In this condensed version of a speech that he gave last month at the University of Michigan, he describes UC’s experience and lessons learned, and makes recommendations for the future.

“One way to begin is by exploring how Americans feel about diversity issues away from the heat and rhetoric of public discourse. Recent research has explored public attitudes toward affirmative action among African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and whites, using both opinion surveys and focus groups.

“The researchers found striking differences among the groups in how affirmative action was perceived. Most of the people interviewed thought affirmative action was equivalent to quotas. However, their attitudes toward quotas varied considerably, ranging from strong disapproval to ambivalent acceptance. There were also conflicting views about who benefited, and who should benefit, from affirmative action programs.

“The absence of common ground among the various groups stemmed from radically different perceptions of discrimination in American society. Most of the white Americans interviewed felt racial bias is no longer a dominant reality of contemporary life; most African-Americans strongly disagreed. Asians and Latinos tended to concur with the idea that minorities face continued discrimination, but held a variety of opinions on whether affirmative action was the right solution.

“Terms like ‘affirmative action,’ ‘quotas,’ ‘targets,’ and ‘preferences’ have become so burdened with emotional baggage that they confuse rather than clarify the discussion. As a nation, we simply do not speak the same language when we talk about discrimination and affirmative action. This observation has clear implications for the public debate that will take place here in Michigan if the proposed anti-affirmative action initiative is on the 2006 ballot. The language employed by both sides will be a critical factor in determining the outcome.

Stratification of American society

“The obstacles and struggles faced by poor Americans of every race were recognized by Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movement. We have made some progress since the 1960s in bridging the racial divide in this country. However, the economic chasm separating rich and poor continues to grow.

“This trend reaches directly into the life of universities because of their role as a critically important avenue to upward mobility in the United States. A new study by William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin, ‘Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education,’ analyzes 19 elite American colleges and universities in terms of both academic quality and student access. Their findings are compelling testimony to the social and educational implications of income inequality.

“All 19 institutions have repeatedly stated their support for admitting more students who are the first in their family to attend college and also for admitting more students from low-income backgrounds. The study found, however, that applicants from these two groups gained no advantage in the admissions process. This is in contrast to underrepresented minority students, children of alumni, students who applied early and athletes, all of whom enjoy a competitive advantage over those who come from modest backgrounds or are the first in their family to apply to college.

“The odds of making it into the admissions pool of a selective college or university are six times higher for an applicant from a high-income family than for one from a poor family. The odds are more than seven times higher for an applicant from a college-educated family than they are for a student who would be the first in his or her family to go to college. In the words of the study, and I quote, “Simply put, poor families have great difficulty investing sufficient personal and financial resources to prepare their children to attend college, do well and graduate.”

Tomorrow, part three: Atkinson advocates a strategy for the future.

Richard Atkinson is president emeritus of the University of California. He served as president of the UC system from 1995-2003. Prior to that, Atkinson served as chancellor of University of California, San Diego, was director of the National Science Foundation and was a long-term member of the faculty at Stanford University.

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