Wednesday, June 29, 2005 | This is part three in a three-part series. Read

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.

“Although some universities have made efforts to reach out to low-income students, the principal focus has been on race. This is not surprising given the context of the 1960s and 1970s, when racial tensions were seen almost exclusively in terms of black and white. However, today the demographic reality is far different. Immigration from around the world has made this country far more diverse than it was even three decades ago. Intermarriage is producing multiracial and multiethnic citizens to whom the old concepts of racial and ethnic identity do not apply as they did to earlier generations.

“If the goal is equity in access to education, then a return to the colorblind policies of the era before the Kerner Commission report simply will not work. The California experience with Proposition 209 unequivocally demonstrates that fact. But is a policy focused predominantly on race and ethnicity adequate to the realities of American society today? The values debate, the increasingly multicultural character of our population and the trend toward income stratification suggest the answer is no.

“We need a strategy that recognizes the continuing corrosive force of racial inequality but does not stop there. We need a strategy grounded in the broad American tradition of opportunity because opportunity is a value that Americans understand and support. We need a strategy which makes it clear that our society has a stake in ensuring that every American has an opportunity to succeed – and every American, in turn, has a stake in our society.

“Universities could further the cause of educational equity by deciding that, while grades and test scores matter, so does the use students have made of their opportunities. What hurdles have students faced on the way to a college education, and how have they surmounted them? Did they manage to achieve academically despite the hardship of inadequate schools and the barrier of low expectations? Many students in these situations have shown extraordinary academic initiative and persistence. If our assumptions about merit are too narrow to include them, our assumptions need to be changed.

“The deepening economic rift between rich and poor has profound societal and educational implications that need to be understood and discussed. Among the most important is that large disparities in income – like divisions over race – diminish the likelihood that people will think of the public interest as having any real connection to their own interest. A major goal of educational equity should certainly be integration – not just the integration of different races but the integration of our society into a more cohesive whole.

“What does this imply for the agenda of the Center for Institutional Diversity here at the University of Michigan? At least the following:

“One of the first tasks of the new center should be to think through what “affirmative action” and the pursuit of diversity ought to mean in the twenty-first century. As the California experience makes clear, we still need answers to the questions posed by race, ethnicity and equality; most remain tenaciously unresolved. But the past half-century has brought dramatic shifts in the social, racial and economic landscape of American life. Our perspectives and policies on diversity need to reflect these changes, which are in some respects quite profound. The Center on Institutional Diversity should use its extraordinary intellectual resources to help us understand and respond to the current realities of American society.

“The center should be an active participant in articulating a bold and comprehensive vision of how universities will serve society in this century. The emphasis on cultural diversity in the education of students, so persuasively argued in the Michigan Supreme Court cases, is an essential but incomplete basis for this vision. The debate over admissions has attracted so much attention that there has been a tendency among the public to forget that American universities have large social responsibilities. These responsibilities encompass far more than assessing the academic merits of individual applicants against each other. The public needs to understand the many roles American universities play in our society, from creating and sharing new knowledge to the social and racial integration of the nation’s leadership.

“The center can be an active voice in reestablishing public awareness of the large societal purposes universities are committed to fulfill. Nothing is more important to maintaining a cohesive society than educational opportunity and upward mobility.

“At the same time, one of the productive outcomes of the admissions debate is that it has led us to question some long-held assumptions about academic merit and potential.

“We must look closely and honestly at the academic criteria that universities have traditionally assumed are valid indicators of academic achievement. One example is the long indenture of American education to so-called aptitude tests like the old SAT; the new SAT, which high school students are taking for the first time this spring, will be a better predictor of college performance and sends high school students and their teachers the message that learning to write and do mathematics is indispensable preparation for college. Another issue is the reflexive preference universities have awarded students who have amassed a large number of credits from Advanced Placement courses. We need to know far more than we currently do about what academic merit means and how we can accurately assess it. The center can be a rich source of information, insights and research on these issues.

“A center on diversity that focused only on higher education would fail in its purpose. It goes without saying that we need to recognize the importance of K-12 and early childhood education. Programs like ‘Head Start’ – particularly those that involve parents as well as children – make a profound difference in whether disadvantaged youngsters have the chance to develop the requisite cognitive skills to succeed in higher education – and if they do not, ‘opportunity’ is an empty promise.

“Whatever the drawbacks of the words we use to describe them, the ideas embodied in such terms as equity, access and affirmative action express aspirations that lie deep in the American experience. They resurface from time to time with special urgency. We are living in one of those moments today.

“Race still matters. It matters especially to the prospects of African-Americans. Yet we need to move toward another kind of affirmative action, one in which the emphasis is on opportunity and the goal is educational equity in the broadest possible sense. The ultimate test of a democracy is its willingness to do whatever it takes to create the aristocracy of talent that Thomas Jefferson saw as indispensable to a free society. It is a test we cannot afford to fail.

“You have my best wishes as you carry out your ambitious assignment. The success of this conference, and of the Center for Institutional Diversity, matters to all of us.”

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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