Higher Education in a Post-Affirmative Action Society

Too much attention has been devoted to whether or not affirmative action should be used in higher education. Many court cases have emerged surrounding the constitutionality of affirmative action. What is missing, however, is a serious exploration of what to do when affirmative action is no longer legally acceptable. When one carefully examines affirmative action, he or she can gain an understanding that affirmative action is an inadequate attempt to achieve racial and social justice in the first place. In Race Matters, Cornel West avowed this argument but made clear that affirmative action is still a small, yet significant step in the journey to achieving racial and social justice. With affirmative action being eliminated in some states and being weakened by the courts, this should not be perceived as an epoch when achieving a more diverse student and faculty population in higher education is impossible. There never should have been such an emphasis placed on affirmative action to generate an unremittingly more diverse student and faculty population in higher education. While I am not positing that affirmative action is not important, it is more useful to dedicate more time to many of the larger principles and values that gave rise to use of affirmative action in higher education. Equity and access were central to the formulation and implementation of affirmation action in higher education.

Just because we are witnessing the waning of affirmative action in higher education, does not mean that we should not be actively advocating for improved equity and access for minority students and faculty in higher education. We are going to have to approach ameliorating student and faculty diversity comprehensively. In Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson contended that one of the defining characteristics of postmodernism is a general celebration of fragmentation. Jameson asserted that postmodern people have a general skepticism toward seeking wholeness—totality. A serious effort to resist fragmentary thought has to accompany any critical effort to bolster student and faculty diversity in higher education. We are not going to augment student and faculty diversity in higher education if we do not champion institutionalizing improved equity and access for people of color.

One of the first things we need to do to increase the number of racial and ethnic minority students and faculty in higher education is to make an honest commitment to train educational leaders for racial and social justice. Teachers, curriculum directors, and administrators have to have an understanding of why diversity is important, and they must understand why knowledge about what racial and social justice is crucial to helping higher education institutions become more reflective of the larger society. While teachers, curriculum directors, and administrators are receiving undergraduate and graduate training, we have to let Schools of Education know that racial and social justice training needs to be an integral part of the education they receive. Students need to have a practical understanding of what racial and social justice is. At this point, minorities cannot afford for racial and social justice to be mere vocabulary words. Professors in Schools of Education have to let our future administrators, teachers, and curriculum directors know that their research, policies, and practices should be informed by racial and social justice.

Chief Diversity Officers at predominantly White colleges and universities have to offer professional development training for other administrators and professors about how to respond effectively to the diverse students they serve. These institutions must offer meaningful incentives for White professors and administrators to buy into the need for racial and social justice to be central to everything their institutions do. Schools of Education need to inform future professors, curriculum directors, and administrators about critical race theory (CRT). Engaging students with CRT gives them an opportunity to see why race must be central to all that they do in the future as educational leaders.

Higher education administrators are going to have to work harder to make sure that their predominately White institutions (PWIs) are spaces that are welcoming to all students. They must make sure their institutions are structurally welcoming to students and faculty of color. In “Nine Themes in Campus Racial Climates and Implications for Institutional Transformation,” Shaun R. Harper and Sylvia Hurtado found in over 15 years of published research that PWIs are not seriously trying to become welcoming places for people of color. One of the significant themes they found was that whiteness dominated in space, curricula, and activities at PWIs.  Higher education administrators, therefore, have to make sure that there is a greater presence of blackness in space, curricula, and activities.

At the end of the day, higher education administrators are going to have to engage in serious efforts to promote diversity at the admissions stage of the higher education pipeline. It is a social reality that access largely refers to admissions. More focused study and commitment is needed to significantly increase the number of qualified minorities who attend PWIs.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one the leading research universities in the nation and world, there is an African-American student population that is less than 2%. This is pathetic—when one considers that near this institution is Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has a significant African-American population. I am not advocating for institutions like the University of Wisconsin-Madison to admit unqualified African-American students, but the institution can certainly do much better than the less than 2% African-American student population it currently has. You can read more about my outrage at the lack of student diversity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a major Wisconsin newspaper here: http://badgerherald.com/news/2009/04/28/recertification_in_p.php.

Instead of arguing about affirmative action, we need to focus our attention on achieving the optimal goal of affirmative action: true racial and social justice. Racial and ethnic minorities in higher education are going to have to recognize that we need to leave discourses about affirmative action and move to discourses about racial and social justice. If we don’t do this, then we will see an exponential decline in people of color in higher education.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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