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In-Depth: Affirmative action continues to be controversial in college admissions

Wednesday, February 24, 2016 by Blaise Wichrowski, Lucy Totino, and Richard Cholnoky

Trying to separate oneself from the general population when applying to college can be tough, and it can be easy to get the feeling that the process is unfair.

Such was the case for Abigail Fisher, a caucasian Texas resident who was denied acceptance into the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. She claims her denial was caused by the policy of affirmative action, the action of favoring disadvantaged groups to create equal access for the groups. Fisher argued that affirmative action worked against her – citing her non-white schoolmates as being accepted despite having lower grades. This has not been the first time that affirmative action has caused a controversy.

The policy of affirmative action has been under fire lately, causing controversy with the multiple interpretations available. The goal was to favour minorities in hopes of achieving equal opportunity for all to obtain higher education as well as participate in the workforce.

For the institutes under close watch, affirmative action is still an area open for interpretation. It is an issue for all schools, from the biggest institutions like the University of Texas at Austin with over 50,000 students to smaller ones like Skidmore College: current student population 2,632.

MaryLou Bates is the Vice-President and Dean of Admissions at Skidmore, in Saratoga Springs. Skidmore is liberal arts college with a strong message that “creative thought matters,” and that in order to encourage creative thought, diversity is important.

Affirmative action “does factor into admission at the college,” Bates said. “Our students are diverse in many ways, be it racially, geographically, or socioeconomically.”

In a piece from the Scientific American written in October of 2014, Katherine W. Phillips praised diversity, both in the workplace and socially.

“The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity,” said Phillips.

Skidmore College receives over 8,500 applications every year, and only about 700 can be admitted to each freshman class, meaning that Skidmore has a great variety of students to choose from.

“We’re looking for students who have been leaders in their school, leaders in their community,” Bates said, adding that the hope was to vring more creative thought into Skidmore.

For Skidmore, and other schools practicing affirmative action, they believe it to be an essential part of the admissions process, allowing for increased student awareness, even in a global sense.

“In the past 11 or 12 years, the percentage of international students [at Skidmore] has increased from less than one percent, to 13 percent today,” Bates said. This allows students to better understand what the world will really be like after college. “Students with different backgrounds help provide a global context in the classroom.”

While both Bates, and Skidmore, as an institution, feel that affirmative action is a positive influence in the college world, affirmative action is met by much controversy. Critics often state that affirmative action is a sort of reverse discrimination, where whites are looked at less favorably than minorities.

In an article written for Stanford Magazine by David Sacks and Peter Thiel, the duo argue that affirmative action has lost sight of its original purpose.

“Originally conceived as a means to redress discrimination, racial preferences have instead promoted it. And rather than fostering harmony and integration, preferences have divided the campus,” Sacks and Thiel said.

The fact that preference is given to minority students can be upsetting to white students. This has led to many court cases, suing schools who use affirmative action in their application process.

In 1995 a case that relates closely to the current Fisher v. University of Texas case was opened up by Rob Farmer. Farmer, a white male, accused University of Maryland School of Medicine of ‘unconstitutional’ practices after his deferral from the school, arguing his denial was due to his race. UMSM denied any allegations, saying that although race was reviewed during the admission process, it was only one of the many assessed factors. After insistence that his denial was caused by racial discrimination other than merit, the court carefully examined the situation and ruled UMSM’s decision to be “nothing but pretextual”. Evidence showed that Farmer’s undergraduate science grades were mediocre, while his recommendations from undergrad school were feeble in ‘94 and ‘95, while in ‘96 the school denied recommendation all together – proving his argument invalid.

In response to critics of affirmative action, President Lyndon B. Johnson once responded, “you do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair.”

Those applying to college or university are under judgement from their peers as well. Davawn Hartz, a black freshman at Columbia University and Saratoga alumnus, spoke on his college application process.

“When I began to receive acceptances to some of the schools I got into, there were many jokes referring to my race as my “golden ticket”, or my “extra edge”, and that this was the true source of my success. No one meant any harm, but there was conviction behind their words; they believed that in order for other students to have been denied acceptance to the schools I got into, I had to be accepted on grounds that I was black and they weren’t.” One of the issues with affirmative action may be the separation of races (through the application process) while attempting to bring races together (by making a more racially diverse environment.)

When Hartz was asked to explain what affirmative action is, he replied, “[affirmative action] is a system that wishes to extend the bounds of education beyond the pockets of inaccessible America.” The multiple interpretations of the entity that is affirmative action have become an integral part of its controversy.

The authors are current students in Saratoga Springs High School’s journalism class.


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