Affirmative action at Williams

A number of events limiting affirmative action practices across the nation have threatened the future of affirmative action at Williams, potentially leading to serious changes for the admissions process. Affirmative action aimed at creating equal opportunities for minorities and has remained, until now, an active federal policy.

The passage of California’s Proposition 209 in 1996 abolished the practice of sexual and racial preferences in state institutions. In the same year, the University of Texas Law School was forbidden to use race in its admissions decisions in the case of Hopwood vs. State of Texas. Since then the enrollment of underrepresented minorities across the country in medical school has decreased by more than 10 percent.

The decisions made in California and Texas have resulted in a decrease in minority enrollment in universities in those states. It threatens to decrease even further on a national level if Jennifer Gratz’s current case against the University of Michigan succeeds in the Supreme Court. She is charging the University with reverse discrimination, with the support of the Center for Individual Rights which was also behind the California and Texas cases. If successful, this case could overturn the 1978 Supreme Court ruling of University of California Regents vs. Bakke which allows universities to take race into consideration.

In response to this possibility, MinCo Co-chair Sandina Green ’99 said, “I think it would be a step in the wrong direction to get rid of affirmative action. It never takes just a couple of years to fix things.”

Diversity and affirmative action on campus

On the topic of diversity and affirmative action practices on campus, Green said, “There will still be a certain population that Williams attracts and I’m not sure they do enough outside of the school to get people who can contribute to the school in different ways.” She went on to say that there is always more that can be done and that affirmative action is never a closed case. Commenting on Williams’s efforts in accommodating a diverse student body, she said, “Williams is improving. The Multi-Cultural Center and MinCo have both become a more accepted part of campus. I feel the College is actively trying to bring issues of diversity into the realm of college life.” However, she also noted there is always room for more interaction between students.

Diversity goals at Williams

There are no specific quotas to be filled in the admissions process at Williams, Director of Admissions Thomas Parker explained. Rather, the admissions Office tries to admit a class that reflects national populations. In general, they aim for at least 25 percent of the students to be students of color. Parker said, “We use that number as a reasonable index of desirable diversity. It may change over time.” Over the last few years, the percentage of students of color varied between 22 to 29 percent.

Faculty Hiring

Assistant to the President for Affirmative Action and Government Relations Nancy McIntire is involved in the faculty hiring process. “Williams has had a hiring policy to affirmatively identify and recruit women and faculty of color since the early ’70s,” she said. She explained that Williams tries to reflect national Ph.D. pools in hiring faculty.

In hiring women faculty members, for example, the goal is to project the proportion of women getting Ph.D.’s in the departments at Williams. In the past, women were underrepresented in Division III but that trend has changed recently.

“Over the past few years we’ve had remarkable progress in hiring women in the sciences,” McIntire said. In the academic years 1994-1997, 30 percent of the newly hired faculty in the sciences were women.

Although there are different goals for each division in hiring women, aiming to hire people of color is a college-wide goal. McIntire explained that this goal may prove more difficult because the Ph.D. pool is much smaller for the people of color.

McIntire works closely with the academic departments to make certain open positions are advertised well, and also to ensure departments do not feel forced to hire certain applicants. “There’s been good cooperation with departments in hiring,” McIntire said.

McIntire’s office also does a lot of national advertising in an effort to recieve a broad range of applicants. She emphasized the distinction between hiring goals and hiring quotas. Her office does not have a specific quota that they must meet each year but rather general goals that try to reflect national Ph.D. pools. “When the numbers of qualified applicants are so small, you either get your goal number of minority professors or you don’t,” she said.

Philosophy behind affirmative action

Affirmative action in the Williams admissions process had a different focus when it first began than it does today, explained Parker. “At that time [when affirmative action first began] there was more of a sense of using affirmative action as redress for past grievance.”

“The shift has been much more to the idea that a diverse student body is absolutely essential for one’s education,” Parker said. Since affirmative action was first put into practice at Williams, its scope has broadened to include other minorities such as Latino and students who are the first in their families to go to college.

Affirmative action practices use recruiting, set-asides and preferences as a means of trying to provide equal opportunity to minorities in areas of employment, education and contracting decisions. Those who support affirmative action argue that it is not based on quotas, accepting unqualified persons or practicing reverse discrimination.

Co-chair of the Minority Coalition Philippa Johnson ’99 said of the concept behind affirmative action, “I think the basic idea is good. There are certain groups who have been misrepresented throughout history for whatever reason and it’s a good thing that these people have a chance to catch up to where the rest of the nation is.” She added, “The bad thing is that certain groups get left out. But overall the ends justify the means.”

While Parker said he agrees there is definite need to remedy past discrimination of minorities, he also believes affirmative action is important for Williams as an educational institution. “I think we’d be failing you [the students] miserably if we didn’t have a diverse student body,” he said. “The survival of the society depends upon a level of racial tolerance and appreciation.” That tolerance and appreciation for diversity, Parker said, should be an educational goal of an instituation such as Williams.

MinCo Co-chair Sandina Green ’99 said, “I think the problem lies in how it is implemented right now. The people who benefit from affirmative action may not necessarily be the people who are the least advantaged.” She went on to say that part of the problem in the implementation of affirmative action lies in trying to define its meaning.

McIntire also said she thinks affirmative action is important in the faculty hiring process. “It’s a recognition of the talent and achievements of good graduate student,” she said. “ It also says something to our undergraduates if they see a diverse range of professors. It seems to me if the College is going to be a coeducational institution with a diverse student population then it needs to encourage some of you to go on to do Ph.D.’s and get into the pipeline and teach in order to create a diverse pool of applicants for the future.”

History of affirmative action

Affirmative action has been a hot topic ever since its inception in 1965 under
the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Affirmative action came in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. The goal was to create a level playing field for minorities subjected to discrimination. It remains an active federal policy, yet federal cases of the last few years reveal that the future of affirmative action is threatened

According to Parker, the first push for affirmative action at Williams was in 1967 after a faculty vote. “We were among the first of the small liberal arts colleges to get into the business of diversifying the student body in terms of racial backgrounds,” Parker said. He explained the interest in affirmative action came in response to the national civil rights movement and to general questions of social justice. While the College’s affirmative action policy originated in the faculty, it was strongly supported by students.

Affirmative action policies started at Howard University in 1965 with Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order #11246. This order required federal contractors to recruit African-American students with the intention to provide these students with equal employment opportunities.

The idea of “goals and timetables” was introduced under President Nixon in 1969 and set the standard for future affirmative action policies.

Under President Ford’s administration, affirmative action broadened its definition to include disabled persons and Vietnam veterans.

Jimmy Carter established the Department of Labor which consolidated all federal agencies involved in affirmative action practices.

In 1978, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program (OFCCP) was set up affirmative action was not enthusiastically supported by presidents Ronald to ensure compliance to federal affirmative action policies. Although Reagan and George Bush, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.

Those who are against affirmative action argue that equal opportunity was ensured with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and that the principle of giving preferences to people based on their sex, skin color, or ethnicity is distinctly un-American.

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