Thernstrom, McPherson debate US affirmative action

Many members of the Williams community attended the James W. Maibe debate in Chapin Hall on Wednesday night to participate in a forum on the legitimacy of affirmative action.

The debate, entitled “Should Government Forbid All Colleges and Universities from Taking Race Into Account in Admissions?” featured Abigail Thernstrom, an author and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and Michael McPherson, the president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. David Zimmerman, associate professor of economics, moderated the event.

The Maibe debate, an annual event, is traditionally focused on important economic policy issues confronting the nation.

Supported by the Maibe fund, the debate centered on a timely issue at the center of swirling controversy. “Affirmative action is one of the central issues facing college admissions today,” Zimmerman said, and for the evening the speakers focused on the role (or lack thereof) of government in the affirmative action debate.

McPherson, arguing against the usefulness of government interference in affirmative action, noted, “The government should not be trying to dictate to colleges who they should take and who they shouldn’t.” A good-natured speaker, McPherson sees a place for affirmative action at some schools, just as some colleges and universities choose to give preference to athletes and children of alumni.

“If the government intervenes,” he said, “I believe they will do it poorly and clumsily, and further impinge on academic autonomy.”

As a college president and former dean of the faculty at Williams, McPherson said he was very much in favor of keeping institutions of learning autonomous from the federal government. This basic belief served as one major point of his argument.

Whether a school should take race into account in the admissions process “is a tougher question to answer” for McPherson. “Yes, that’s debatable,” he said, “and to make that sort of decision you must look at the traditions, history, and beliefs of an individual school. It’s a decision for the particular college or university to make, government should keep their hands out.”

Like Williams, Macalester College also supports certain affirmative action policies. McPherson defended his position on this issue, highlighting the fact that “we know in this country how bitter racial discrimination is, we know this from tough experience.” And he sees a place for preferences in the admissions process, but not necessarily “a cold rule.”

Abigail Thernstrom, a well-known author and thinker on affirmative action issues, fundamentally disagreed with McPherson on this point. “It’s not at all a cold rule if the government intervenes,” she said, explaining that “racial preferences are morally wrong and it’s up to the government to make sure we don’t carry on this practice.”

Fiercely taking on the affirmative action establishment, summed up for her in the much-debated 1998 book The Shape of the River by William Bowen and Derek Curtis Book. Thernstrom lovingly polished such fundamental landmarks as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Thurgood Marshall’s opinion on the issue. “Classifications or distinctions based on race have no place in society,” Therstrom said, quoting Marshall. Stressing that it is the “content of your character” that is truly viable, she argued for the abolishment of affirmative action through a federal law.

Thernstrom also stressed that “affirmative action, besides being immoral, also doesn’t work.”

Responding to the traditional opinion that affirmative action is helping to expand the black middle class, Thernstrom countered that “the black students going to college are already overwhelmingly middle class.”

More importantly, however, Thernstrom said, “Preferentially-admitted students come to college underqualified and unprepared to keep up with the pace and so the drop-out rate is high. The fundamental problem is that many black students are applying to college woefully behind.”

“There is only one solution, and it’s not preferential admission, but rather solutions implemented in K-12 levels.”

McPherson agreed with this more long-term solution. As a compromise, he said “we have two hands in confronting this issue, and with one we can work on bringing K-12 education up to par for the next generation of students, while with the other help students who have moved through K-12 already.”

He also noted that “nobody forces black students admitted preferentially to go to an elite school. They are capable of making their own decisions on the burden of going to a rigorous school.”

Thernstrom held by her beliefs, pointing out that “both of us are making predictions about how to get to a society we believe in and I believe in the end that we will have to ignore these racial questions.” Optimistic about the growth of an interconnected and interracial society in America, Thernstrom saw the usefulness of rejecting affirmative action policies.

McPherson and Thernstrom brought the evening to a close by fielding questions from the audience before Professor Zimmerman officially ended the evening.