College explains affirmative action policy

Williams has joined 27 other highly selective residential colleges in filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting the University of Michigan’s position in the highly publicized affirmative action cases the Court will hear on April 1.

The two cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, challenge the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy at both the undergraduate and law school level, which award extra points in the admissions process to underrepresented minorities. The Court’s decision in the Grutter case will be relevant to those schools who signed the brief, as the size of the law school class makes the admissions process more similar to the process at small, liberal arts colleges.

The University of Michigan has claimed it gives a “plus” to black, Hispanic and American Indian candidates in order to level the playing field for candidates who might not have had the same educational advantages as other applicants as well as provide a diverse classroom environment for all students at Michigan.

Though the admissions “plus” given at Michigan is better quantified at Michigan than at Williams – Michigan gives underrepresented minorities 20 points on a 150-point scale, with 100 points generally being needed to gain admission – the argument for affirmative action at Williams is quite similar to Michigan’s.

“Over the last several decades, the College has intentionally increased the diversity of the student body through its admission policies,” said Richard Nesbitt, director of Admissions at Williams. “We believe that all students benefit more from studying at a residential college with students from varied backgrounds than in a more homogeneous setting. The College also seeks to educate students from different backgrounds who will then provide leadership for the varied segments of American society.”

According to the brief Williams has signed, the advantages of a diverse “classroom” can even be seen in the current Supreme Court. According to the brief, the presence of Clarence Thomas, an African-American, on the Supreme Court made a recent oral argument about cross burning particularly poignant.

“When a Justice asked, ‘Aren’t you understating the effects of 100 years of lynching?’ and added that cross-burning ‘is unlike any symbol in our society,’ the power and educational value of the moment – by all accounts one of the most extraordinary this Term – stemmed in part from the particular experience (including, respectfully, the color) of the speaker,” the brief says.

Though it is nearly impossible to predict the outcome of cases before the Court – as the nine justices can decide to rule any way they desire – President Schapiro said he hopes the justices do not rule in a way that would make it more difficult for the College to achieve its mission.

“I am very happy with the classes we have been bringing in and fear that any attempt to interfere with our admissions process would lead to a student body that is inferior to what we are currently able to attract,” Schapiro said. “We don’t need anybody to tell us that race shouldn’t count at all, just as we don’t need anybody to tell us that legacy status or athletic ability shouldn’t count.”

Admissions policy at Williams is set by the Advisory Group on Admission and Financial Aid (AGAFA), which is chaired by the provost of the College. AGAFA serves as a “sounding board and oversight group for admission and financial aid” and a forum to build consensus in the community surrounding the direction of the College’s admission and financial aid policies, Nesbitt said. While AGAFA is an advisory group, the director of admission and financial aid answers directly to the provost.

Cappy Hill, provost of the College, said there are a variety of factors that go into the admission decision and any one could ultimately become the tie-breaker. “Legacy status, athletic skill, music ability, other extracurricular activities, as well as academic performance and race. . .play a role in our putting together a class that we believe will help us achieve our mission,” she said.

Nesbitt said one of the most important factors the Admissions Office looks at in trying to achieve diversity is socio-economic background. Though the Admissions Office does not have exact information about a candidate’s socio-economic background, it can make educated guesses based on an applicant’s parents’ level of schooling and current occupation.

Admissions looks at socio-economic disadvantage on two levels, Nesbitt said. The first is a candidate who did not have either parent attend college and grew up in a “blue-collar environment.” The second level would be someone whose parents have some college in their background, but are still of “modest means.” According to Nesbitt, such candidates are given extra consideration, since they are disadvantaged when compared to students of more affluent backgrounds who would have had access to tools like SAT prep courses not common throughout the applicant pool.

In terms of looking for racial diversity – the crux of the Supreme Court case – the College’s submission for the 2002-2003 Common Data Set (CDS), an institutional profile released to many college guide publications, lists minority status as a factor “considered” but neither “important” nor “very important” in the application process. Extracurricular activities, for example, are listed as “important” while secondary school record and standardized test scores are “very important.”

Ultimately, Schapiro, Hill and Nesbitt all emphasized that race is only one factor being considered among a much longer list of attributes. “Whenever a variety of characteristics play a role in making a decision, any could end up being a tie-breaker in theory,” Hill said. “But even with 5,000 applications, no two students end up looking exactly the same.”

According to the CDS, the College’s student body is currently 70 percent white, 8.6 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 7.6 percent black and 7.1 percent Hispanic. The bulk of the remainder is made up of nonresident aliens.

Both Nesbitt and the Supreme Court brief said getting rid of affirmative action would reduce the minority proportion to around 2 percent, which Nesbitt said would be an undesirable level, since such a small number would not provide the “critical mass” necessary both for the health of the minority community and the broader Williams community.

According to Nesbitt, the Williams community is composed of many “circles that intersect” and it is important for minority students to have a critical mass of similar students who can identify with each other, as it will enhance their enjoyment of the College.

Last month, 64 briefs supporting the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy were submitted, in addition to 15 opposing the policy. A brief filed on behalf of Microsoft, Boeing and other large corporations supported affirmative action, in general, but did not address the University of Michigan’s specific policies.

“In the practical experience of the. . .businesses, the need for diversity in higher education is indeed compelling,” the Microsoft brief says. “Because our population is diverse, and because of the increasingly global reach of American business, the skills and training needed to succeed in business today demand exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas and viewpoints.”

However, other organizations, such as the Asian American Legal Foundation, argued race-conscious admissions are “odious” and should be avoided when possible.

“There is ample reason to look askance at any program that classifies people by ethnicity to achieve some ‘ideal’ racial composition,” their brief says. “There is no difference between a policy of admitting some people because there are ‘not enough’ of their race and a policy of excluding others because there are ‘too many’ of theirs.”

From the stand-point of a liberal arts college, however, the central point is that “[a]cademic freedom and the deference due educational judgments leave colleges and universities free to select those students who. . .will, individually and collectively, take fullest advantage of what the college has to offer, contribute most to the educational process and use what they have learned for the benefit of the larger society.”

According to Hill, the College is satisfied with its current policy of using race as one of the many attributes utilized in admissions, and has no plans to change the system unless required to do so by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“My fear is that the courts will eventually act to reduce our autonomy, thereby making it harder to shape our class in a manner that supports our mission,” Schapiro said.