WCDU brings Chevez, Cuomo and students to debate affirmative action

On Thursday evening, the Williams College Debate Union (WCDU) held its annual spring debate in Chapin Hall. This year’s focus was affirmative action in the context of college admissions, featuring guest debaters Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and Andrew Cuomo, a 2002 candidate for governor of New York. Each guest was joined by a student member of the Debate Union, with Dan Burns ’06 paired alongside Chavez and Aaron Jenkins ’03 paired alongside Cuomo.

Chavez is one of the country’s most prominent conservative Hispanics. Over the past two decades she has played numerous political roles, including director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the U.S. expert for the United National Subcommission of Human Rights. She was the Republican candidate for senator of Maryland in 1986, but was defeated in the general election. More recently, she was the Bush Administration’s initial choice for labor secretary before losing out to Elaine Chao, the first Asian-American woman appointed to a Presidential post.

In 1995, Chavez founded the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), where she continues to serve as its president. The CEO is notable for it reports on affirmative action, bilingual education and immigration. Chavez’s syndicated column appears in a wide range of national newspapers, from The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal.

After graduation from Albany Law School, Cuomo served as his father Mario’s campaign manager in 1982. The elder Cuomo went on to set popularity records as the 52nd Governor of New York in polls conducted during his 1986 and 1990 re-election campaigns.

Cuomo was the second youngest cabinet member in history, serving as the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Clinton Administration. In 2002, he launched an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for New York State Governor.

Cuomo’s name is often raised in political circles; there was some speculation that he would be chosen as Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential election. His public speaking ability is widely recognized.

Founded in the tradition of the Oxford Union Debating Society, the WCDU runs its debates in a modified British Parliamentary style. Instead of clapping in the conventional manner of applause, the audience is asked to pound its hands on a table or chair to show support. The debate began with speeches of varying length given by each team member, followed by a period of cross-examination, in which the opening remarks were challenged and rebuked. At any time during the remarks a debater may posit a spontaneous challenge to the designated speaker, known as a point of information. Questions from the audience were fielded by both sides before the closing remarks.

Jenkins was the first speaker of the evening, laying out the foundations of the argument presented by affirmative action supports. He acknowledged that substantial progress has been made in the direction of social equality since the Civil Rights movement, but contended that discrimination still exists. According to Jenkins, “Williams would not be the institution that it is today” without affirmative action. However, Jenkins emphasized that affirmative action should be one of many policies intended to foster equal opportunity and access to resources; additional progressive steps should also be taken to level the educational playing field.

In his address, Cuomo made a point of emphasizing the unconstitutional nature of quotas. Using the Michigan case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court as a potential example of the abuse of affirmative action, he maintained that misuses of the policy should not undermine its validity. Affirmative action should be upheld because America can only have “colorblind laws” when it has “colorblind citizens.” Cuomo described affirmative action as one facet of a comprehensive strategy to combat the opportunity gap facing minorities in America. “Affirmative action is only one tool, only one effort challenging one of the most difficult problems of this country,” Cuomo said. In his view, development of human capital is of primary importance to the American dream; America should be known by the equality of its educational and employment opportunities, not by the might of its military.

Rather than challenging the affirmative action stance regarding eradication of discrimination and equal opportunity, Burns chose to focus on the inadequacies and shortcomings of affirmative action’s day to day realities. Where Jenkins and Cuomo tended to address affirmative action in a broad sense, Burns made his arguments very specifically within the framework of college admissions. He began with an anecdote about the boxes for race and ethnicity on college applications, arguing that the current system furthers cultural stereotypes by pigeon-holing applicants according to the color of their skin. Burns also made an analogy between affirmative action and racial profiling as conducted by police departments.

Chavez began her remarks with the observation that the vision of affirmative action put forth by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 is not on par with the way in which affirmative action is practiced today. She made a very strong distinction between non-discrimination laws, which are on the books in the United States, and affirmative action, which is not, in fact, law. In addition, Chavez made clear that she was criticizing a system of racial preferences, not a system designed to facilitate proactive outreach. As president of CEO, Chavez obtained admissions data from over 50 colleges and universities and produced a report citing race/ethnicity as “the factor” in determining admission. She has also researched graduation rates, finding that students brought in by affirmative action are two to three times less likely to graduate after six years. Above all, Chavez expressed concern that affirmative action “hides disparities at the elementary level.” In other words, affirmative action is a band-aid policy that fails to reach the heart of the problem, namely inconsistencies in America’s elementary education system.

During the question and answer portion of the debate, considerable attention was paid to California and its recent decision to eliminate affirmative action. Although aggregate numbers of minorities in California’s university system have increased, the numbers of minorities at banner schools such as Berkley and UCLA have dwindled. Cuomo was sharply critical of this development while Chavez expressed enthusiasm for the state’s initiative.

The opposing sides agreed on at least one point: society must change fundamentally before preferences can be eradicated. The real question was not whether societal change is necessary, but whether affirmative action is the correct means by which to foster such change.

The Debate Union is exclusively sponsored by the President’s Office and the senior staff of the College. Gallagher underscored that for this event, the Union received substantial financial support for the Mabie ’57 endowment.

Mike Pinkel ’03 added, “we [WCDU] are the only unbiased forum on campus. This years’ non-presence of two College faculty members who normally join each side along with one of the guest debaters and a Williams student, did not take away from the quality of a well-balanced debate.”