Forum: students, faculty and staff discuss affirmative active

A panel of administrators gathered with students, faculty and members of the College community in Goodrich Living Room this last Wednesday to discuss the College’s affirmative action policies. The speakers also looked at how last summer’s Gratz v. Bollinger decision might affect these policies.

In the case involving the point system of the University of Michigan’s admissions criteria in which a candidate’s race counted for a certain number of points, the Supreme Court upheld that diversity is a compelling interest of a university, but ruled that race cannot be the one determining factor in any admissions decision. Race must instead be one of many factors considered when making an admissions decision, as is the case under the College’s policy.

College Council (CC) and the Minority Coalition (MinCo) organized the forum, whose speakers included President Schapiro; Cappy Hill, provost of the College, Dick Nesbitt, director of Admissions; Gail Bouknight-Davis; director of the Multicultural Center and Nancy McIntire, assistant to the President for Affirmative Action. The panelists shared their insight into the role of affirmative action on campus.

The latter portion of the forum also gave students the opportunity to question these administrators regarding the College’s affirmative action policy in admissions and faculty hiring. Mike Henry ’04, CC co-president, said that he hoped the forum would not only initiate conversations about issues of diversity among those present, but that the students would also “open a dialogue to the rest of the campus by taking all these issues and spreading them to [their] suitemates, entries and friends.”

After Henry introduced the panel, Schapiro began the discussion by explaining his concerns about the threat posed by the University of Michigan case to both the autonomy of an academic institution and, in particular, the College’s attempt to enhance diversity. Schapiro said that had the Supreme Court deemed race-based admission policies illegal, the decisions would have signaled the loss of autonomy for the institution. “The idea that the federal government, the state government, the judiciary or some advocacy group from the right or left is going to know more about the history and the culture, or values of Williams College than we would is a pretty bizarre notion,” he said.

Schapiro further explained how the University of Michigan case did not represent interference in just anything, “but in one of the most important things that defines Williams College – and that is our attempt to enhance diversity.”

Schapiro concluded his opening remarks by speaking about the future of affirmative action policy in higher education. He predicted that in the next few years it is going to become more expensive for colleges to stand behind race-based admission policies due to an increasing number of lawsuits. Nevertheless, he was resolute that the College would maintain its commitment to diversity.

“My prediction is that without any doubt we are going to be on the forefront of fighting those lawsuits [against race based policies and programs] and continuing to move in the direction we have,” he said. “We have the resources and I think we have a culture here that is going to allow us to do it. My guess is that we are not going to have a lot of friends; that when push comes to shove, people are going to cave. This school is not going to cave.”

Following Schapiro’s comments, Nesbitt elaborated on the Gratz v. Bollinger decision’s effect on the College’s admission policy. Nesbitt said that in anticipation of challenges to race-based admissions policies such as the one which took place this past summer, the College “narrowly tailored” its admission policy to what the law had been before this case. For this reason, the College’s admission policy will not need to be altered in the wake of this summer’s decision.

Nesbitt said that when making decisions, the admissions committee looks at each candidate individually and takes into account factors such as family background, extracurricular involvement, personal statement and academic record in addition to racial background, in order to create a holistic view of the candidate.

“I’ve never said that admissions was necessarily fair across the board,” he said, “but it’s certainly a rational process.” Hill added that the Advisory Group on Admission and Financial Aid (AGAFA), which consists of alumni, trustees and administrators, has developed these admissions policies over a long period of time.

McIntire then addressed how the decision in the Michigan case could potentially affect other activities of the College such as faculty hiring and “pipeline” programs, such as the Summer Science Program (SSP), which aim to increase the number of minority students in academia. McIntire said that as part of the affirmative action program in faculty hiring, the College sets annual hiring goals of minorities based on the number of graduate students earning their Ph.D.’s that year.

“There will be no way in which the Michigan case can affect out hiring goals since they are not quotas,” McIntire said.

She further explained that because the pool of minority graduate students is so small in many fields, the College has tried to increase the number of minority graduate students through “pipeline” programs such as the Gaius Charles Bolin Fellowships for Minority Graduate Students, SSP, the Summer Humanities and Social Sciences Program and the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowship. McIntire said that although the titles for these programs or their criteria for admission may need to be changed in the wake of the Michigan decision, their aim remains the same: to ensure retention of students once they are accepted to the College and to increase the diversity of those in academia.

McIntire also said that the College is making strong progress in the hiring of female faculty members. For example, this year 39 percent of the tenure and tenure track faculty are female. However, “the number of faculty of color,” she said, “while very good in comparison to other institutions, is still not what we would like. This year it is 17 percent of the faculty. That masks the fact that we have lost African-American faculty over the years, and that is the group about which we are most concerned.”

In the question-and-answer portion of the forum, a student asked if this loss of African-American faculty can be attributed to the College’s long tradition of as being largely composed of white males. In response, Hill said that although the College has strong support mechanisms in place for new faculty, faculty of color still may feel isolated because “the Williamstown community is a fairly homogeneous community.”

“The student body of Williams has diversified far quicker than the faculty has, and there are a number of reasons for that,” said Scott Wong, associate professor of history. “500 [students] come in each year, 500 leave. For faculty, you may get 30 new people each year and a lot of us are here for the long haul, which may be 30 years.”

“It takes a longer time for faculty to become diversified,” he said. “But in the 12 years that I have been here, it has really [diversified] as far as the number of women on campus and number of minorities.”

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