Harvard professor at UI: Affirmative action necessary for colleges


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The bubbles on the standardized test were filled in long ago, and the admissions applications sent filled the remaining item: the acceptance letter.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Oct. 10 about how many of the acceptance letters will go out and what roles diversity and affirmative action play in the admissions process. And in light of the federal court case, University of Iowa officials say affirmative action is practiced and an important part in achieving diversity at the higher education level.

“Everything we do is affirmative action,” said Georgina Dodge, chief diversity officer for the UI. “Anything we do to help anyone could be affirmative action.” 

UI President Sally Mason previously told The Daily Iowan affirmative action was used in the Advantage Iowa Program and that the university uses a variety of efforts to help ensure a diverse student body.

“We’re always looking for ways to help students who need particular kinds of help whether it’s financial aid, whether it’s just finding a way around the institution, whether it’s providing academic help because they’re struggling,“ Mason told the DI during an interview on April 10. “I don’t think we have any programs that are exclusively for minority students, but many of these programs happen to help students from underrepresented groups.”

Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy addressed students, faculty, and community members during his lecture on Colorblind Constitutionalism Attractions and Perils on Thursday afternoon.

Kennedy’s lecture was a part of the James Fraser Smith Lecture series. He said affirmative action could be better defended than by the diversity argument.

“Diversity is an interesting idea,” Kennedy said during the lecture. “There are real advantages to diversity framework, which have been reveled over time. It’s non-accusatory, you can be for diversity, and you don’t have to say a mumbling word about slavery or segregation — you can just wipe the slate clean of all that bad stuff.”

Kennedy also said diversity has helped lead to progress, and does have some positive aspects as well.

“The diversity rationale for the first time in American history makes coloredness a positive good,” he said during the lecture. “Diversity recognizes that different people bring to the table benefit of other things and experiences.”

A UI law professor felt certain types of affirmative action were still necessary to ensure a representative population in certain programs including the law school.

“In education there’s a lot of individual programs that don’t have the right balance,” said Herbert Hovenkamp, a UI law professor. “There’s a tendency towards white people tests where the test is designed by white folks, and there are persistently lower scores to African Americans.”

Hovenkamp does not anticipate the U.S. Supreme Court completely outlawing affirmative action as a result of the upcoming Fisher v. Texas case, but does feel certain practices could lead to problems.

“If you have a policy based on SAT scores, and you only admit higher scores, but then accept lower scores, that’s where you start to get into trouble,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments about affirmative action for the first time since 2003, but Kennedy feels the color-blindness goal pursued by Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among others, is not realistic.

“I think that color-blindness metaphor is a metaphor we should drop … Because in a multi-racial society like ours, we were never, as a practical matter, going to reach that supposed goal,” Kennedy said.

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