CHENNAI: US President Donald Trump on Wednesday revoked the Obama-era federal guidelines encouraging American universities and colleges to take race into account while making admission decisions to promote campus diversity.
This means universities could now be legally challenged if they continue to base their admission decisions on racial factors.
Critics see the move as the opening salvo in Trump’s war on academic affirmative action, declared months ago.
Crucially, the move comes at a time when US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has cast the decisive vote in favour of affirmative action in 2016, is stepping down. His replacement, expected to be a conservative, may consider killing it, when the Harvard discrimination case comes up before the Supreme Court, later this year.
For those who are not aware, academic affirmative action refers to policies designed to give members of racial/ethnic minorities who have been victims of “historical injustices” a level playing field when it comes to college/university admissions. It’s much like the reservation system in India.
---What is Obama guideline?
In December 2011, Obama administration issued a set of guidelines urging US universities to “voluntarily” consider racial background of applicants to ensure that students from racial or ethnic minorities got sufficient representation on American campuses.
Under the guidelines, universities and colleges could “lawfully consider” racial/ethnic background of candidates while making admission decisions with a view to improving campus diversity.
Those who support the policy argues that members of certain racial/ethnic groups have been “historically denied” opportunities that were available to others. Therefore, the thinking goes, such guidelines would help level the playing field.
Also, they argue, diverse campuses promote holistic thinking among students. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system and former governor of Arizona who helped craft Obama guidelines wrote, “Diversity in classrooms and research labs improves learning for all students. It helps create an environment that transcends each student’s experiences, assumptions and stereotypes. It teaches students how to function in a community that reflects the diversity they will find once they graduate.”
---But, can it be justified?
Yes, it sounds a bit absurd to ask university/college admission managers to make recruitment decisions based on race/ethnicity, rather than merit. Imagine how you would feel if somebody who is less qualified than you are is accepted at your dream university while you are rejected.
In the past few years, many have come forward challenging the admission decisions of various American universities, claiming that Black/Hispanic students, who scored lower (than average) on standardised tests, still managed to secure admissions at these universities.
Fisher vs University of Texas is an example. In 2013, a young white woman named Abigail Noel Fisher challenged the University of Texas at Austin’s decision to reject her application, claiming the university discriminated against her on the basis of race.
“There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin,” she claimed.
Does Fisher have a point? Her case, like all challenges against affirmative action, raised two questions -- one, whether GPAs or standardized test scores are a reliable indicator of a person’s potential for success, and two, more importantly, should students who are from different socioeconomic backgrounds and have been through different experiences, be expected to perform on par with each other in these tests.
Researches have shown that GPA scores or standardized test results are not always a good indicator of a person’s level of intelligence or chances of future success.
Then, there is the question of fairness. Is it fair to expect somebody, who, as a result of circumstances, couldn’t afford good schooling, to perform at the same level academically as those who went to good schools with better funding and resources?
Official data shows a large number of Black and Hispanic children attend schools that are underfunded -- which means they lack necessary resources to impart quality education. A 2012, US Education Department data shows over 40 per cent of Black students attend a “high-poverty” school and about ten per cent attend “low-poverty” schools. Thus, about half of all Afro-Americans attend schools that are poorly funded.
One cannot blame them for that. Owing to years of discriminatory practices, most Black/Hispanic people in the US today live in neighbourhoods that are relatively poorer. And schools in predominantly black (school) districts receive lower funding -- mostly because such districts get very little by the way of tax revenue.
So, is it fair to put up the same entry thresholds for all students? Many feel it’s not.
Therefore affirmative action policies, like the 2011 Obama guidelines, have received the backing of a sizeable section of Americans -- but not all.
---So, why are Asian-Americans happy now?
“Today marks a new chapter for millions of Asian American children. If the new policy is faithfully implemented, American colleges can no longer use unlawful racial quotas, racial stereotypes and higher standards to discriminate against our children," Yukong Zhao of Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) an organisation promoting the rights of Asian-American children, said hailing Trump’s decision.
Obama guidelines, by urging universities to give special considerations to Black/Hispanic students in the admission process, made things difficult for their Asian-American counterparts, especially in universities where seats are tight-fought.
Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the US. Between 2000 and 2015, their population grew by an astounding 72 per cent -- much higher than that of any other groups, according to Pew Research data.
But unlike, Blacks or Hispanics, they are not considered victims of any historical injustices, and therefore, not beneficiaries of affirmative action programs. Rather, they claim such policies have been unfair to them because despite their better academic record, they often find seats at US universities taken away by other “less qualified” applicants.
Many universities, including Harvard have been accused of assigning tighter quotas for them to keep their numbers “artificially low” in a bid to achieve “racial balance”.
This has sparked a lot of public outcry in recent times with Harvard presently facing legal action.
Trump’s guidelines is a first step to making racially-motivated admission decisions illegal. If so, Asian-Americans, who feel they were unable to make it through, due to policies favoring other racial groups, now stand to gain when it comes to getting a place at their favorite universities.