Gallup and Inside Higher Ed co-hosted a conference in Washington last week, determined to ignore the results of a Gallup survey for IHE showing that nearly two-thirds of Americans oppose affirmative action in college admissions. About 75 to 100 attendees, mostly college administrators, focused on reaction to the Supreme Court decision last June 23rd— Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin – in which the court upheld racial preferences. Educators and student affairs administrators found the survey results mysterious but chalked them up to white privilege, bias, and ignorance.
Only one person on the conference program represented the opinion of the public to this audience. That was Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, who spoke in the opening session on the court’s decision. Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik introduced him saying, “For those who think you’re safe, Roger’s watching you.”
Clegg outlined a clear case against racial preferences in admissions and Clegg said that under the current decision, colleges and universities have three options: 1) don’t use racial preferences; 2) consider race in a way that is narrowly tailored, considers race-neutral options first, and has a serious paper trail; or 3) consider race in an illegal way.
Clegg offered four reasons for colleges to forgo the use of racial preferences:
- Not factoring race into admissions is what most people favor, as the Gallup poll showed.
- There are no legal problems with not using racial preferences.
- It is fairer. Poverty and privilege come in all colors. Using skin color as a proxy for disadvantage is unjust.
- It avoids the costs of discrimination, including stigmatization, resentment, mismatch, and encouragement of an unhealthy obsession with race that spills over into protests.
He said his organization will bring FOIA requests and lawsuits against colleges that use racial preferences without jumping through all the necessary hoops.
The room seemed tense after Clegg spoke, but his fellow panelists and the audience basically ignored the substance of his remarks and did not refer to him again the rest of the day. After that panel, the atmosphere settled into one of complacency and the assumption that everyone agreed that racial diversity has educational benefits.
Even during his panel, another speaker, Art Coleman (Managing Partner and Co-Founder, Education Counsel) said, “Forget the law.” He said if you want to do the “educationally right thing,” you should figure that out first, then the law. The University of Texas, he said, had told the Supreme Court what the law should be.
Some of the recent campus controversies over race were mentioned and cast aside. For example, the College Fix report about California State University, Los Angeles (CSLA) establishing “segregated housing for black students,” Scott Jaschik said was simply false. The story was on Cal State’s new “Halisi Scholars Black Living-Learning Community.” The University has responded to the scandal by declaring that students of any race can apply to live there. The College Fix did acknowledge that “these housing options are technically open to all students,” but explained that they are “billed and used as arrangements in which black students can live with one another.”
The university’s title, “Black Living-Learning Community,” is plainly aimed at recruiting students of a particular race. The new housing appeared after student protesters in November 2015 demanded “the creation and financial support of a CSLA housing space delegated for Black students and a full-time Resident Director who can cater to the needs of Black students.”
Another instance of racial exclusion hit headlines in August when a Pitzer College student posted a roommate-wanted ad, specifying “POC [people of color] only” and adding, “I don’t want to live with any white folks.” At the IHE conference, Jaschik offered sympathy to the communications staff at Pitzer College for having to deal with the media backlash that resulted from “one student at one college” regarding off-campus housing. Inside Higher Ed missed an opportunity to respond to the rising impulse to self-segregate.
In a panel on how to deal with student demands, the speakers said that students don’t want just to be heard and sympathized with; they want results. So it is best to try to anticipate what they want and work toward that, being “proactive, rather than reactive.” It was assumed throughout their session that just because students want something, administrators should try to do that for them. During the Q&A, I asked about times when an administration should say no. The panelists admitted that sometimes they do have to say no but, administrators should do so in a way that opens up dialogue rather than shuts it down.
One person mentioned John Coleman, the former president of Haverford College, who once was confronted by student protesters who wanted to burn the American flag on campus. Though he recognized students’ right to do so, he persuaded them to have a washing machine brought to the quad to “cleanse” the flag instead. Coleman was held up as an example of reasonable compromise.
Payton Head, who was student body president at Mizzou last year, shared from the perspective of a student activist. A year ago the Washington Post ran an article about him as the target of a racial slur on campus. Head talked about how many of the demands from protesters come from students who don’t know how a university is run, which is why they ask for impossible things. He said he spent the last year learning how the university worked while mediating between students and the administration, and that by the time he was starting to get it, his term was over. Head’s fellow panelist Kimberly Griffin, associate professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, urged administrators to understand that protesters’ demands are not so much a laundry list of things to do as a feeling that they want to go away.
The keynote speaker was Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together at the Cafeteria? She recounted receiving an award at the University of Michigan this spring, where Michael Bloomberg was giving the commencement address. She said when she heard him criticizing safe spaces, she thought of a line in a 1981 poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes (which she read in the beginning of her talk): “But they are not shooting at you.” After his speech, she said, Bloomberg left with his bodyguard. “We don’t have shared perspectives,” she said.
One of the final speakers of the day, Brandon Busteed from Gallup, reported results from a poll of black graduates from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) compared with black graduates from other institutions. The students who went to HBCUs said they felt three times more emotionally supported by their professors.
I asked him afterward what he would say to someone who took these results as a case against diversity in higher education, and he said all colleges and universities can support students if they are intentional about it. When I said, “It sounds like what we need are simply people caring about other people,” a white woman who works in admissions who had joined the conversation corrected me, “But be careful, because that’s like the difference between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter.” She said we have to recognize that minorities’ experience is different. Busteed agreed and said we can’t treat everyone the same; we have to treat everyone differently.
The emphasis on treating people differently ran throughout the conference. Much of what was said seemed to point to the need for basic human empathy, friendship, listening, and care for the emotional well-being of others. These are virtues that a university can cultivate without violating its core mission of education in the context of intellectual freedom. But when it came down to practical questions, the solutions offered were race-conscious. Changing the culture by appealing to shared human values was not on the table.