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From ‘Commonality’ to ‘Contention’: Perspectives on Affirmative Action


As part of its continuing Common Ground series, Hamilton welcomed five experts who presented varying viewpoints in the discussion “Affirmative Action: Support, Critiques, and What’s Lost in the Discussion.”

The usual panel format was flipped when moderator Julie Vultaggio, associate dean for strategic academic initiatives at Harvard University, opened with an audience participation exercise. “Often in panel situations it’s kind of you watching us,” she said, “but on a topic like affirmative action, it feels like we should all be in this conversation together.” Vultaggio posed a simple question: What do you think of when you hear affirmative action? An app then created a word cloud that was projected to show the audience areas of commonality and contention.

After this exercise, the four speakers outlined their opinions on the issue. Richard Banks, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, began with the constitutional roots of the topic. He stressed taking a social policy approach, asking the audience to think about the system we have and the system we should want and what we expect from our colleges and universities.

Banks expressed concern over growing inequality among universities, given the widening gap in institutional wealth, student wealth, and academic achievement. “Our leading educational systems have become a source of inequality in society, rather than an antidote,” he added.

For Banks, grappling with difficult questions such as the ones he posed is part of the process of growth. “You can only develop an attitude of questioning when you abandon any sense of certainty,” he argued. “When you don’t have a firm conviction that what you now think is what you will and should always think.”

Julie Park, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, brought the conversation to the educational benefits of diversity, one of her key areas of research. Diversity is important for challenging automatic thinking, she maintained, especially when it takes the forms of stereotypes and prejudices.

“Students bringing in different viewpoints, experiences, [and] challenging stereotypes — that actually does really good things for your learning,” Park said.  

While affirmative action is by no means a cure-all, Park emphasized that it remains a critical tool in the pursuit of diversity in educational spaces. For her, the questions surrounding affirmative action essentially boil down to whether or not race can be a part of someone’s story.

Genevieve Bonadies Torres, who works for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, began by discussing how differences on the basis of race start early and dramatically impact educational outcomes. 

“The obstacles are different, and that also means the strengths you developed along the way, the muscles, are a little different, and success might look a little different,” Torres said.

She maintained that ignoring race is not race-neutral, but rather it undervalues the stories and struggles of different college applicants.

To round out the discussion, Jason Riley, a member of the editorial board at The Wall Street Journal, stood against affirmative action. He argued that public sentiment opposes affirmative action, citing a 2017 Gallup poll where 70 percent of Americans said race should play no role in admissions. He also argued that affirmative action harms the Asian American community.

“These elite schools, it’s a zero sum game,” Riley said. “There are only so many spots.”

After the panelists shared their positions, Vultaggio guided a group discussion. Each panelist brought up points in a back-and-forth debate, such as the role of athletics and legacy admissions, opportunity gaps in high school curricula, and the anti-Semitic history of holistic admissions.

One student in the audience asked for the panelists’ thoughts on the psychological impact of colorblindness, to which Banks brought up the study that showed a colorblind approach can actually cause one to ignore racial discrimination.

Another student asked about socioeconomic diversity, noting how affirmative action purports, but often fails, to help lower-income students of color. Park pushed back, saying black students were seven times more likely to come from a lower socioeconomic background. Riley countered, arguing that colleges are accepting a smaller and smaller percentage of students from lower-income brackets. Banks showed how the two arguments could actually coexist — black students do often come from lower income brackets, but relative to the extreme affluence of most students.

While the speakers and audience members held different opinions and drew their own conclusions, the conversation remained true to the spirit of the Common Ground series, in which speakers discuss contemporary issues and model respectful dialogue from different perspectives.

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