Last spring, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville changed the name of its Office of Affirmative Action to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance. The University said in a news release that the new name "better reflects the office's roles and responsibilities." Possibly true, but the change was timely in another way as well. University officials know there's a good chance that "affirmative action" in higher education will soon be ended by court order.
The end of affirmative action — the end of reverse discrimination, in plain talk — could have a huge impact, not just on colleges and universities but on American society at large. It might mean a greater separation of the races, contrary to what has been official national policy for half a century. Relevant data suggests there would be fewer black students in the more select and prestigious universities if affirmative action ends. And fewer students in these schools could mean fewer black people in the middle and upper classes. The greatest impact would be felt in the professional schools that produce the black doctors and black lawyers for black children to look up to. The possibility of there being fewer such role models is something that most higher educators, confirmed believers in affirmative action, don't like to think, or talk, about. They suggest theories as to why it won't happen, though some of these sound more hopeful than realistic, and others would require a genteel evasion of court rulings.
The term "affirmative action" was coined in the '60s, as policy-makers came to believe that simply ending the centuries-old discrimination against black Americans was insufficient compensation for centuries of injustice, that it provided too little opportunity for today's black Americans to advance in education and employment. So, affirmative action was created, and officially defined as "the encouragement of increased representation of minority-group members." In practice, "encouragement" often came to mean the granting of certain preferences to members of minority groups, at the expense of members of the white majority, when members of the two groups were in direct competition. The reasoning was that a people who'd been oppressed so harshly and so long should now have the scales weighted in their favor, at least for a while, until they could catch up.
Many educators still express that belief today, at a time when affirmative action has come under serious attack and the U.S. Supreme Court seems on the verge of quashing it. G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the state's oldest and largest university, says "I'm a proponent of affirmative action. I would hate to see the court completely throw it out. There's no question that before the mid-'60s, the nation didn't really have a commitment to equal opportunity. We have an obligation to have an affirmative plan now that supports African-Americans. That may change down the road, but I think we still have miles to go."
A reporter remembers legislative committee meetings in the 1970s, when officials of the University of Arkansas medical school were accused by legislators of admitting black applicants whose test scores weren't as good as those of the children of legislators — or legislators' rich constituents — who had been denied admittance. The med school administrators admitted in those days that they reserved a certain number of seats for black medical students. They said that if they didn't save spots for blacks, the state would have no black doctors, or hardly any, and the administrators believed that would be detrimental to the state as a whole. Thirty years later, the Supreme Court outlawed black quotas and the arbitrary awarding of "points' to black applicants, and the med center people had to change their tune: No black seats saved here. But ...
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