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Community dialogue: affirmative action

The Clerk asked students and faculty to send us their thoughts on affirmative action in higher education. Below are some of the responses.

Feel free to send us your thoughts via email at or post in the comment section below. We’ll update this post as the comments roll in. 

The admissions office does an exemplary job in creating a class of extraordinary students who bring onto campus and into the classroom perspectives and experiences that have been shaped by very different cultural backgrounds and contexts — differences in national origins, in mother tongues, in religious affiliations, in ethnic backgrounds, in creative aspirations, in home communities, in families’ work and educational experiences, in gender identifications — the list goes on. Haverford is in a privileged position insofar that admissions draws from a wide, deep, and talented pool of applicants and thus can look at students holistically: that fact that someone is a spoken word artist or a cricket player or the first in her family to go to college can be taken into account alongside assessments such as grades, recommendations, and standardized test scores. I think a lot about the fact that an SAT score may tell us as much about a student’s economic privileges — access to well-funded schools, to tutors who can command hundreds of dollars an hour, to the funds necessary to retake the test to achieve higher scores — as it does about her capacity to excel. Haverford’s mission is not to perpetuate an elite; it is to provide an excellent education for students who will be visionary and transformative in the work that they do in their communities and chosen professions — the fact that the class of 2016 looks a lot like the projected population of the United States in 2050 is, to me, a sign of the health and vitality of the college.

Theresa Tensuan ’89, Dean of Multicultural Affairs

As long as we live in a racial society, where race and race relations still have some serious implications on culture, economics etc., I think it is important that colleges, especially institutions as traditionally white and elite like Haverford, take race into account when building a class. Our goal is just that, to assemble a class, and ignoring a factor that unfortunately still has practical implications in real life, leads to the absence of certain outlooks and worldviews in that class assembled by admissions every year. Without diversity of race, some diversity of thought is lost, which is the most important thing in an intellectual community. We cannot ignore race until we live in a post-racial society, and regardless of one’s views on race, we have not reached that point yet. Race is an artificial construction, but we still inhabit the society that created that construction, so we must account for it.

Matt da Silva ’14

“Affirmative action” is really just an attempt to deal with the injustice that’s weaved into the whole hierarchy of college education. That said, I feel pretty cynical on the whole about the job private colleges are doing to address that inequality. A glance at check boxes about race or family income without looking at a whole human being, seems a paltry effort at best–it’s just the other side of the coin of the dehumanizing done by test scores and GPA…It is frankly bizarre to take issue with affirmative action for being unfair to white or privileged students when virtually everything about elite colleges and the class and race situation in this country is unfair. Affirmative action, if it pisses me off for anything, pisses me off because it’s used to excuse the lack of real efforts towards systemic change in American education.

Mary Clare O’Donnell ’14
I find it interesting that the brief repeatedly states that highly selective colleges “cannot obtain the diversity they seek except by seeking it directly.” This diversity is ostensibly a diversity of opinion, since the amici also argue that “encounters with difference” are vital to a well-rounded liberal arts education. But the brief goes on to criticize the view that considering the socioeconomic status of applicants without also considering their race would lead to a sufficiently diverse student body.They even go so far as to claim that, because such a policy would create “a much poorer cohort of black and Hispanic students” (poverty being more common among ethnic minorities), it would cause “increased stereotyping.” Why should this scenario end in stereotyping while consideration of race should lead only to a healthy pluralism? What happened to encouraging “encounters with difference”? Can students only handle encountering one difference at a time? Can I only benefit from interacting with those outside of my social class if they share my race, and from interacting with those of other races if they are members of my class?
Matt Mazewski ’13
The decision of the Supreme Court to hear the Fischer case dramatizes the country’s broader failure to come to terms with the nation’s collective disavowal of those who are disadvantaged on the grounds of race and class.  The entwined legacies of America’s history of white supremacy, combined with its persistent refusal to confront class as a meaningful distinction, means that the Court is in an interesting position.  On the one hand, a decision that neglects historically entrenched injustices would perpetuate the amnesiac fiction that equality under the law is now equally obtainable by all.  Such a decision would resonate with right-wing ideologues that imagine that the playing field is now level, as well as left-wing advocates of colorblind social policy.  On the other hand, the very nature of judicial precedent requires a turn to history—particularly the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case that ruled that race could be considered in college admissions, as long as it was part of a “holistic review.”  What hangs in the balance is the question of how much latitude universities will be granted in deciding race as a variable in college admissions, and how much of the Grutter case will be allowed to remain now that Justice Kagan has recused herself and the ball is in what some have called “Justice Kennedy’s Court.”  Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to acknowledge as much when she read the cards of Ms. Fischer’s attorney asserting: “You don’t want to overrule Grutter… You just want us to gut it.”

P.J. Brendese, Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science

I found the brief disappointing, especially since Susan Sturm is very capable. I do not think that it will convince anyone, which makes me more fearful about the Court’s decision especially since Kagan has recused herself.

Mark Gould, Professor of Sociology 
We have yet, in America, to come up with effective, long-term solutions for uplifting children, particularly black and brown children out of the conditions that restrict most from entering highly selective colleges on their own merit. Until education truly equalize educational opportunities for all children, regardless of color, race may still need to be taken in the college admission process. I am shooting for the stars here but I would like to see more initiative from the student body to engage in open dialogue […] Racial and class dichotomies, legacies of supremacy (both black or white) and privilege constructed on systems of oppression are important conversations to have in order to create a more inclusive and truly racially diverse campus.  We are the leaders of tomorrow so we need to start having these conversations today.
Christina Sampson ’13

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