Race, Class, and Ethnicity in College Admissions: Deans Discuss the Harvard Case
Dean, Connell School of Nursing
Dean, Boston College Law School
Dean, Lynch School of Education and Human Development
Date: February 24, 2020
Co-sponsored with Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center
"Race, Class, and Ethnicity in College Admissions" will feature three current deans at Boston College: Susan Gennaro (Connell School of Nursing), Vincent Rougeau (School of Law), and Stanton Wortham (Lynch School of Education and Human Development) will discuss the significance of the "Harvard Case" for higher education in the United States, and its possible long-term effects for selective institutions like Boston College.
On February 24th, three Boston College Deans--Susan Gennaro, Vincent Rougeau, and Stanton Wortham--gave their take on the recent lawsuit against Harvard University and its implications for elite institutions such as Boston College.
By way of context, the case was brought by an organization called “Students for Fair Admissions.” They accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian applicants by holding the group to a higher academic standard than other racial groups. They asked the court to mandate Harvard to omit the consideration of race from its admissions process entirely. Though the court ruled in favor of Harvard and the maintenance of race-based affirmative action, the role race should play in college admissions processes has remained a topic of concern.
Mark Massa, S.J., began by asking the three panelists what they saw as the most important issues raised by the case, specifically in relation to Boston College. Rougeau (Boston College Law School) responded first by highlighting what he sees as the fundamental question at play in the case: Is there an appropriate use of race in college admissions? He explained that the deep division related to this question is because everybody cares about elite education--these arguments aren’t happening at lower-ranked schools.
Gennaro (Connell School of Nursing) interestingly noted the timing of this case alongside another infamous college admissions lawsuit, involving celebrity Lori Laughlin and a cheating scheme to get her daughter into a prestigious school. The common denominator, explained Gennaro, is that there is a capacity issue. These elite schools are receiving too many applications with perfect SAT scores and perfect GPAs. They simply cannot use these scores as criteria for admittance--too many would qualify. Even if the number of valedictorians applying was just enough to fill a class, she argued, nobody wants an entire class composed of valedictorians. Thus, there is a need for additional criteria, among them, race.
Wortham (Lynch School of Education and Human Development) mentioned the thoroughness with which the judge ruled. Quotas are an inappropriate, illegal way to use race in forming a class, but the idea of using race as one of many factors through which to holistically evaluate students, is beneficial and even necessary.
The panelists insisted, however, that the Harvard ase failed to raise some important issues surrounding the debate of affirmative action. Rougeau explained, the root of the entire discussion is privilege. We want to believe in a meritocracy, but we can no longer pretend as if that is the case, the United States has reached record income disparity. The most important mechanism for mobility in society is education, which people access by way of ability, money, and athleticism. The argument against using race in college admissions is that it allows people who “don’t deserve it,” according to those other metrics to access education, particularly at elite institutions. But, he argued, what is the difference between someone who accesses education in part because of their race, and someone who accesses education in part because of family wealth? Those who benefit from affirmative action are just the easy ones to target--they are new to the scene, perhaps with less economic power.
Gennaro chimed in, explaining that because of the long, deep history of racism in our country, the omission of race, class, and ethnicity from college admissions decisions would leave little more than grades alone as criteria-- and, schools would likely be left with a class entirely composed of the wealthiest, best-schooled, most-tutored applicants. In other words, no diversity whatsoever.
Wortham touched on the idea of “fairness” as the buzzword everybody is looking for in college admissions. But, he explained, people have wildly different experiences of access before they even get to college. Citing some previous research, for example, he explained the tremendous effect that K-12 education has on later performance but the extreme disparity in the quality of elementary schools, a disparity largely along racial lines. So, he concluded, fairness really needs to be about access: to be fair, one needs to consider all of the factors which shape who has the resources to get through the admissions system.
The conversation then shifted to how, if at all, different institutions should implement diversity goals, and the importance of diversity at educational institutions. Rougeau discussed an apparent difference between private and public schools. Public schools, he insisted, are created by and for the public, so there is a responsibility to serve the entire public, for whom it was created. He sees private schools as having more flexibility. Many, such as Boston College, have a mission, and thus can tailor their classes to fit this mission. But any mission is better achieved when there is a diverse body. Wortham elaborated on this point, highlighting some of the research that has been done on the benefits of diversity, the most important of which being the creation of an empathy that diversity sparks. As we begin to see humanity as heterogeneous, we gain a capacity to see things in a new way, honing a valuable skill of “reimagination.” Diversity is crucial to accomplishing this.
Gennaro touched on the difficulty of defining diversity. She also wondered about a religiously affiliated school’s right to maintain religious preferences in admissions. Rougeau added that he sees diversity as inherent to the Catholic mission. If humankind is created in the image of God, surely a Catholic institution would want to embrace proudly all of the diversity possible-- as a fundamental way to understand humanity, in all its forms. And Wortham added to Rougeau’s point, citing some of his work involving the merging of two parishes, one composed of white men and the other of recent immigrants from Mexico. While at first the merge was difficult, the pastor described it as a taste of the ‘“Kingdom of God,” in which all of humankind will be together.
Following this discussion, a lively Q & A only proved the complexity of the topic, as audience members asked how to best educate the public about the importance of affirmative action, how to improve the experiences of minority college students once they are through the doors, and how to come to terms with the fact that affirmative action may never truly end--as the upsetting reality is that oppression and inequality are deeply rooted in our society. It will take time, effort, and thoughtful policy to correct the injustice along racial, ethnic, and class lines, but college admissions is a good place to start.
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In the News
Nick Anderson writes that on October 1, 2019, U.S District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans in undergraduate admissions. She concluded that racial disparities in incoming classes and groups of applicants, “are not the fault of any racial animus or conscious prejudice.” The judge further surmised that Harvard’s admissions process does seek to ensure racial diversity in each of its classes, though perhaps through imperfect means. The group “Students for Fair Admissions” was disappointed with the ruling.