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DEI expert says ‘there’s no proxy for race’ in admissions

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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The future of race-conscious admissions

Now that we are about a week out from oral arguments in two race-conscious admissions cases, I wanted to drill into what the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision could mean for higher education.

We still have months before the court will rule in the cases, involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And, readers of this newsletter likely know that several states and many institutions already don’t use race-conscious admissions practices. Still, the cases matter more broadly, as we consider how the public views higher ed.

To help me think through this impact, I talked to Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE). She has researched gender equity in STEM, helped create welcoming campus culture for students of color and promoted equitable strategies and approaches for faculty and staff.

We talked about attempts to diversify college campuses without race-conscious admissions, public opinion surrounding the court cases and what the landmark cases mean for the future of higher education.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What is the general public perception of race-conscious admissions? Earlier reports by outlets like The Washington Post showed most Americans were opposed to race-conscious admissions. What factors influence public opinion?

I don’t know that most people really understand issues associated with race-conscious admissions, and I suspect that there’s a lot of presumptions made that somehow are not accurate in terms of the purpose, the goals, and how that has played out in the context of education and higher education particularly. There are too often mistaken beliefs, as some have tried to represent them, as quota-based approaches.

What are the types of misrepresentations that you have heard or seen people associate with the two court cases? What else should people understand when thinking about the use of race in admissions?

It centers on the ability of higher ed, to pursue educational benefits associated with having a diverse student body which is aligned with academic freedom, especially in the context of this robust exchange of ideas. It really does require diversity of thought, diversity of experiences, diversity of ideas, which aren’t necessarily limited to race, but race brings with it diversity of experiences.

It’s this notion of: How do you create a diverse student body that brings that robust exchange of ideas? But also acknowledging pursuit of a diverse student body includes race and ethnicity and a whole range of other ways in which we define diversity. In the absence of that, voices are missing. Ideas are missing.

If colleges and universities can no longer consider race, how else can institutions build diverse classes and cohorts of students?

Schools that have bans on the use of race conscious admissions, have already weighed in on this question. They have said ‘These race-neutral approaches do not allow us what we believe is essential for the educational benefits of having a diverse campus community.’ They talk about class, social class. They talk about zip codes. They talk about other ways to substitute reaching out — those can be pipeline programs, they can be recruiting efforts that are not currently defined as race-conscious.

But the ability to achieve a more robust, racially diverse campus community? Those are things that have been unsuccessful. It’s not that we haven’t achieved greater diversity, as a result of some of those efforts but when we talk about race-conscious, we’re also talking about acknowledging the lived experiences of individuals based on race. This is the United States. It has a long history of racial discrimination. We’re still living with the past of this country, particularly in the context of race.

There’s no proxy for race. If the court determines that you cannot utilize race conscious approaches, higher ed, we’ll do the best that it can. But I think we have done the best that we can.

If race is removed from the college admissions process, how else could race-neutral behavior trickle into the college experience for students of color?

Are we doing work that is intended to create a sense of belonging and inclusion? Yes. Is it intended to allow students to gather across cultures? Yes. Is it acknowledging in the classroom and redesigning curriculum so that it better represents the range of diverse experiences that should be reflected in curriculum? Absolutely. Those are things that higher ed will continue to do. That’s not impacted by these decisions.

We do what we can to help create that sense of community and an inclusive community — we will continue to do that work. Have we satisfied the needs of students? If you know anything about students and student disruption in student protests, particularly around issues of race, we still have work to do.

A timely election-week read: What tends to be an indicator of political divides? My colleague, Nick Fouriezos, reported on the ways in which educational attainment and degrees can shape people’s political views. Check out his story.

Looking to catch up on what went down at oral arguments? Check out this article published by The Chronicle that dives into more key moments.

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips or perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

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