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The dilemma of race in college admissions (San Francisco Chronicle) June 12, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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This spring, the most important decisions about university admissions were not made by campus officials but by nine federal judges in Cincinnati. In the most closely watched court case of its kind in more than 20 years, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decided 5-4 that the University of Michigan could continue using race as a factor in admissions. With federal appellate courts now in disagreement on the matter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rightly predicts that U.S. Supreme Court review of this controversial issue will come sooner than later.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in University of California Regents vs. Bakke in 1978 that colleges cannot use racial quotas in admissions, but many consider ethnicity as a “plus factor,” campus admissions policies have been challenged in federal courts with split results.

All eyes turned to the legal challenges to the University of Michigan admissions policy because they seemed to present the issues in the clearest legal light. In Grutter vs. Bollinger, an unsuccessful white applicant to the University of Michigan Law School sued the university, claiming that she would have been admitted had she been a minority applicant. The U.S. District Court held that the university’s policy sought a “critical mass” of minority students to establish diversity, and that the resulting preference for ethnic minority students was unconstitutional. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found the policy constitutional and reversed the lower court decision.

The varying opinions of federal courts, and the narrow 5-4 decision, reflect deeply divided feelings in America about policies favoring ethnic minority students. They remind us that managing the central dilemmas of American social and political life is difficult work.

Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban argues that both public and private life revolve around dilemmas — situations where there are two or more values we want to preserve, but that do not always work well together. As a parent of teenagers, for example, do I want to protect them or give them freedom The answer, of course, is both, though the balance is often tricky to find, and it changes over time.

The role of ethnicity in university admissions is another of those difficult dilemmas. Do we want to admit students based upon their individual merit and qualifications? Yes, of course; we value that as a society. Do we want to educate a broad diversity of students in our universities? Again, for educational, economic, social and moral reasons, the answer is yes. But making those values work together is a huge challenge.

Affirmative action and other forms of racial preference are simply tools we have used to try to manage this difficult dilemma. In an ideal world, the only preferences would be based on individual performance. But in the real world, kids do not come to the college admissions starting line having had equal opportunities. Diverse educational environments do not simply happen on their own.

Many conservatives and some courts have figured out that affirmative action and racial preferences are flawed, and they are right. But simply pointing out the defects in the tools we use is not enough. We need to be looking for the next generation of tools. Taking the top percentage of students from every high school is one alternative, but we need more. Until there are better tools, we cannot give up on the ones we have.

Managing the dilemma of college admissions is the work of educators, not judges. Courts should set the outer boundaries, as the U.S. Supreme Court did in Bakke. The Supreme Court should take the Michigan case not only to reaffirm that race is still an appropriate element of admissions, but what the limits of that preference might be. After that, let’s allow admissions officers on campuses to manage the dilemmas and make the big decisions, not federal judges.


No time for politics in student aid (San Francisco Chronicle) May 20, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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If politics makes strange bedfellows, then one of the oddest couples in Washington is having a spat. In most domestic disputes, it’s the children who are hurt. When Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., starts throwing educational rocks at his sometimes-friend President Bush, the victims are millions of college students in the United States, including more than half a million in California. As both a parent and a former university president, I know firsthand the great pain that students and families suffer over financing a college education. Consider the rhetoric and then consider the facts.

One of the stranger political marriages in Washington has brought together Kennedy and Bush. Who could have pictured Kennedy standing behind Bush as he signed a sweeping reform of the nation’s public school system? Yet, after almost a year of negotiations over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Kennedy and several of his liberal colleagues all held hands with the president on educational reform. Relations have cooled some since then.

Just three months after the president signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Kennedy used the Democrats’ response to the president’s weekly radio address as an opportunity to assail Bush for failing to fund his own program. For the record, President Bush’s fiscal year 2003 budget requests $56.5 billion for education, a 34 percent increase over the amount budgeted in the president’s first year in office. These are the largest educational budgets in U.S. history, actually doubling what the U.S. Department of Education received only a few years ago in 1996. The Democrats’ constant plea in education — “show me the money” — rings hollow in light of these numbers.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Kennedy and his cohorts called a press conference to lob a few more grenades at the president, this time over funding for college student financial aid programs. Once again, however, the numbers do not support Kennedy’s attacks. Yes there is a $1.3 billion shortfall in the important Pell grant budget for college student loans, but this is because Kennedy and his colleagues failed to fund it. Congress mandated that Pell grants be authorized up to a maximum of $4,000, but appropriated only $1.3 billion — less than needed to fund it. Kennedy and Co. are using the president’s tax cut as a distraction, hoping no one will notice that they didn’t fund the program so many Americans count on to get through college.

The impact on Californians alone is enormous. Many California college students — mostly in University of California, California State University and community colleges, but also in independent colleges — receive federal financial aid. The 2003 budget has $1.34 billion for California students, or $131 million more than when President Bush took office. With the state budget facing potential reductions in education, this is no time to be playing politics with federal student aid.

There is yet one more political irony here. Like the Cal grant and other state college scholarship programs, the Pell grant is essentially a kind of voucher. Students may take the portable awards to any accredited college, whether it is state, private or even religious. Many of us in higher education have wondered why this system, which works so well and delivers such fine results, should not be tried in K-12 education where there are so many problems. The irony is that Kennedy, who vehemently opposes vouchers in K-12 education, is not chastising President Bush for not spending more on them in higher education.

With a recent study showing that an ever-larger percentage of family income must go to college expenses, this is no time to be playing politics with Pell grants. I agree with the senator when he said in his radio address, “Politics should stop at the schoolhouse door.” Maybe if Kennedy and Co. weren’t so busy stirring up partisan press frenzies, they could solve not only the Pell grant problem, but a host of other national challenges as well.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-7.

Campus winds should also blow to the right (Scripps Howard News Service) April 14, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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This spring our family joins thousands of parents and students in search of a college. Sending your teenage child away for four years is a frightening prospect, and I worry about many of the same things other dads do: money, safety, grades, friends.

But having spent 30 years on college campuses, I have developed another concern that may not be on every parent’s radar screen. I am frustrated that, in order to study at most of America’s top-ranked universities, our children must spend four key years surrounded by people and ideas that are largely at odds with my core beliefs and values.

It is ironic that one place you will not find a truly broad education, at least culturally and politically, is in America’s top colleges and universities. But almost all the philosophical winds on America’s highly regarded campuses blow in only one direction: due left, toward a liberal world view.

I experienced it as a student 30 years ago, and I see it as a parent today. I’ve heard the old saw that kids naturally become more liberal in college but may swing back to more conservative values when they start making money and paying taxes. But I wonder why a broad, liberal arts education should slant in any one direction, and why we put up with it.

Of course the primary reason the winds on campus blow to the left is that faculty, which creates most of the wind, is aimed in that direction. Studies show that faculty who consider themselves “liberal” outnumber “conservative” professors by more than 2 to 1. And in the humanities and social sciences, where the philosophical winds have the most impact, an astonishing 70 percent of faculty are liberal, compared with 15-18 percent who are conservative. Some professors are quite circumspect about keeping their political views to themselves, but many, who believe there are no respectable views left of center, leave no doubt where they stand.

As both an educator and a father, I am troubled by the one-way political and cultural street our students travel on campuses. Aside from recruiting a broader range of faculty, what can be done?

– For one think, university presidents and other administrators can provide real leadership on the matter. Things had become highly politicized at my alma mater, for example, until a new president began emphasizing one of the university’s slogans: “Let the winds of freedom blow.” As he stressed, the winds of freedom blow in many directions, and this attitude helped create more “space” for a wider range of views. Sometimes that is all that is needed.

– Faculty should watch for the line between teaching and propagandizing. Academic freedom is one of a faculty’s highest values, but it should extend to students as well. Our kids should be free to learn subjects from many points of view, not just one. One controversial matters, teachers should be careful to assign readings from differing perspectives and provide support for them in class.

– Parents should get over their obsession with sending their children to the Ivy League and top 10 universities where the culture tilts so much in one direction. Graduating from a college with a good academic reputation, but with your values adrift, is a mixed blessing at best. There are some outstanding universities where the education is not so politicized or aimed in a particular direction. When consumers begin to vote with their feet and bypass an elite university because of its philosophical slant, believe me, college boards and presidents will begin to notice.

– Finally, students themselves must play a role in finding a more balanced education. Look at reading lists before you select courses, and ask around about the professor’s reputation for bias. Take up internships and find other ways to get out of the “ivory tower” so that there are other influences on your thinking. When you have the freedom to choose a research topic, select one that will stretch your thinking in new directions. Make sure it is the set of your sail, and not the professorial gale, that determines your course.

A liberal arts education need not be only liberal. The winds of democracy blow right as well as left, and sometimes up the middle. So should the philosophical winds on our college campuses.

The Aftershocks From Education Disaster (San Francisco Chronicle) February 7, 1995

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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For California it’s been a tough couple of years: devastating fires, floods and earthquakes have taken their toll on the Golden State. But there is a man-made disaster occurring right under our noses that has much father-reaching effects than these.

Sadly, many in disaster-prone California are now experiencing a calamity that’s been years in the making — the decline and fall of its system of higher education. Once the envy of the world, California higher education led the way in developing a master plan under which four parts — UC, Cal State, community colleges and private universities — would each plan a distinctive role in providing our students unprecedented opportunities.

Today, in the face of California’s extraordinary budget storms, our leadership role in higher education is heading downhill faster than a mudslide, and our master plan for the future is in shambles.

But instead of moving into a disaster recovery mode, and creatively rethinking and restructuring what we do, it appears to be business as usual for educational policymakers. A recent report from the California Postsecondary Education Commission on the future of California higher education poses few new ideas, and no dramatic ones. Next year’s budget offers some increased financing for certain sectors, but nothing that will right the ship. And the universities themselves, discouraged by financial difficulties, offer little by way of creative leadership.

I’d like to propose that, rather than riding this master plan and the lack of financing to the bottom, we call together educational leaders and policymakers to draw up a new plan. A new master plan should not only review the old assumptions about which sectors of higher education do what, and which students are qualified for each, but it should break through to some new assumptions:

* Let’s replace the political haggling over which sectors of higher education need money the most (they all need it), place the money in the hands of students in the forms of financial aid and let them choose where that money will go.

* I love the idea that even though I make a nice salary, my kids could go to UC for a pittance. But that won’t be worth much if UC doesn’t have the money to remain a high quality institution. And even the fees now charged at Cal State (just under $2,000) are insurmountable for many in the next generation of California’s leaders. Instead of subsidizing every family — a wonderful idea in boom times — why not charge what it actually costs to educate a student in the state system, and subsidize those who need help in the form of financial aid?

* The single most important revolution in higher education is technology. And yet the state which spawned the Silicon Valley is falling steadily behind in its ability to train students for the information age. I believe voters, who would not take on more bond indebtedness for campus buildings, would invest in new technologies — and they are cheaper than bricks and mortar. I have only to look at the interactive, computer-oriented work my young children are doing to know our universities are not ready to teach them in our outmoded lecture halls. Distance learning alone could solve many of our growth challenges.

* If I haven’t already lost my colleagues in higher education, I will by proposing this. In strong economic times, it was a clever and wonderful idea to tie research into university budgets and fund faculty scholarship and new laboratories. But in hard times, state public policy should demand that teaching students comes first. Research should be funded by government, education and private industry, but not in ways that take resources from our first priority.

Education is the key to economic development, as well as to the future of California’s students. A commitment to an educated California will pay off. Let’s sit down, as we did decades ago, and build a master plan, but one that is based on current realities and highest priorities.

This op/ed appeared on Page A-21.