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Affirmative Action Raises Standards

An Address on Excellence through Diversity

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

Paul Rockwell. Photo by Nic Paget-ClarkeLet me thank the Women's Resource Center for inviting me to speak at one of the world's great medical institutions - the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

In their divisive campaign to pass CCRI ("California Civil Rights Initiative - Prop.209 - the anti-affirmative action proposition put before the voters of California in 1996 - editor), Governor Wilson and Ward Connerly try to identify affirmative action with lower standards. Yet this very institution is itself an example of excellence through diversity. It proves that affirmative action works.

And that is my theme today. Affirmative action for women and people of color actually raises the standards of science, and service. It improves the quality of our lives.

UCSF is a case in point. In the 1960s virtually all the departments -- nursing medical, pharmacy, dentistry were white. With the exception of the school of nursing, they were mostly male. '

With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, some administrators made a commitment to integrate our public universities. They adopted a gradual, modest means to achieve a color-blind society -- affirmative action.

Some resisted affirmative action, however. Change the formula of admission of students, they argued, and academic standards would decline, patient care would suffer, UCSF would collapse. Many of those who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act before it passed became opponents of affirmative action, the very means by which integration could be achieved in the '70s.

Their fears were groundless. The naysayers were wrong.

Recently Chancellor Joseph Martin and Dr. Daniel Lowenstein chronicled the achievements of diversity. Today 38 percent of the combined student body, faculty and staff, are minorities. Fifty-five percent are female. "UCSF is a complex mosaic of colors, nationalities, backgrounds, types and interests, In parallel with the growth of our diversity, academic excellence at UCSF has flourished, not floundered. 0ur schools are ranked at or near the top nationally, Our clinics and hospitals are recognized as paragons of patient care. And our research programs are among the most innovative and productive in the world. This great progress, we contend, has been made in part because of our diversity."

This prestigious medical school has the best record of minority recruitment (accept for traditional African American colleges), 42 percent of house staff residents are non-white. After hovering at ten percent for a century, the number for female dental students has gone up to 50 percent in a decade. The school of pharmacy's Dean's office staff is 70 percent non-white.

"'UCSF is far different than it was 25 years ago, Our campus is more successful, more productive, more approachable and more humane than ever before in our history, Never have we been more able to attract the best students. Faculty and job applicants from all backgrounds. Which enables us to better serve the needs of a diverse patient population. And the extent and pace of this accomplishment would have been impossible without the application of affirmative action and other programs to ensure equal opportunity."

According to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "integration is mutual sharing of power." To those who follow the real teachings of Dr. King, excellence through diversity is no surprise.

As Manning Marable put it recently: "Educational excellence, especially in our internationalized world, is best achieved when people interact with others from different faiths, nationalities, from divergent cultures and racial identities. Diversity is at the heart of academic excellence. Our students need to be prepared to function in an increasingly multicultural. Global society.

Affirmative action, we all recognize, is about access for women and people of color. But affirmative action is not a gift. White men benefit from affirmative action. They too benefit from the enrichment of a multi-cultural environment, They too get access to the experience and wisdom of women and people of color, access to riches that a mono-culture, an all-white culture cannot provide.

Berkeley: High Standards via Diversity

The University of California, Berkeley is another example of excellence through diversity, Berkeley's overall graduation rates have climbed steadily over the past 15 years. They are the highest they have ever been. 94 percent of the freshmen who entered in the fall of 1992 returned for a second year. The campus current overall six-year graduation rate of 80 percent is much higher than the six year rate of 48 percent for the freshman class of 1955 -- a time when the undergraduate student body was overwhelmingly white.

Berkeley is one of the most renowned intellectual institutions in the world. It is also one of the most diverse institutions in the world. Its triumphs would not have been possible without affirmative action. Graduation rates for undergraduates at Berkeley are very high compared to those for similar institutions. Many, many schools that failed to diversify their undergraduate schools have lower graduation rates. Learning to work with a wide range of individuals should be a basic part of university education in the 21st century.

The Old and the New Meritocracy

At a recent, anti-affirmative action press conference, Governor Wilson said: "Everybody should play by the same rules." California should "return to a public system based on merit, not preference."

Return? "Return" is a very revealing word. Because the "meritocracy" that preceded the affirmative action era operated to protect white, male supremacy. All meritocracies serve social ends. All of them are qualified by social concerns, enlightened or reactionary.

The affirmative action meritocracy a higher, more democratic standard of service than the old meritocracy to which Pete Wilson refers.

So let's set the record straight about standards and test. In our fire fighting service today, in our police system, in education, in the trades, testing and admission procedures are tougher, more rigorous -- standards are higher today with affirmative action than they were 30 years ago prior to affirmative action.

The old meritocracy to which Wilson refers was more subjective, more personal, more discretionary than the present merit system with affirmative action. Years ago, there was greater latitude when institutions were all white than there is today, when affirmative action is applied to achieve diversity.

Let's go back to the pre-affirmative action years, when our institutions were male-dominated and all-white. In the 1930s the great majority of state universities used no admission tests at all. As the Atlantic Monthly noted. All applicants were admitted ( all were white). If they were unprepared they just flunked out.

Testing, admission, and promotion procedures were much easier thirty years ago in police work and fire fighting service than they are today. In the Oakland Fire Department, for example, there are older seniority protected fire fighters who got their jobs years ago without taking any significant tests. There are now 32 women in the Oakland fire department (out of 475 fire fighters). The women tend to be more skilled, more educated, more computer-literate than their older white, male counterparts.

On July 20th, 1995, at the infamous U.C. Regents meeting, Pete Wilson, joined by Ward Connerly, said that the University of California should revive the use of interviews for admission. The interview -- a subjective procedure that gives huge latitude and subjectivity to the admissions process -- was a key admissions procedure in the pre-civil rights era.

What does it mean for Wilson, who lectures women and people of color about meritocracy, to reintroduce the interview procedure into university admissions?

I know all about the interview, I helped train my daughter to do a good job at her admissions interview.

Years ago when my daughter began her senior year in high school, I became a very typical, pushy, nervous parent. I got her books on how to crack the S.A.T. I came upon a book, now out of print, that explained the tricks and gimmicks for getting your kid into a prestigious college. The book is titled Getting In. It contained an entire chapter on the interview. The book is written by two admissions officers, and contains actual summations of actual interviews. :

Here is one interview report:

"Jack is one of those energetic, interesting kids who may not be the best student, but whom you know immediately is bright and good to have around. ... In the hour we spoke together ...we talked about his science fair projects, about his lousy grades in Spanish and history, and his explanations of both were articulate and well-reasoned. ...With regard to the mediocre grades, Jack is fairly mature about it. Bottom line: I liked the kid. Genuine, fun, interesting."

Jack got in.

Here is a second summation. From the guidance counselor:

"Rarely is one treated to as pleasant an hour as I had with Christine Ellis. She is bright, articulate, attractive, a touch shy, and very nice. There is a sweetness that radiates from the kid. We talked about her studies in France, her lousy grades, movies, art. It was an animated conversation. ...The reservations I have about her grades and board scores are mitigated by her obvious intelligence. She may not be summa cum laude or Phi Beta Kappa -- but I like her."

She got in.

That's the so-called meritocracy to which Connerly and Wilson would have us return. Their "meritocracy" is loose, subjective, cultural, and very, very white.

Affirmative Action Raises Standards

A few years ago, the Glass Ceiling Report produced more than statistics, it drew significant conclusions about diversity and standards. Corporate Ieaders now acknowledge that it is necessary for business to reflect the diversity of the marketplace. Trading partners and customers are global and diverse. To narrow the pol of talent is a blunder in the new world. The report concludes that diversity - achieved through affirmative action -- is good for business.

A Standard and Poors study in 1993 showed that firms that broke the glass ceiling racked up stockmarket records nearly two-and-a-half times higher than otherwise comparable companies.

Affirmative action works.

Paul Rockwell, formerly assistant professor of philosophy at Midwestern University, is a writer and children's librarian.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 26, 1997.