The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions

By Duster, Troy | Academe, May/June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions


Duster, Troy, Academe


The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences Of Considering Race in College and University Admissions

William G. Bowen and Derek Bok. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998, 472 pp., $24.95

TROY DUSTER

EVERY NOW AND AGAIN, A BOOK IS published that reshapes the territory of the public debate on a topic. Policy makers and politicians, pundits and media commentators, educators and public intellectuals all must take note. While the term "landmark" is probably the most overused term in the language of book reviews, it is demonstrably the most legitimate term to describe the publication of The Shape of the River. Two former college presidents, William Bowen (Princeton) and Derek Bok (Harvard), coauthored this work about the longterm consequences of considering race in college and university admissions, which also just happens to be its subtitle.

For the last decade, the debate over affirmative action in higher education has riveted and increasingly polarized the country, focusing attention almost exclusively on individual success or failure at the point of admissions. Absent from this debate has been a textured discussion of the long-term consequences of affirmative action policies for the commonwealth, public citizenship and participation, the public health, and the common good. While new federal policies in the early 1960s required employers with government contracts to demonstrate that they were acting affirmatively to end racial discrimination in hiring, the most contentious debates have occurred over access to higher education. Some background to this development is necessary to see why the Bowen and Bok book is such an important achievement and a turning point in the debate.

In the 1960s, the nation's system of higher education was de facto racially segregated: colleges were basically either all white or all black, which helps explain why Bowen and Bok have only some passing references to Latinos and other groups. For example, in 1960 blacks constituted only 4.3 percent of all students enrolled in college in the United States, and the overwhelming majority of these (well over 90 percent) were in traditionally black colleges in the South. As late as 1967, 2.3 percent of the students at Ivy League schools were black. In the same year, black enrollment at "other prestigious institutions" in the country was only 1.7 percent.

After the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., many colleges sought to alter the racial composition of their student bodies. In fact, during the last three years of the 1960s, a relatively small change in the figures at the dominant elite colleges and universities (2 to 4 percent) were experienced as shock waves that would reverberate through the entire institution and ultimately into the larger public sphere.

Major public universities in New York, Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and California had peacefully existed in the 1950s with a black undergraduate population of less than 0.5 percent, while the surrounding cities or metropolitan areas had become more than 20 percent black. One of the remarkable features of American higher education is the fact that the all-white experience of undergraduate education at midcentury was experienced as normal and merit-based, even as it existed in a state of enforced racial segregation.

Data from the American Council on Education's National Norms for Entering College Students reveal that in fall 1970, nearly 87 percent of college students in America were white. Nine percent were black, and the combined total of Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others was a mere 2.2 percent. By 1975, the proportion of blacks in American higher education had more than doubled (from the 1960 figure) to reach 9.8 percent, and black students were for the first time in history "integrated" into mainly white institutions. By 1980, the proportion of blacks in the Ivy Leagues had more than doubled (from the 1967 figure), but they still constituted only 5. …

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