Affirmative Action in College Admissions: A Compelling Need and a Compelling Warning

By Finnie, Scott | Ethnic Studies Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Affirmative Action in College Admissions: A Compelling Need and a Compelling Warning


Finnie, Scott, Ethnic Studies Review


Introduction. Higher education has been historically recognized as the very door to opportunity and success for our nation's youths and future leaders. Following the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the cry and pressure for access to America's college campuses have intensified, especially along the lines of racial and gender discrimination. The long record of oppression has translated into an intense debate over the feasibility of affirmative action as a viable policy to rectify the past and the present This article will afford a brief overview of the necessity of affirmative action in college admissions as well as an analysis and assessment of this policy from the perspective of Critical Race Theory.

A Brief History-Higher Education's Commitment to Preferential Admissions

Higher education has been generally looked upon as a unique institution in American society. Historically, colleges and universities are perceived as vital instruments for improving and uplifting both the community and individual citizens. According to Lowe (1999) their capacity to provide paths to social progress and individual development are considered their most prized contributions (p. 17). He further maintains that

Academic culture is driven by a peculiar combination of individualism and social purpose. On the one hand, it exalts a kind of maximization of individual development and choice; on the other, it appropriately justifies its efforts in a discourse based on public mission and the common good. . . . The escalating influence of government in higher education supported the mix of individualistic maximization and the social purpose that has become characteristic of the ethos of American higher education, (p. 18)

Lowe further asserts that with the social changes brought in by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, higher education's role as a leading agent of collective and individual reform was amplified. Thus, racial inclusion became a top priority for one of the nation's highest profile institutions (p. 19). As a result, the social purpose of higher education inevitably converged with the intent and goal of the newly-surfaced policy of affirmative action. Because of their influence upon the minds and leaders of the future, colleges and universities looked upon themselves as the anticipated channel of access for minorities to help shape their newfound destiny in American society (p. 177).

This call to shape such a destiny was delivered by President Lyndon Johnson's historic speech in June of 1965 at Howard University -recognized by many as the initiation of affirmative action in higher education. Johnson called tor more aggressive steps beyond the strategies of nondiscrimination already in place at that time. Modeling after the new requirements of Executive Older 11246 which mandated that federal contractors provide specific plans for diversifying their workforce, university and college administrators began to focus on reconfigured admission procedures to admit qualified, black students despite their lower test scores and grades (Bok and Bowen, 1998, pp. 5-7).

According to Eastland (1996), this move by higher education to incorporate racial preference into college admissions was by no means a response to a federal mandate or order. It was clearly an initiative conceived and developed within higher education's own jurisdiction and powers of authority (pp. 58 & 159). The adoption of this policy for minority admissions, as confirmed by Garcia (1997), would come to play a major role in enabling affirmative action to leave an "indelible imprint on the university environment" throughout the nation (p. 1).

Justification for this new approach to college admissions was centered on three concepts: (a) the need to provide for a more diverse student body that would enrich the academic community multi-culturally, (b) the need to open the door to students of color for future careers as professionals in the public and private sectors; and, (c) the need to afford some form ofretribution for past injustices from racial discrimination (Garcia, 1997, p. …

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