On Thursday, April 17, Dr. Liliana Garces visited St. Olaf to educate students on the current legal and social status of affirmative action. A self-proclaimed “recovering lawyer,” Garces is a professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University. She conducts research for leaders in post-secondary education to address diversity issues in their schools.
In her talk, Garces addressed a case before the Supreme Court, Fisher v. University of Texas. The petitioner Abigail Fisher is suing the University of Texas after the school rejected her. Fisher claims that her rejection resulted from “reverse discrimination,” a colloquial term for racial discrimination against white people. Fisher contends that the university’s affirmative action policy resulted in her being unfairly denied admission.
This case represents an opinion held by affirmative action critics: that the policy unfairly favors minority applicants in admissions decisions. However, Garces said that the Supreme Court calls the policy “constitutionally permissible.” The work that she and her fellow Penn State researchers conduct has found that the policy’s benefits outweigh its damages.
Affirmative action results in a higher level of racial diversity on college campuses which, according to Garces, “has a host of educational benefits.” Diversity reduces prejudice, makes students more racially aware and combats problems like racial isolation and tokenism experienced by minority students.
While many affirmative action opponents believe that we live in a post-racial world, Garces emphasized the problems with this claim. “These policies continue to be necessary in order to achieve racial and ethnic diversity,” she said.
Garces’ research finds that institutions – businesses, universities and medical and law schools – that cannot use affirmative action are negatively impacted because students and employees comprise a less diverse and racially aware group. Further, affirmative action usually is not a definitive admissions policy but instead acts as part of a “holistic” admissions process that considers candidates on a comprehensive basis.
However, the threat of litigation has caused many institutions to consider forgoing the use of affirmative action. Experts like Garces advise these institutions to thoroughly document racial diversity on their campuses. If they “turn inward, in a way” and think about “the conditions that are created on campus for students to interact with each other in a way that increases racial diversity,” then the benefits incurred from this awareness will show, she said.
“Numbers alone don’t produce educational benefits,” Garces said. She emphasized that having a more nuanced understanding of race and its social and cultural implications will affect people in their everyday lives. At the same time, though, Garces and her colleagues acknowledge that affirmative action is not a perfect policy.
In a perfect world, Garces explained, institutions would attempt to increase their racial diversity without the use of legal measures. Affirmative action, she said, is a band-aid solution for the larger problems of racism, ignorance and discrimination that make social acceptance of cultural differences difficult to achieve.
At the same time, alternatives like considering socioeconomic status are not perfect either because they leave some deserving candidates out of admissions considerations. In other words, many institutions are still trying to decide how they can encourage diversity without thinking about race directly. The stigma of affirmative action can make universities feel that they lack the power to actively talk about race at an administrative level.
Part of Fisher’s defense states that the University of Texas had already achieved its optimal level of racial diversity, so affirmative action was invalid. During her talk, Garces asked the audience to consider if such a thing as an “optimal level” of racial diversity exists. As a concept, diversity necessitates a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds coming together, not simply working toward what someone considers an “optimal” level and then stopping.
Garces commended St. Olaf’s Multicultural Affairs department, the sponsor of the evening’s event, for its work toward creating a culturally diverse campus. Promoting diversity can be a difficult but necessary task for institutions like St. Olaf.