Affirmative Action Discussions

The Campus will provide complete analysis of this week’s affirmative action discussions in its issue to be released on Thursday, Dec. 6. In the meantime, summaries, opinions and photographs are available below.

—–

Thursday’s Panel: Staff, students and faculty met Thursday afternoon at the second affirmative action panel in three days, hosted by the student organization Money at Midd and focused on addressing issues of class and privilege at Middlebury. The Student Services Director of the Middlebury Office of Student Financial Services, Jaqueline Davies, pointed out the room of over 50 community members as the “groundswell” in on-campus conversations about socioeconomic status.

Joining Davies at the front of the room were Hepburn Professor of Sociology Margaret Nelson, Director of Civic Engagment at the EIA Tiffany SargentDean of Admissions Greg Buckles and SGA President Charlie Arnowtiz ’13. In a wide-ranging 90 minute discussion that included input from audience members, the panel covered higher-education accessibility for economically disadvantaged prospective students, admissions procedures and the culture on campus with respect to money, as well as other topics.

Davies — who shared an anecdote about a student who had watched the film Titanic nine times before coming to Middlebury in order to learn which fork one should first use in a formal dining setting — said that her experience had shown that for a portion of the student body, financial matters are of constant importance.

“In part of their brain there is something worrying all the time about money,” Davies said.

Wednesday’s Lecture: On Wednesday, around 70 students and some faculty and staff listened to “Why Socio-Economic Diversity?: Race, Class, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education,” a lecture by Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation Richard D. Kahlenberg. Money at Midd hosted the lecture in the McCullough Social Space.

As with previous Money at Midd events, the lecture began with short personal statements by five students about Middlebury’s cost for them and their families.

Kahlenberg’s lecture mainly addressed four questions: 1) how much socio-economic diversity exists today in selective colleges, 2) why we should care about socio-economic balances, 3) what is at the root of the problem and 4) what is the future of diversity on campus given legal and political attacks on racial affirmative action programs.

Following the lecture, the audience participated in a question and answer session, discussing among other things, need-blind admission, international financial aid and steps for moving forward at Middlebury.

Tuesday’s Panel: Over 100 students gathered Tuesday night in the McCullough Social Space to consider the implications of affirmative action at institutions of higher learning, particularly at Middlebury, in light of an ongoing consideration of the matter in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kim Banford ’15 and Andrew Snow ’15 joined Dean of the College Shirley Collado, Dean of Admissions Greg Buckles and Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Murray Dry as panelists who fielded questions — and several extended and very personal comments — from numerous student and faculty audience members.

Buckles and Collado stressed the importance of race-conscious admissions both in upholding the College’s stated goal to attract and admit more students of color (see both the Strategic Plan and Amicus Brief in support of the University of Texas) and in creating a racially and ethnically diverse community at Middlebury, while Dry encouraged admitted students to minimize their focus on issues of race and admissions in favor of what he characterized as more academic and book-based subjects and said that in admissions decisions, intellectual abilities should be most highly prioritized.

The student panelists spoke from their own experience as people of color and closed by asking that audience members continue to discuss affirmative action after the event.

Middblog posted additional information prior to the panel, with a follow up featuring the opinions of their staff in attendance. The alternative news source also live-tweeted select quotes from the panel:

Middlebury Magazine‘s Regan Eberhert also posted about the event:

The five-member panel, composed of Murray Dry, a constitutional scholar in the political science department; Greg Buckles, dean of Admissions; Shirley Collado, dean of the College; and students Kim Banford ’15 and Andrew Snow ’15, kicked off the discussion.

Banford and Snow offered a student perspective. Banford, from San Francisco, wanted to see more people involved in bringing students of color to campus and helping them feel comfortable here. Snow, from New York City, described how he would not have attended or even heard of Middlebury without affirmative action, and how his mother sent him to a private high school, telling him “you are not going to go to the system’s drop-off point for students who look and identify like you.”

Shirley Collado explained that she understood personally the value of opportunities made possible through programs such as affirmative action; she was the first in her family of Dominican immigrants to attend college, which opened many doors.  “Middlebury has a huge role to play,” she said, “when we think about the disparities in this country that create major barriers to the kind of individuals who could benefit from an education like the one that you all get here.”

Murray Dry took the legalistic view. He outlined the constitutional history of affirmative action. He spoke about the constitutional basis for “color-blind” and “strict scrutiny” standards that are used to evaluate when preference based on race would be permissible. Affirmative action has been viewed as a means of “redressing the effects of racial segregation,” he said. But the Supreme Court also has “constitutionalized racial diversity in education as a compelling interest,” and as a result, affirmative action programs extend to other minorities in addition to underrepresented groups.

Greg Buckles discussed how the admissions office “looks for the candidates that best further Middlebury’s educational mission,” which requires a diverse student body.   And, he said, the very best students are looking for diverse colleges. “Since 2003” he said, referring to the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger case, “it’s been affirmed that race, used as only one factor among many in a holistic evaluation of candidates, is interpreted as being permissible.” Speculating that if the court overturns affirmative action, he said, “The result will not be a colorblind meritocracy. Affirmative action may go, but college admissions decisions are always going to be controversial and potentially affected by race.”

He continued with a close report of the discussion:

The ensuing discussion rolled around the room like a fast moving weather front. Audience members were encouraged not to hesitate to raise questions for fear of offending anyone and to bear in mind that questions are not intended to offend.

The audience’s opinions and questions ranged widely. Here are some of the statements made and questions asked:

Why are admissions decisions made “behind closed doors”? The end result of admissions decisions is very public. What constitutes a critical mass of students of color? Is there a difference between general diversity and focusing on underrepresented groups? People should focus on being recognized for their mind instead of their ethnicity.  Are affirmative action students less qualified? Greg Buckles: “Every single student here is qualified, and every single student earned his or her place here.” More needs to be done to help students of color feel comfortable here and to thrive.

Anthony Perez ’14 proposed that one stumbling block prevents minorities from feeling comfortable here—their belief in the stereotypical Middkid. “Break down the idea that everyone here is rich and comes from the same place in Connecticut. It’s not true,” he said, “but we all think it is. So we won’t shift the atmosphere until we shift that stereotype.”

A remarkably short question sparked one of the most involved discussions of the evening: “Does diversity in the classroom standard apply to hiring faculty?”

Shirley Collado answered that there is an “intense need to have very intentional, thoughtful ways to diversity our faculty.” But individual departments, not a central office such as the admissions office, hire faculty members. Murray Dry explained that sometimes certain faculty positions are created on a temporary basis for recent minority PhDs, and sometimes the positions are converted to tenure-track positions, gaining Middlebury a minority faculty member. “I’m inclined to be very concerned about this,” he said, referring to the fact that the normal vetting process and reviewing of the individual’s scholarship may have been shortened or circumvented.

Christal Brown, assistant professor of dance, stood to speak. “I’m the only African American female on the faculty. It’s a wonderful responsibility.” She began teaching at Middlebury, she said, in a temporary position. “You guys are at a very pivotal point of your life where we are supposed to be making you global citizens, but if there’s no one here to give you a global perspective, then we’ve failed.”

Finally, Collado herself posted about the panel on One Dean’s View about a week after the event and offered a recording to those unable to attend:

We hoped that the discussion would be sincere and honest—and that people would feel comfortable enough to express themselves, even if that meant saying something unpopular. We also hoped that the audience would remain open-minded and give consideration to the diverse views surely to be expressed.

I think that is exactly what happened. Audience members voiced many differing opinions, sometimes disagreeing with one another, sometimes heatedly so. Yet, for the most part, the audience, panel, and moderators navigated a difficult, deeply personal topic with civility and tolerance. I want to thank those who were challenged by this frank conversation for coming and participating.

Reporting by ISABELLE DIETZ, EMILIE MUNSON, and IAN STEWART