University fails on affirmative action

February 21, 2008

Fact one: there’s a direct connection between that college degree we’re all struggling to earn and economic mobility. Fact two: economic mobility has stagnated in the last three decades, mainly because it is becoming increasingly difficult for poor minorities to obtain a higher education, according to a new Brookings Institution study. And fact three: a majority of black children born in the middleclass ended up with lower incomes as adults, and nearly half wind up in the lowest quintile of earners (only 16 percent of whites face the same fate).

What can we conclude? It’s time to reassert the importance of race-based affirmative action, as a country and, more importantly, here at Georgetown.

I can hear the complaints already: the Supreme Court says it’s not doable, that quotas aren’t allowed. Or maybe you think robust affirmative action is really just reverse racism aimed at non-minorities. But private universities have much greater leeway in pursuing minority students than their public counterparts do, and research says that, despite popular belief, a white applicant is more likely to lose his slot at a university to a legacy student or scholarship athlete than a recipient of affirmative action.

Georgetown technically already has an affirmative action program; it’s been endorsed by President Jack DeGioia, who delivered an emphatic speech on the subject during the 2003 Michigan State Supreme Court case. DeGioia said, “I am personally counting on all administrators, faculty, staff and students to provide enlightened leadership and cooperation in support of diversity, equity and affirmative action, so that we can all be enriched by the experience of working and studying in an integrated environment,” according to a document from Georgetown’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action.

DeGioia makes the case that diversity is important to the educational experience, and he’s right. But the larger claim I make, and that the University should make, is that our duty as an institution that professes to care about social welfare is to provide minorities the means for equal opportunity: affirmative action is the only choice for a school that believes in liberal education and social justice. Especially for a Catholic school—Catholics have not had the most sterling record on race issues—that has, in its own way, been a pioneer in supporting black leadership. Data from the Brookings Institution gives us more than enough reason to say that conservatives, like one researcher at the Heritage Foundation, who suggest that poor minorities simply lack “optimism, a propensity to work hard, entrepreneurship and so on,” are wrong.

Looking back at a recent Voice cover story on Georgetown’s diversity [“Pluralism in Action?” Jan 14], it is clear that minority students on campus are aware that they are underrepresented at Georgetown compared to national levels—African-Americans make up about 12 percent nationally, 8 percent at Georgetown; Latinos 15 percent nationally, 8 percent at Georgetown; only Asians are statistically over-represented. Our first goal should be to align the demographics at Georgetown with nationwide population demographics.

Some will note that Georgetown is internationally diverse, and while that is true and a good thing, it does not serve social justice at home. Others will say we must base affirmative action on socio-economic disadvantage, not race. Aside from the fact that these often go hand-in-hand, the data show that problems of economic mobility are not race-blind: they are strongly correlated with race. Still others will argue that we cannot afford to provide the financial aid that would be necessary to allow poor minority students to attend Georgetown. This is, unfortunately, true, and will require us to take a hard look at our priorities and our fundraising.

Georgetown is trying to develop a $500 million financial aid endowment, and has founded a program for alumni scholarship funding. But what if alumni donors, beginning with this year’s senior class, made their gifts contingent on their use for minority scholarships? Our relatively small donation this year will go, in part, to student scholarships, and no doubt won’t be wasted. But it will be even stronger if we use it to send a message about Georgetown’s priorities.

And what if Georgetown considered adopting a version of the Texas Ten Percent plan, which aimed to achieve diversity by promising the top ten percent of students at under-performing high schools admission to the state University system. What if Georgetown guaranteed admission to the top 50 D.C. public school students? What if the University was proactive in putting our slogans and our ideals to work?

As a country, we are failing in our promise to provide equal opportunities for economic mobility, and it is clear that our institutions of higher education bear much of the burden for correcting this problem. Georgetown, a school of men and women in service to others, should be a leader in fixing this problem.

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