CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: You can't build college diversity 'by the numbers'

by Daniel J. Saracino

This is a critical time in many young lives as thousands of thick and thin envelopes go into the mail, conveying decisions on admission or rejection to colleges and universities. Having worked in the college admissions profession for 33 years, I am thinking deeply about this process as I await an outcome of the University of Michigan affirmative action case now before the Supreme Court.p. What troubles me is an absence of true understanding on this issue.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an executive order essentially establishing ‘’affirmative action’’ as we know it today. Since then, the highest court in our land has issued only one ruling on this order, in 1978, when it found in Regents of U.C. vs. Bakke that ’’quotas’’ could not be used in the admissions process. For the last 24 years, we have aggressively sought qualified, ethnically underrepresented students for our campuses.

A simple fact that cannot be emphasized sufficiently is that we have had affirmative action as long as we have had American colleges and universities. The first group to benefit from what was called ‘’special consideration’’ included children of politicians and benefactors. A generation later, alumni children were added to this group. Beginning in the early 1900s, athletic teams, fine arts departments and others with attractive talents for a university community have been the perpetual beneficiaries of ‘’special consideration.’’ So it is hard for me to understand why now there are those who want to outlaw ‘’special consideration’’ or ‘’affirmative action’’ for ethnically underrepresented students—individuals who have only enjoyed the positive attention of admissions offices since 1965.

Like most universities, the University of Notre Dame, is proud of its commitment to diversity, all forms of diversity, and steadfastly defends the shared commitment to seek aggressively students who are considered well-suited for our academic community. This year, with 12,000 applications for 1,960 spaces, our admissions decisions are not based upon a set of ‘’numbers,’’ nor are they based upon the question of ‘’whether Johnny can do the work here.’’ I dare say that 80 percent of our applicants could be successful academically at Notre Dame. Rather, our decisions are based upon a thorough review and careful consideration of each candidate’s file, including our specific needs as an academic community.

We subscribe strongly to the belief that we learn from each other and that our educational experiences are not limited to the classroom. During my elder daughter’s first year here at Notre Dame, her enthusiastic 2 a.m. e-mail stated succinctly, ‘’Your opportunities to learn are only limited by your need for sleep.’’

Do we want gifted scholars who might find a cure for cancer and ways to bring peace to the world? Do we want loyal alumni who will support our university financially in order to keep our tuition as low as possible and provide scholarship monies to those in need? Do we want competitive athletic teams? Do we want diversity in the broadest sense in our efforts to educate the Catholic leaders for tomorrow? The resounding answer is ‘’Yes!’’ to all these of goals and many others.

So, to those advocating the end of affirmative action and wanting college admissions to operate on a ‘’level playing field,’’ I ask you to envision what any campus would look like if we admit students solely by the ‘’numbers.’’ To discard initiatives to increase ethnic diversity on our campus, while at the same time protecting other ’’favored’’ groups, is morally wrong and contrary to what we aspire to provide our children. Notre Dame’s annual senior survey reflected the fact that, while our recent graduates have been very satisfied with their undergraduate experiences and would choose to attend Notre Dame again, they wished for greater ethnic diversity among their classmates. Until this response changes, we will not alter our commitment to affirming and contributing to diversity on this campus.

I know most of my colleagues at other institutions feel the same way. And we hope that young men and women opening those envelopes this spring will understand.

Daniel J. Saracino is assistant provost for enrollment at the University of Notre Dame and is a past president of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

March 29,2003

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