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The Changing Face of Affirmative Action
When Armstead Robinson arrived on the Yale campus as a freshman in the fall of 1964, he was one of only 14 African American students in his class and one of a mere 28 in all of Yale College. With the racial integration of Yale still in its infancy, there were few programs or services to help minority students feel at home. “Our orientation could best be described as sink or swim,” Robinson recalls.
These days when Robinson returns to the University—which he often does as a member of the University Council, a group that advises the President on a wide variety of issues—he is heartened to see how dramatically the place has changed in the intervening 30 years. Asian-American, Black, and Hispanic students populate the campus in substantial numbers, four cultural centers have been established to serve as gathering places for minority students, 12 ethnic counselors are available to assist students with adjustment problems, and minority freshmen can attend PROP (for pre-registration orientation program) to get acclimated to Yale before the school year begins. “I’m struck by how much more closely the campus community resembles the diversity of human experience than it did when I arrived,“ says Robinson.
On the surface, it would appear that Yale’s affirmative action policies have been a resounding success. And in many ways they have. Even the casual observer strolling across the Old Campus can see that, in comparison to Robinson’s undergraduate days, Yale has become a melting pot of men and women from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds. And the trend is likely to continue.
Yale College received nearly 4,000 applications from minority students this year, the largest minority applicant pool in its history. Minority students—Asian-Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics—comprise 36 percent of the 1993–94 freshman class. The total number of Asian-American professors rose from 20, or 1.6 percent, in 1972–73 to 75, or 5 percent, this year. The number of minority students at the Medical School increased from 98 out of 464, or 21 percent in 1988–89, to 174 out of 475, or 36 percent, today. At the Law School, a third of the student body is now composed of minority students, and the number of tenured minority professors has risen from zero nine years ago to six today. And although the recruitment of women, faculty, and administrators remains an issue throughout the University—especially at the Medical School—the opening of the College to women in 1969 has eliminated the need to recruit female students.
While all this represents an encouraging effort at righting past wrongs and increasing Yale’s intellectual and cultural diversity, there are many who say that much still needs to be done. However impressive the University’s policies may look on paper or sound in speeches, these critics argue, problems still exist in practice. Affirmative action, they insist, is not yet ready for retirement.
Rebalancing the ethnic, racial, and gender equations at Yale first became an issue in the late 1960s, and a formal minority recruitment program was approved in the spring of 1972. Worth David ’56, who was director of undergraduate admissions from 1972 to 1992, recalls that President Kingman Brewster issued a policy statement in which he stressed the need for “equality of opportunity” and urged that Yale look “for measures of talent beyond conventional school measures.” But even then, David says, his office was never given quotas to meet. “We had a statement of goals and we tried to act as affirmatively as possible, but our search for the most talented people always overrode our consideration of numbers.” David says he operated on the assumption that through aggressive recruiting he could succeed in expanding minority enrollment through the normal admissions process.
At the same time that Yale was instituting its first affirmative action program, a federal law was passed requiring the University, as a recipient of federal money, to enact a campus-wide affirmative action policy for the hiring of blacks in nonprofessional positions. A few years later, that requirement was expanded to include women, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans in professional, as well as nonprofessional jobs. Frances Holloway, who, as the director of the Office for Equal Opportunity Programs, oversees the University’s affirmative action programs, says the result of these measures has been dramatic. “It used to be that the only blacks you saw on campus were custodians and dining hall workers,” she says. “Now, you see minority members participating in all facets of University life.”
Throughout its 20-plus-year history, the process of gender and racial change at Yale—a process that varies greatly among schools, and even departments—has been subject to almost constant scrutiny, and the results have not always been encouraging. Since 1968, 18 committees have been appointed to report on the recruitment of minority or women faculty. Without fail, the conclusion has been that their representation was too small, both in raw numbers and in comparison to comparable institutions. An advisory committee appointed by Brewster in 1976 concluded that “special efforts to locate and recruit women and minority candidates for the faculty are fully justified, indeed demanded.” In 1984, another committee, chaired by chemistry professor Donald Crothers, found that since the percentage of women in the faculty of arts and sciences had shown no significant increase in eight years, “clearly defined changes in strategy are needed to bring this stagnation to an end.”
In 1989, yet another panel found that while Yale had demonstrated a commitment to affirmative action in principle and had complied with federal regulations, “;a full and open commitment to embracing the breadth and diversity of American society and clear procedures for accomplishing it are long overdue at Yale.” The committee, chaired by former provost Judith Rodin (now president of the University of Pennsylvania), also found that when compared with nine similar institutions, Yale was close to the bottom, and never above mid-range, for minority group representation on its faculty. Further, the committee determined through interviews that Yale was not a sufficiently hospitable environment to minority group faculty members.
The latest study, completed in 1991, summed up its findings and those of its predecessors with this stinging indictment: “Yale’s position and its national image in this area remains precariously close to the backwaters of academic progress, not in the position of national leadership we proudly seek and claim in other important areas.” The committee, headed by Gerald Jaynes, chairman of the African and African American Studies department, concluded that Yale had been too laissez-faire in its enforcement of affirmative action policies and that this failure could have jeopardized its ability to recruit minority students. While students were proud of the diversity of Yale’s student body, the report found, they believed the University acted with “hypocrisy” when it failed to seek the same mix among its faculty. ”Some minority students feel that Yale’s reputation as the most liberal of the Ivy League schools, which motivated them to choose Yale, is no longer deserved,” it stated.
Yale officials concede that problems remain (a review of affirmative-action progress is now conducted annually), but offer a number of explanations. Primary among them is one Yale shares with virtually all American universities—the “pipeline problem,” which refers to the relatively small number of minority students pursuing academic careers. The shortage of minority scholars is well known, yet Yale’s critics say there are also things the University can control that it hasn’t. They point to such lost luminaries as Henry Louis Gates and Toni Morrison, two black scholars who taught at Yale before finding permanent positions elsewhere, and question how committed Yale really is to diversifying its faculty. “The administration’s commitment is a commitment in rhetoric only,” says Michelle Stevens, a third-year graduate student and an active member of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. “In practice it’s not that much of a priority; otherwise, they’d make more of an effort and not just leave things up to chance.”
Yale administrators respond that the process doesn’t lend itself to the common practice of setting hiring goals and then meeting them. Because admitting the best students and hiring the most qualified teachers remain top priorities, affirmative action at Yale really means simply recruiting applicants as aggressively as possible. “We’ve never taken the position that you can only hire a minority or a woman,” says Holloway. However, she adds that if a department is about to hire a white male when it is short on minorities or women, that position can be targeted for additional recruiting efforts.
The University has also liberalized its hiring practices so that if a qualified woman or minority group member is identified, a department chairman may hire that person even if there is no immediate vacancy or the applicant’s field overlaps with another professor’s. In such a case, the provost’s office supplements the department’s financial resources so the applicant can be hired.
Yale fares better when its student population is examined. The percentage of minority students at Yale is roughly consistent with comparable schools, according to Katherine Hanson, executive director of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, a Washington-based research and policy analysis organization. “Yale is in the middle of the pack. It’s not a leader and it doesn’t trail,” she says. However, when minority students were interviewed about their experiences at Yale, the prevailing opinion was that it was not as positive as it was for their white classmates. This view is corroborated by the presence of so-called “black tables” in many of the the residential college dining halls, the number of minority students who have to work two jobs to afford a Yale education, and the disproportionate number who opt to live off campus.
A T-shirt popular among African American students at Yale a few years ago underscores the gulf that still exists between the races on campus. It said: “It’s a Black Thing. You Wouldn’t Understand.” Stephen Brown ’93 interprets this to mean that members of the black community are tired of having to explain themselves, and it’s a sentiment he heartily embraces. Although top administrators may publicly endorse affirmative action, that wasn’t always the case in class discussions and in the campus newspapers, he says. “We were constantly having to defend prop, the African American house, and ourselves.” On top of that, Brown says, black students are questioned by security personnel more often than their white classmates. “They stop you and ask for your ID when the white kid in front of you just walked in. It all adds up to making you feel like you don’t really belong.”
Despite his misgivings about Yale, Brown’s feelings are not so hardened that he is unwilling to do volunteer work on behalf of the University. However, that’s turned out to be more difficult than he had anticipated. As a student recruitment coordinator, he asked several friends to telephone black high school seniors about the possibility of applying to Yale. “They all told me, no way, they wouldn’t want to put anybody else through what they had gone through.” Brown got a similar response when he tried to get his friends to contribute to the alumni fundraising campaign called the Quarter Century Fund. He solicited eight black friends, and all eight turned him down.
Nevertheless, when it comes to recruitment, at least, Hanson says Yale is doing “reasonably” well.“Now the big issue is twofold: convincing kids, through mentoring and encouragement, to go on to graduate school and possibly careers in academe; and secondly, ensuring that the environment is welcoming and conducive for minority students to flourish. The policy stuff is all in place. Now it just has to be reinforced so it becomes inculcated in people’s behaviors.”
Few people are willing to say so publicly, but lurking behind some questions about affirmative action is the assumption that the policy means compromising quality to satisfy racial or other agendas. “People are always suspicious,” says Charles Long, a deputy provost. “They wonder if we’re taking less qualified people. The answer is no. Every applicant goes through the same process. The minute you begin to get a reputation for lowering your standards, it’s almost the worst thing you can do.”
Law School dean Guido Calabresi, who is stepping down this summer to become a federal judge, concurs. “We make a point of reading everything written by minority scholars with a regularity that might be more than what we might do for white males,” he explains. “If somebody writes something that is particularly interesting, we make a point of meeting him or her, but after that, the process is exactly the same as it would be for anyone.” As for students, Calabresi says emphatically, “It is not our policy to take people with an ethnic background who have lower scores.”
At the undergraduate level, admissions officials stress that race is just one of many factors that are taken into account when deciding whether an applicant ought to be admitted. “The concept of affirmative action is highly misleading,” says Richard Shaw, the dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. “If somebody comes from a minority group, that’s of interest to us, but so are a lot of other things. I can’t say that given two students, we’d make a judgment based on race. Our most important concern is whether that person is competitive” (Yale offers no scholarships specifically targeted for minority students because its admissions policy is “need blind,” meaning that once a student is admitted, the University provides financial assistance as required.)
“I don’t think I’ve seen anything in my life that’s totally color-blind,” says Derek S. Gandy, director of undergraduate minority recruitment, “but what we do goes way beyond color.” He says 13 recruiters visit high schools around the country each year to interest minority students in applying to Yale. “We’re very aggressive; we go out and make things happen,” he says.
Not the least of the problems Yale now faces in making those things happen is ensuring that minority students and faculty who do come to Yale feel that they genuinely belong. This is particularly important because there is a direct connection between the recruitment of minority faculty and students. Minority scholars are drawn to teach at universities that have a “critical mass” of minority faculty members and students, and minority students are attracted to schools that have minority professors who can serve as role models. Compounding that problem, according to administrators, is that many minority job candidates would prefer to work at a university that is located in a city with a sizable minority professional class, which New Haven, at least for the moment, still lacks.
The same issue affects student life within the University. Gandy notes that the social atmosphere at Yale is still largely white-oriented, a factor he cites as a major reason why increasing numbers of minority students are deciding to live outside the residential colleges. “It simply doesn’t feel like home to them, and that won’t change until they hire more minority faculty, deans, and masters,” says Gandy. “So far, that commitment hasn’t been made.”
Nadjwa Norton, co-moderator of the Black Student Alliance, sums up the problem even more bluntly. “Yale has a plantation aura,” she says. “Davenport College looks like a plantation, and Calhoun College is named for a man [John C. Calhoun] who owned slaves while he was a student at Yale.” Norton, a sophomore, says she’s happy to be at Yale for the education she’s receiving, “but not because I feel comfortable here.”
Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83, ’86JD, an assistant dean of Yale College who serves as director of the Afro-American Cultural Center and runs PROP, disputes that view, saying that the University is welcoming to all students, regardless of ethnic background, and that whenever a problem arises, the administration attempts to make a quick response. She also points to the tangible curriculum changes that have been made to accommodate the evolving composition of the student body. “When I arrived at Yale,” she says, “you couldn’t find a course that taught Alice Walker or Toni Morrison, unless it was a course in black literature. Now they’ve become a standard part of the English tradition, like Shakespeare.”
For all that, Goff-Crews is not about to issue a call for an end to affirmative action anytime soon. She, Holloway, and their colleagues all point to the dearth of women in the sciences, the small number of Native Americans eligible for recruitment, the special needs of such other minorities as Asians and Hispanics, and the lack of participation by minority alumni as examples of things affirmative action has yet to remedy. “The expectation was that it would take 20 or 25 years, but it’s taking a lot longer than people thought it would,” Holloway says. Adds Long: &“It’s impossible to have the best or be the best if you exclude any particular group. In a very real sense, quality is at the heart of it.”
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