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Affirmative action case draws attention of Boston college students and school officials

Posted by Your Town  December 15, 2012 10:00 AM

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Tracy Akufo’s and Patrick O’Neil’s birthplaces could hardly be more different.

“My family is originally from Ghana. I was actually born in Ghana, and I left three months after I was born,” said Akufo (left), now a senior sociology major at Boston College and the president of the school’s Black Student Forum. “I was born an American citizen abroad because my father was already a citizen.”

O’Neil, on the other hand, was born in Holyoke, a city about 5,000 miles away from Ghana.

“It’s one of the more urban parts of western Massachusetts,” said O’Neil, now a junior finance major and president of the Northeastern University College Republicans. “But my neighborhood is pretty typical suburban America.”

The differences between the two students don’t stop there. In the face of a highly divisive Supreme Court case, Akufo and O’Neil stand in firm disagreement about the role race should play in college admissions.

The case is Fisher v. University of Texas, a dispute that pits Abigail Fisher — a white woman suing the university for admissions policies she says allowed for racial discrimination and her eventual rejection in 2008 — against the current higher education admissions system. If the court sides with Fisher, its decision could overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case that upheld the legality of including race in a holistic review process — a move that could drastically alter the way colleges assemble their incoming classes.

O’Neil, who attended his city’s public high school, said a pro-Fisher decision would level the playing field for all applicants.

“When people are applying to college, you want to take a look at their personal characteristics, their intelligence, their dealing with extracurricular activities and sports and clubs,” said O’Neil, a life-long Republican. “None of that has to do with what you look like or just some accident of birth that you can’t control.”

But Akufo — whose suburban Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood was forced to start a petition to move her from the underperforming high school in her district to a competitive public school in the city after ninth grade — said affirmative action is integral to ensuring equality.

“I feel like it’s definitely necessary considering the history of the U.S. and the many injustices that have prevented people from getting towards the opportunities they need in order to pursue higher education or move up the ladder,” said Akufo, who said she believes nearly all black applicants benefit in some way from affirmative action.

If the court suspends affirmative action, though, those benefits would be gone. As a result, the road to college would likely become considerably harder for black and Hispanic students — who made up 27 percent of all college students in 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). That would leave campus diversity and race relations hanging in the balance.

Jimmie Foster Jr., dean of undergraduate admissions and orientation at Northeastern University, said he vehemently opposes that scenario. Since the court’s ruling would affect public universities and any institution, public or private, that receives federal funding — which Northeastern and some 4,000 other schools nationwide do, according to the New York Times — Foster said the ramifications on his university would be great.

“We’d have to be much more numbers-based,” Foster said. “A lot of students that we would normally give a second look to, be able to offer admission to, would be gone, and therefore we’d see fewer students of underrepresented populations or students of color on our campus.”

Even with affirmative action, students of color make up a relatively small portion of Boston college students. According to the NCES, combined reported black and Hispanic enrollment at Northeastern University, Boston University, Boston College and Harvard University is at 10.2 percent, 11.4 percent, 13.9 percent and 14.4 percent, respectively. The only Boston school that comes close to the national figure of 27 percent is the University of Massachusetts Boston, with 25.6 percent.

Foster said Northeastern, which currently uses race as part of its multi-faceted admissions formula, would be ill served by any hindrance to its minority enrollment.

“Our role is to be an institution that represents the world and our country, and affirmative action values that and makes that a process that’s easier for us to accomplish,” he said.

Using affirmative action, Foster said, allows Northeastern to focus on more than test scores and grade point averages.

“We’re trying to build a class, a cohort of students, just like a team,” he said. “You can’t have all the same kind of players on the same team to be successful.”

Foster also said he believed most universities would not support curtailing affirmative action, a statement affirmed by the numerous colleges, states and private institutions — including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the commonwealth of Massachusetts — that have filed amicus briefs expressing support for the University of Texas.

“Most institutions would be opposed to it, I think,” Foster said. “If they can’t use affirmative action, they may find themselves in a place where they lose that diversity and therefore lose interest from other students, and I think that potentially could cripple them financially.”

John Drew, director of admissions at UMass Boston, spoke favorably of diversity in education.

"We’re Boston’s only public university,” he said. “By virtue of that and our urban location, we attract a very diverse applicant pool.

Colin Riley, executive director of media relations at Boston University, made similar comments about BU’s applicant pool, and said diversity should not be defined solely by skin color.

“When people talk about affirmative action and diversity, generally they’re talking about colors,” he said. “They’re never really talking about geographic diversity. They’re not talking about socioeconomic levels, they’re not looking at academic achievement — but we are.”

Though Riley said BU “does not take race alone into consideration,” and said he believed the outcome of Fisher v. University of Texas would have little impact on the school, he said it is difficult to remove race from the admissions process entirely.

“BU looks at students in a holistic way,” he said, adding that race is part of that “because it’s part of who that person is.”

Duane Brown, affirmative action director for the city of Cambridge, also said race is part of an individual’s history and identity, and said it should be treated as such in the admissions process.

“Everybody should meet minimum requirements for admission, and then you start looking at other things (like race) and weigh them differently,” he said. “Just like you can give weight to people who have parents who went to that institution.”

Brown, an African American who attended Boston College in the 1970s and said he was met with racial backlash from the student body, said he hopes colleges retain the right to use affirmative action. He likened consideration of race to looking at non-academic criterion like extracurricular activities and work experience.

“You need to look at other experiences,” he said. “What’s the best added value to this class?”

Robert Hall, a professor of African American studies and history at Northeastern University, said he thinks the court will take a viewpoint similar to Brown’s.

“I don’t think that the court is going to categorically outlaw any consideration of race,” he said. “I think that the court is going to hedge on it.”

Hall (right) called Fisher’s case “flimsy” and said affirmative action is important because it allows colleges to look at more than SAT scores. He said history is likely to repeat itself when it comes to the court’s decision.

“They’ve done it (upheld affirmative action) in the relatively recent past,” he said. “There have been two relatively recent liberal appointees, which has kind of slowed the slide toward a conservative tilt.”

But Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that focuses on issues of race located in Falls Church, Va., said he believes the court will side with Fisher.

“I think she has a valid case, and I think she will win,” he said. “I hope the Supreme Court overturns the Grutter decision.”

Clegg said repealing affirmative action’s legality would not have a negative impact on schools.

“You may end up with less superficial skin color diversity, but you’ll get just as much of the important kind — and that’s diversity of experience,” he said. “I don’t think it will be a hardship.”

Clegg also said affirmative action should be eliminated because it often disenfranchises those it aims to help.

“You stigmatize the people you’re supposedly helping, you create resentment, you miss-match students with institutions,” he said. “If a school has a policy of giving preferential treatment, every African American on that campus is going to have his or her credentials questioned.”

Northeastern’s O’Neil agreed, saying affirmative action often harbors racial tension.

“We’ve come such a long way in the past half century that affirmative action is almost keeping us held back to an era where there was real discrimination,” O’Neil said. “I think it’s just racism, period.”

Drawing on his own life experience, O’Neil (left) said he believed policies and quotas are no longer necessary to foster diversity, and that removing affirmative action would have little effect on Boston colleges.

“This year in College Republicans we have a gentleman from Russia, we have a student that immigrated from Venezuela, we have a black student who has come to our meetings and the Democrats’ meetings all semester,” he said. “It’s not anything we set out to do, but stuff like that occurs naturally.”

Boston College’s Akufo drew on personal knowledge to argue just the opposite, saying that without affirmative action, many minority students would be intimidated to apply to schools like Boston College where the predominant image is “the white student in the J. Crew attire.”

“I don’t think students of color, specifically Hispanic and black students, would try to apply to those reach schools,” she said. “Specifically at Boston College, we already don’t have a lot of students of color. Imagine taking away affirmative action — we’re going to have a whitewashed campus.”

But, Akufo said, the value of affirmative action lies not only in preventing a “whitewashed” campus. She stressed that affirmative action’s benefits go beyond higher education and into the racially varied world that awaits students after graduation, a world not influenced by admissions committees and applications.

“We live in a diverse world — we don’t live in a world where it’s only white people,” she said. “It’s almost ignorant for us to ignore the need for diversity.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the views of UMass Boston director of admissions John Drew with respect to affirmative action and the Fisher case. In fact, he did not express an opinion about either subject.

This article is being published under an agreement between The Boston Globe and Northeastern University. 

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