Monday, December 3, 2012

Affirmative Action: Friend or Faux?



By Stephanie Prosack

The United States of America, the wonderful land where all men are created equal. Is this sentiment true in higher education? Affirmative action was created to give scholars of all backgrounds an equal chance of obtaining a college degree in an ethnically diverse environment. Presently, the need for affirmative action is debatable, commonly viewed as a process that helps disadvantaged pupils and creates diversity, or an antiquated concept that is academically hindering students and institutions alike.



Affirmative action is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an active effort to improve the employment or educational opportunities of members of minority groups and women; also a similar effort to promote the rights or progress of other disadvantaged persons.” Frequently, it is used as one criterion to evaluate candidate application admittance to higher education institutions. People have recently argued that affirmative action is unconstitutional because it allows applicants with lower test scores and grades who are of a minority race to be admitted into institutions when other applicants with higher grades and tests scores of a different race are denied admittance. Yet others feel that affirmative action is essential by allowing campuses to be diverse learning environments.


Although the intentions of affirmative action were initially positive, demographic dynamics have changed in recent years. Racial groups once underrepresented in academic institutions, such as Asian-Americans, for example, are now prevalent in American schools, as stated in this intriguing article. Asian-Americans contribute to 5 percent of the U.S. population and this percentage is increasing. Students born in Asian countries also attend U.S. institutions. However, with affirmative action, the number of admitted applicants of this increasing ethnic group is capped off to keep academic settings diverse.

In addition to monitoring applicant ethnicity, the evaluation of socio-economic factors could make the process more diverse with less of an emphasis on race alone. Jane*, Ph.D. and former chemistry faculty member, believes the admissions process would be fairer to focus on tangibles such as poverty levels or leadership opportunities. To support this theory Jane referred to a recent conference where a representative from a science organization discussed “how some states now have colorblind admission processes, and minority rates at campuses have increased.” “A policy that targets at-need individuals and not groups, would be more effective than broad affirmative action plans,” agrees Tom*, a current chemistry graduate student.

Not only does affirmative action affect higher education admittance, it also influences academic employment. It is common to see institutions to identify as an organization that adheres to affirmative action procedures when filling vacant faculty positions. Try the search terms “chemistry faculty affirmative action” to view institutions that currently follow such protocol. 

If all applicants were admitted based solely on grades and test scores, campuses would potentially be dominated by one ethnic group and lead to fewer ideas and points of view—aspects crucial for a well-rounded education. Fewer applicants from minority ethnic groups would be present on campuses. This begs the question: How much more important is diversity over academic standing?

Please, share your experiences and thoughts!


This post is neither supporting nor repudiating affirmative action, and does not represent the beliefs, ideas or thoughts of the American Chemical Society.
*=Names have been changes to protect identity

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