Campus weighs in on affirmative action, diversity issues raised by case


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on October 10, 2012 at 7:18 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 10 at 7:20 PM

Should race be a factor in college admissions?

AUSTIN -- The University of Texas is home to students of all sorts of backgrounds.

"I guess it's pretty diverse," UT student Clayton Davis told KVUE Wednesday. "I mean coming from my high school, it was mainly white."

"I think ethnically, it's much more diverse than I assumed it would be when I came here," said student Kamene Dornu-Ogidi.

Of the 52,000 students at the University of Texas at Austin, around half are white, with a third roughly split between Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

As a percentage, Hispanics at UT make up a smaller portion than in the state of Texas as a whole.

The comparison is even more acute for African-Americans, who make up 12.2 percent of the Texas population but just 4.5 percent of the UT student body.

"For me, it was a little bit of adapting to a new environment where it was predominantly white, and certainly socioeconomically it was definitely more affluent than my high school experience," said Richard Reddick, who attended the University of Texas in the early 1990s after graduating from a high school in East Austin. "I didn't have very many African-American professors. Now we have over a hundred."

Reddick returned to the University of Texas as a assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration after attending graduate school at Harvard University and said the school has made creating a multicultural environment a priority.

"UT unfortunately has a historical record that is a challenge to work against, but we've been doing incredible things here," said Reddick, referring to the 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case Sweat v. Painter which forced the university law school to admit African-American students.

On Wednesday, the school appeared once more before the high court to defend a holistic policy that allows affirmative action in admissions.

"When you say something like 'well a student earned a certain GPA and a certain standardized test score,' that doesn't tell you if a student is working 20 hours a week to help their family, or if a student's immigrated to Texas and is learning a new language," said Reddick. "I think the beauty of a holistic review is it allows us to find the students who are striving, who maybe don't have the same resources that other students from more affluent areas have, but have a demonstrated effort of overcoming and achieving."

"I actually think accepting race and affirmative action are really important parts of the application process and should definitely be considered," said student Candace Henson. Davis said he generally agrees, however, "if you take it too far, I guess you can get into the realm of reverse discrimination, which is what some people argue it is."

"Affirmative action ends up being a really good outlet for people who are frustrated," said UT psychologist and assistant professor Germine Awad. Awad teaches a class on attitudes towards affirmative action and has spent years researching the subject.

"One of the most common misconceptions is that it is there for 'unqualified' minorities," said Awad. "People aren't going to lose money by trying to train people that they can't train because they're not qualified or educating people that don't have the tools to be educated. So it becomes this really murky issue of judging something that you don't really understand."

Awad pointed to research such as a 2002 University of Chicago study showing correlation between perceived ethnicity and employer response for job seekers as evidence that systemic racism is still present. He argued that affirmative action policies become a scapegoat for some under difficult social and economic circumstances.

"Affirmative action ends up being a really good outlet for people who are frustrated by not being able to get jobs," said Awad.

Awad said the same can apply to those seeking education.

"I think that it's cyclical based on the economy, based on the political climate and what becomes salient in the press."

"When you're comparing just two people who are equal otherwise, I feel like it's not that big of a deal to just give preference to minorities," said Davis.

"I'm sure that probably has something to do with why I was accepted, but my grades were good," said Dornu-Ogidi.

He believes the focus should not be on ethnicity.

"I think that's the wrong way to go about it. I think if they used socioeconomic status maybe or what neighborhood you grew up in."

"Honestly I don't think it should be a major point in the application process," said student Jordan Treistman. "But given some circumstances it might be something that could be reviewed."

The ultimate decision will be up for the high court. The case should be decided in a few months.