Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is Affirmative Action Still Worth Discussing?

The US Supreme Court will hear the case Fisher v. The University of Texas this fall in a case testing the limits of affirmative action in college admissions set by the previous case Grutter v. Bollinger. A young white woman, Abigail Fisher, was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. She competed with a subgroup of applicants for whom race could be considered a factor by the university in its efforts to enroll a diverse student body, and argues that Texas practiced blatant racial profiling, which is illegal.

Readers may ask what relevance this has to women in astronomy. Judging by the experiences of women students at my university, there is a connection. Women of all races continue to be told, by peers and sometimes even by faculty members, "you're here because of affirmative action." These inappropriate comments are not a relic of the past; they still happen in our workplaces and universities today.

After a campus-wide diversity summit in January focused on the congruence of diversity and excellence, a student wrote a letter to the student newspaper criticizing affirmative action. His letter stimulated an extended conversation -- in the newspaper, in campus meetings, and in many dorm rooms -- about diversity and excellence and the recruitment process for students and faculty. These conversations followed a panel discussion at the summit in which students movingly described the difficulty of crossing lines of race, gender, language, etc. Although both experiences revealed discomfort, they also illustrated the learning that can occur when people go beyond their comfort zones. The setting is crucial: universities and employers foster personal and professional growth by fostering a climate of respect. Achieving this requires the active engagement of the community from the top leadership on down.

The benefits of diversity and inclusion are overwhelmingly clear from the transformation of academia that has taken place since I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. However, there is still severe underrepresentation of women and others in the sciences, a sign that we are failing to fully tap the available talent and to foster its development. Recruitment and mentoring of a diverse student body and workforce leads to a stronger and more equitable community of scholars. We are not done. Affirmative action is still worth discussing and it is not only about race. The Supreme Court and our own students agree on this.