Affirmative action discussed in forum

by Joe Carlson

and Nancy Ngo

With portraits of 12 white, male, former University presidents surrounding them, about 25 students, professors and activists sat in the President’s Room in Coffman Memorial Union on Friday afternoon and discussed affirmative action.
The discussion was the first in a informal series of political and educational symposiums held by the Africana Student Cultural Center and the Juneteenth Steering Committee. Participants in the forum reflected on recent historical impacts of affirmative action at the University as well as how the institutional policy will influence the school’s future.
The Juneteenth event celebrates the date when the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing American slaves, arrived in Texas.
But forum participants also emphasized collective activism between University organizations on issues of affirmative action as the best way to achieve specific goals.
Although the impetus for the forum was California’s Proposition 209 — which eliminates affirmative action in state-sponsored employment, contracting and education — the discussion quickly turned to how these policies affect University members. However, several University issues, including University 2000 and last year’s proposed closing of General College, also played important roles in the discussion.
“I’m here at the University as a result of affirmative action,” said Jamil M. Salaam, a senior majoring in Spanish. Salaam defines affirmative action as the implementation of opportunities in education and employment. He said such opportunities empower members of marginalized groups in society, such as women and people of color.
Forum participants talked about how collective efforts between organizations would be the best force in meeting future challenges to affirmative action at the University, including changes to admissions standards and diversity provisions of U2000.
“There needs to be some type of consensus of what needs to be done,” said Jennifer Molina, a junior in the College of Human Ecology. She said different cultural organizations are having separate discussions about how affirmative action should work.
Some forum members said the power of collective action can be effective, as demonstrated recently in the retention of General College.
The Board of Regents last winter proposed to close the college because of low graduation and retention rates of students who enter other University schools from the college. But the college was saved by organized student and faculty activism, Salaam said.
He said the struggle to keep General College as a viable part of the University showed how much power a collective effort can have to accomplish specific goals. The event showed that although the University has a strong history of access to education, some said it also foreshadowed future challenges at the school.
“I personally think that attacks on GC were an effort going toward U2000,” said Salaam. Eliminating the college would help the administration achieve the goals of the plan, he said.
U2000, University President Nils Hasselmo’s comprehensive plan for restructuring the school, defines specific goals for increasing the enrollment and graduation rates of minority students.
Some participants talked about challenges that U2000 goals might have on access to education. Another of the plan’s goals raises freshman admission standards in an effort to improve the University’s standings among Big Ten schools. Forum members feared this goal might be in opposition to affirmative action goals.
Generally, the group aimed to ensure that quality could be maintained at the University without limiting access.
Currently, the University accepts freshmen who place in the top 25 percent of their high school graduating classes. However, an exception is made if a student exhibits aptitude in one particular area, like music or art, though that student might fall outside the top quarter of his or her class. These standards were the target for admissions during the 1996-97 school year.
Although only 25 people attended, participants said these are crucial steps toward reaching a consensus within the University. If the efforts are successful, the forums might serve as a model for other institutions.
Maurice Cassidy, who came from the University of Massachusetts to speak at the forum, said the nation’s universities can serve as testing grounds for policies in the larger population.
“The University is just a microcosm of the world,” said Cassidy. “It’s a place to test things for the rest of the world.”