Column: Some race-conscious measures not needed

By Matt Simmons

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale recently opened up graduate scholarships and fellowships that were once reserved for minorities and women to all students. The Center for Equal Opportunity brought a claim to the Department of Justice. They charged SIU with violating the 1964 civil rights act that prohibits employment discrimination based on race and sex among other things.

SIU did the right thing in making the programs open to all students. Some people say that you cannot support affirmative action at undergraduate institutions without supporting other race-conscious programs. The truth is that a person can see the merit of affirmative action in undergraduate admissions and admit that some other race-conscious programs need to be abolished.

The first and most obvious distinction is that these programs included fellowships that provided stipends to recipients. These stipends turn this situation from discrimination in a government program to discrimination in government employment. Out of the many manifestations of affirmative action, racial preferences in employment policies are the least justifiable.

Unlike with college admission, proponents of racial preferences in employment cannot argue that promoting diversity is a fundamental interest. The only interest employers should be concerned with is whether or not an applicant can do the job effectively. This is especially true when it comes to government employment.

SIU’s Bridge to Doctorate program gives students a $30,000 stipend for graduate study and research in science, technology, engineering or math. Research in these areas is an essential public good provided by universities. This research is vital to our states’ economic development and future. Because of this, tax payer-funded research jobs and fellowships should go to the best and brightest with no regard to race.

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The fact that these programs were for graduate students further discredits the use of race conscious decisions. The use of race in undergraduate admissions and programs can be justified by the fact that many of the beneficiaries are students that were stuck in underperforming high schools.

The academic records of many minorities admitted to top tier colleges are very impressive relative to the record of the average student in their high school class. For example, a student that scores a 23 on the ACT at a school where the average score is 15 could be considered more impressive than a student that scores a 27 where the average score is 27. Affirmative action gives these students a chance to compete.

This benefit of race-conscious policies disappears at the graduate level. Students cannot legitimately claim that they are disadvantaged when applying for graduate programs. Student cannot really argue that their undergraduate college did not prepare them for graduate study because, unlike high schools, students are assigned to undergraduate colleges based mostly upon merit.

Finally, these programs are just not necessary. I find it hard to believe that money is the chief factor that is keeping blacks and Latinos out of science, technology, and math. A better way of getting more minorities involved in those fields would be to support education in these areas at the high school level. For example, high school teachers that serve underrepresented students in these fields should be better compensated than their counterparts at schools that routinely produce engineers and scientists.

Even if you accept the idea that some graduate students are disadvantaged, there are still race neutral ways to overcome that disadvantage. Fellowships could be designed for students that have had to overcome poverty and other economic hardships. Programs could be created for students that attended low performing schools at the elementary and high school level.

I am certainly not advocating abruptly abandoning all race-consciousness in college programs. I myself have benefited from very similar programs here at the University and in the law school application process. However, we need to start the process of slowly moving away from race consciousness and towards a color-blind society based solely on merit. Diversifying these graduate programs is a good start.

Matt Simmons is a senior in LAS. His column appears on Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected].