Panelists debate affirmative action in college admissions

Brian Peterson, director of the black cultural center, Makuu, moderated the panelists, Charles Noble and Natalie Herring

· November 9, 2012, 1:44 am

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No matter what their views on affirmative action may have been before last night, those who attended United Minorities Council’s discussion in Huntsman Hall left with their perspectives challenged.

Part of UMC’s Unity Month programming, “Removing the Race Box from the Application: Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court, and You,” centered on the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case. The case in question could decide whether colleges can legally exercise affirmative action in the admissions process.

Afterwards, Brian Peterson, director of the black cultural center, Makuu, moderated the panelists, Charles Noble and Natalie Herring.

Noble, a research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, has been working directly on the Fisher case. Herring, Office of Admissions associate dean of opportunity and access, provided a complimentary perspective.

Both supported affirmative action and urged students to see the nuances of the debate. “It’s not just about having a minority voice at a table for a tokenistic stance,” Noble said. “It’s that there really are tangible, measurable benefits for people on all sides,” citing empirical studies that show people in diverse environments tend to seek out equally diverse environments even after college.

Herring alluded to the personal nature of the subject. “Education is the only guaranteed escape latch on poverty that there is,” Herring said. “I myself am a first-generation college student from the south side of Chicago. Without someone thinking holistically about my application way back when, I doubt very seriously I would be sitting here before you.”

Herring also emphasized the difficulties admissions committees would face in identifying minority applicants if the court were to side with Fisher in the case, as college admissions culture has already changed in light of cases like Gratz v. Bollinger in 2003, which condemned the University of Michigan for its treatment of race as a quantitative admissions factor.

“Since Bollinger … admissions officers are much more careful about what we do and what we say,” she said. “Believe it or not, 16 years ago, when I started my career in admissions, we were actually using colored tabs on files.”

Not only did students gain insider perspectives on the subject, they also left with some crucial context. College sophomore Gabrielle Patterson said the discussion brought clarity to a topic she had studied before.

College sophomore Kerubo Mokaya, though happy with the conversation, was concerned with the event’s lack of representation of diverse ethnic groups — the majority of people in the room were black. “Either they’re not being invited to these forums, or they’re not comfortable in them, and if that’s the case we should make the space comfortable for us all to talk more about race,” she said.

College sophomore Jesus Fuentes, programming co-chair of the UMC, was happy with the turnout, but was more impressed by how engaged the audience was. “When he [Noble] said that it’s likely the conservatives will win the Fisher case, I noticed everyone sort of shifted. No one said anything, but you could tell that the atmosphere changed,” he said.

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