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Students share their thoughts on racial diversity at Penn.

Credit: Zoe Gan

Last Friday, President Barack Obama’s administration urged higher-education institutions to promote diversity on their campuses — a move that Penn administrators say will benefit the University, as well as colleges nationwide.

In a 10-page set of guidelines issued to universities across the country, the Departments of Justice and Education explained how, “consistent with existing law, postsecondary institutions can voluntarily consider race to further the compelling interest of achieving diversity.”

Although Supreme Court rulings dictate that race cannot be used as a sole factor in granting admission, the guidelines encourage colleges to use criteria such as students’ socioeconomic profiles, residential instability and hardships they have overcome to create a diverse class. According to the guidelines, all of these criteria may correlate to one’s race.

“The Obama departments are clearly trying to get officials to promote racial inclusion and integration much more actively than the Bush administration sought to do,” Political Science professor Rogers Smith wrote in an email.

Dean of Admissions Eric Furda explained that, while “the discussions and interpretations of affirmative action have been going on for a long time,” he does not think the recent guidelines will dramatically affect Penn’s policies, since the Admissions Office already looks at applications “wholistically.”

“We look at the total person,” Furda said. “Putting guidelines like this forward just clarifies some practices that already exist.”

Furda does, however, believe that these guidelines are “a step forward.”

“What it does is inform institutions and the public about different ways that you really do look at the whole person,” he said.

Smith thinks the guidelines, which encourage universities “to look at how they can promote racial diversity within the boundaries of the court’s rulings and [provide] examples of how to do so,” will “probably encourage more universities to make these sorts of efforts than would otherwise occur.” However, he added that this will only be possible if Obama is elected for a second term.

Smith agreed with Furda’s prediction that Penn is unlikely to be dramatically affected, as it is “already seeking … many ways to increase diversity without violating any pertinent legal restrictions.”

Still, these guidelines “may strengthen confidence that these measures will be deemed legally appropriate, and so help further energize them,” Smith wrote.

“This is the most contentious issue in education right now,” said Top Colleges educational consultant Steven Goodman, who earned his master’s degree from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in 1989.

Goodman believes that universities will welcome these guidelines, but that the Supreme Court will ultimately be the one to determine if they are constitutional.

“It would be helpful to everyone involved for the Supreme Court to lay out very clear parameters so students and administrators know what to expect” in terms of affirmative action, Goodman said.

College senior Jewel Lester, founding member of the Quaker Opportunity and Access Team — which includes representatives from Penn’s five minority coalitions and reaches out to minority students when they are accepted to Penn — believes the University is doing “well overall” in its enrollment of racial minorities.

However, she added that “there’s always room for improvement.”

Though Lester believes the Admissions Office should promote diversity, she does not think race alone should be a factor in admissions because it “reinforces the idea that you just got in because of your race.”

This practice might lead to “discrimination and prejudice,” she added.

Overall, Lester said Penn should strive to form a well-rounded class, with students from diverse backgrounds.

“I think college should be a preview of the real world,” she said. “In the real world, not everyone is from the same neighborhood.”


WORD ON THE WALK: Racial Diversity

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