The Supreme Court recently announced that they will revisit the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case about affirmative action in college admissions decisions on Dec. 9. Northwestern currently uses an affirmative action policy, and the case will directly impact NU’s incoming freshmen if it passes, because NU currently uses affirmative action policies in admitting students.
Dr. Jabbar Bennett, Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Northwestern, said that admissions officers at NU use race as a factor when reading applications, but certainly not as the only factor.
“When you look at the historical and traditional means by which people of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups have been marginalized in society and in obtaining education in this country, I don’t feel we’re at a point yet where we can ignore race as a factor,” Bennett said.
Bennett also added that race should not be considered as any more or less important than other essential factors in admissions decisions, such as gender, income or other indicators. This Supreme Court case, however, only tackles the factor of race in admissions. It does not, for example, criticize many engineering schools’ affirmative action policies for women.
Abigail Fisher, a Texas resident and Louisiana State University student, sued the University of Texas in 2008 after she was denied admissions to the university. She claimed rejection based on race, which she claimed violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court had already ruled in 2012 in favor of Fisher, after circuit courts had ruled in favor of Texas. However, the case is to come to the Court in December for a reexamination.
Many supporters of affirmative action have cited non-race-based affirmative action policies that have not been as equally scrutinized as race-based policies. For example, associate professor of sociology Carolyn Chen wrote an opinion article that outlines these groups that have consistently been given preferential treatment by university admissions without public question.
“Universities, especially [in] the top tier, have always given affirmative action to children of alumni, children of wealthy donors, students from prep schools, athletes who can help the football team win, students who can pay full tuition and those with connections to political or cultural power,” according to Chen.
Bennett addressed the concern that students from less privileged backgrounds may not be as prepared for a rigorous Northwestern education as an applicant from a private or well-funded public high school.
“We have to do a good job of assessing where students are both before they get here and once they’re here,” Bennett said. “We need to have faculty who work with students and be more cognizant of the fact that every student is different, every student is unique and that every student will have different needs, and we need to be able to address and identify all of those needs so that every student can be successful.”
Bennett only recently joined Northwestern’s staff, arriving at NU on October 1. During his work with Northwestern, he aims to not just improve the diversity among students, but among faculty as well.
“A lack of diversity amongst the faculty leads to a lack of role models,” Bennett said. “Often, students don’t see people who look like them or share the same values, and up not seeing themselves in particular roles.”
Bennett said that affirmative action policies are just one piece of improving diversity at Northwestern.
“We can always do better,” Bennett said.