‘Affirmative action made us complacent’: Leaders on their back heels get real on equity

"I know where all of your Black and Brown students are," said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College (Mass.). "They're at my college."

At Wednesday’s National Summit on Equal Opportunity hosted by the Department of Education, presidents, chancellors, provosts, CEOs and secretaries from across the nation heeded Department Secretary Miguel Cardona’s advice to turn this “low point” in higher education into a “turning point.”

In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action last month, Cardona reminded the audience that leaders don’t sign up for the challenges that arise under their tenure but are responsible for leading through them.

These remarks encouraged leaders to discuss how they can maintain their commitment to diverse admission practices while adhering to the law. However, the swell of anger and frustration around the ruling began to fill the room as more panelists revolved on stage.

“The higher education system is broken,” said Colorado College President Song Richardson.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation, said the process begins by “flipping the nomenclature,” or reframing how we inherently perceive different kinds of institutions. He believes community colleges should be considered “elite” for housing under-resourced students. As for Ivy Leagues, “rejective” was a claim that drew both scattered applause and groans from the audience. Among the group sat Christina Paxson, president of Brown University.

The ruling also overlooks the numerous studies that conclude diverse workplace environments promote better outcomes, noted Michael Drake, president of the University of California System. “Data be darned,” he said.

Do college leaders contribute to this “low point”?

But government tampering with higher education’s mission for equal access goes beyond the Supreme Court, a framework over which U.S. citizens have little control. Walter Kimbrough, the interim executive director of the Black Men’s Research Institute at Morehouse College, pointed to publicly appointed officials wreaking havoc in the DEI space. He reflected on leaders’ complicity in continued political interference, calling out the “tremendous lack of courage” everyone has in combatting it. “If we don’t come together to speak forcefully, the problems can get worse.”

Stakeholders adamantly expressed how the only way to fix an inherently inequitable higher education admissions process is by working from the bottom up over the long term. It takes 10 years to instill effective, intentional changes to an institution’s student body makeup, said Josh Garcia, superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools. “You can’t change one puzzle piece and put it back into the same puzzle,” said Garcia.

As “complacent” Richardson believes affirmative action made leaders in implementing real change, here were several of the dominant themes discussed.

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“Opening the aperture” of community college pipelines

As angry as City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado described himself to be about the ruling, he committed to “doubling down” on the solutions “that work,” such as upward transfers strategies. City Colleges, a system of seven community colleges, in partnership with One Million Degrees, is committed to boosting the number of new, credential-seeking students who graduate or transfer in four years to 55% by 2032. Salgado mentioned three former City College students by name who transferred to Yale, overcoming their disadvantaged backgrounds.

Salgado and other leaders believed that “opening the aperture” of community college transfers can assist poverty-stricken students. However, such a solution isn’t any revelation in higher education, and the fact that prominent institutions aren’t more strongly committed baffled Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College (Mass.).

“I know where all of your Black and Brown students are,” Eddinger said. “They’re at my college.”

However, Shaun Harper, executive director at University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, didn’t sugarcoat it. “They don’t want them,” he said.

Overcoming the “they” in diverse K12 recruitment

Under Patricia McGuire’s 34-year leadership at Trinity Washington University, she has sealed its designation as a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) and Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Moreover, Trinity College now houses an 86% racial-ethnic minority population, according to College Factual.

The work did not happen by accident. When McGuire first took over in 1989, she recalled how nearly everyone one of her students came from wealthy private schools, creating a homogenous student body. Her colleagues would respond that they couldn’t handle the curriculum, as in public and school children.

McGuire’s mission is to “overcome the ‘they'” in K12 recruitment to pursue diverse recruitment, or what she calls “educational justice.” Regardless of an applicant’s socioeconomic status, you have to get them on campus and begin the exposure early, McGuire said. Trinity is now a primary and preferred higher education provider for women attending charter and public schools in the D.C. area.

Garcia adds that exposing young, under-resourced K12 students to higher education as early as elementary is essential for building the confidence and vision of post-high school opportunities.

Assisting with persisting

For Stephanie Rodgriguez, Secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department, it’s essential to ask what institutions should do beyond access. With the average age of the state’s college students being 26, Rodriguez is looking into expanding childcare packages for student-parents.

Paxson addressed the “hidden curriculum” under-resourced and first-generation students face when they step on campus. The best way to expand access and opportunities for research and internships is by making them as transparent and accessible as possible.

Money, money, money

As passionately each leader professed their solutions for bolstering an equitable admissions process, the lid on each one of their excitements was financing. “Promoting diversity is expensive,” said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

For example, New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship, a tuition-free program, helped increase the state’s enrollment by 4%, offering more than 45,000 scholarships as of late 2022. However, the program was primarily covered by pandemic relief funds, according to The New York Times. Now, the agency is seeking $100 million for the following year. With CARES Act funding ending this summer, questions remain about how the state will be able to afford it.

With lofty goals of expanding K12 recruitment efforts, building community college pipelines and footing tuition bills, money was on the mind of many leaders—but so was finding ways around it.

“Imagine the price we pay as a country for all of these inequities,” said Cardona.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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