With the Supreme Court set to weigh in this summer on the use of race in university admissions, Brown University President Ruth Simmons called for universities to broaden affirmative action policies during a talk at the Law School Wednesday.
Simmons, the first black president of an Ivy League school, said she was confident the Supreme Court will uphold affirmative action. She called affirmative action an “important duty of a civil society” and said it was necessary to subvert the power of the privileged in the admissions process. But Simmons said the policy should expand to include economic factors in admissions decisions.
“Discrimination endures, that is undeniable,” Simmons said. “[Affirmative action is] one of the most far-reaching and important government actions of our time. Today, beneficiaries of affirmative action have established themselves professionally.”
Speaking at Yale for the first time since becoming president of Brown in 2001, Simmons said affirmative action policies should adapt to changes in society.
“There may be parts of affirmative action that don’t need affirmative force,” Simmons said. “If affirmative action is to continue to improve on equality of society, I think it needs to continue to evolve.”
At Simmons’ lecture, Provost Susan Hockfield, Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead and Graduate School Dean Peter Salovey presented Simmons with the Yale-Bouchet Leadership Award in Minority Graduate Education. The talk and award commemorate the yearlong celebration of the 150th birthday of Edward Bouchet 1874 GRD 1876, who studied physics at Yale and became the first black to earn a doctorate in the United States.
Yale President Richard Levin introduced Simmons, who opened her talk by reminiscing about her failed graduate school application to Yale. She said that despite not attending her top-choice school, she was still successful professionally.
“I think of this place with awe, ever since the days when my application to graduate school here was rejected,” Smith said. “Disappointedly, I took my Fulbright and went on to Harvard.”
Simmons, a graduate of Dillard University in New Orleans, said it is important for the public to be educated about the range of post-secondary school options. She said people are focused on attending the top institutions but do not realize that success does not always stem from those schools.
“The truth is that education is a vast continuum,” Simmons said. “It’s distressing that so many people are focused on one choice for education. Unless we can produce more elite slots, the shortage of spaces at leading institutions will be a major political problem throughout the nation.”
Receiving a standing ovation from an audience of about 150, Simmons urged students to make diversity meaningful by interacting with classmates from different backgrounds. She ended her lecture with a plea to the Supreme Court to “continue to give universities the latitude” to make admissions choices.
“[Universities] match their missions and their students,” Simmons said. “Such decisions are an art and not a science.”
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