Just over a year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the University of Michigan’s race-based undergraduate admissions policy as unconstitutional, two national science organizations offered advice this week to universities that want to promote women and minorities’ participation in science and engineering but are afraid of legal repercussions.
The recommendations, in the form of a guidebook, come at a time when colleges across the country — including Yale and Northwestern University — are opening up minority fellowship and orientation programs to students of every race in response to pressures created by the court’s ruling, which stated that the use of race in admissions must be “narrowly tailored” to fit a school’s diversity goals.
At the press conference in Washington, D.C. on Monday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering unveiled the guidebook, which includes a legal primer explaining how university officials can maintain programs to promote diversity while legally navigating what the book calls the “risky post-Michigan minefield.”
AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan Leshner said the Michigan court ruling was unclear, exacerbating the problem of low participation in the sciences by underrepresented groups, which he said could have damaging long-term effects on the nation’s science community.
“There is no question that the U.S. human-resource talent pool is not right now being fully tapped, particularly when it comes to women, members of minority groups and the disabled,” Leshner said at the press conference.
But Liza Cariaga-Lo, director of the Yale Graduate School’s Office for Diversity and Equal Opportunity, said she does not believe the University’s diversity initiatives are in danger.
She said two research programs geared toward minority students at Yale — the Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship — were reviewed by the University’s legal counsel following the Michigan decision and were found to be legally compliant.
“Both of our programs, SURF and PREP, as they are currently configured, are open to all students,” Cariaga-Lo said. “However, we believe that a more diverse graduate school community is important to have, so we do actively recruit underrepresented students.”
Cariaga-Lo said students considered “underrepresented” include not only women and racial minorities, but also students who are the first in their families to attend college or who live in less-represented geographical regions.
“We look at diversity across a broader context,” Cariaga-Lo said.
But Noah Hood ’08, a member of the Black Student Alliance at Yale who said he intends to major in astronomy and physics, said he believes opening minority programs to all students would be a move in the wrong direction.
“There definitely should be programs for just minorities,” Hood said. “The justification for opening the programs up is that racism is over in this country. On paper it might be, but in the actuality of life it is not.”
Hood said there is nothing inherent about the disproportionately low participation of minorities in the sciences, adding that a closer look at history reveals major contributions made by black scientists.
“Though I know there are far fewer blacks in the sciences today, I think of my interests as embracing, not outside of, my culture,” Hood said.