Arguing for more racial and socioeconomic equality in higher education, Bob Laird, the author of “The Case for Affirmative Action in University Admissions,” promoted affirmative action at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea yesterday.

The former cirector of undergraduate admissions at the University of California at Berkeley, Laird presented his arguments for affirmative action, including the use of it as a tool to reverse racial inequality and to create more diverse campuses. Laird also stressed the importance of affirmative action in light of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling permitting the policy and explained how expected changes in the composition of the court could affect this decision.

“If the Supreme Court overturns its decision on affirmative action, it will set back race relations and minority rights in this country by 50 years,” Laird said.

Opponents of affirmative action argue that it calls for unequal treatment based on race and shows preference to less-qualified minorities. Laird said arguments surrounding the policy are complex partially because of the way in which affirmative action programs are integrated into the process of university admissions.

“Race and ethnicity cannot be the only way the institution defines diversity,” he said.

Instead, Laird said universities should look at an array of factors including socio-economic status, geographic differences, special talents, leadership skills, and, most importantly, intellectual curiosity and academic ability.

Laird also said that part of the argument for affirmative action is that it enables universities to fully take into account the individual circumstances of each applicant. Universities, he said, must look at what the individual has accomplished in the context of the opportunities they had available to them on a case-by-case basis: A score of 1300 on the SAT’s might be an average score for a student from a wealthy background, whose first language is English, but for a student from a poor family, whose parents have not graduated high school, and whose first language was not English, 1300 on the SAT is a significant achievement, Laird said.

In response to questions about whether he believed affirmative action is still necessary in today’s society, Laird said that although it is certainly a “temporary tool,” affirmative action is still of critical importance.

Alternatives to racial affirmative action programs, such as socio-economic affirmative action, outreach programs, percentage plans for high schools — in which a certain percentage of each high school’s graduates are automatically admitted to state schools — and transfer programs from community colleges, have been found to have little success, he said.

Laird’s talk shifted in a different direction when a student asked him to explain the relationship between affirmative action and legacy admissions.

“I am opposed to legacy admissions,” he said. “I do not think they have any place in the admissions process. In fact, legacy admissions is simply affirmative action for the rich.”

Richard Shaw, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, who was present at the talk, expressed mixed feelings about Laird’s comments on legacies.

“Legacy admissions is a complex issue,” he said. “The generosity of alumni is what sustains Yale’s need-blind admissions process.”

Despite that criticism of Yale’s process of admissions, Laird was generally positive about the efforts of private institutions to promote diversity and affirmative action.

“The most racially integrated institutions in America today are the elite, private institutions like Yale,” he said.

Students said Laird’s comments influenced their own views on affirmative action.

“What he had to say really changed my views on affirmative action,” Helen Pho ’08 said.