DG Roundtable: Affirmative Action at Swarthmore – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

allisonhrabar (Allison Hrabar ‘16, Co-Editor-In-Chief) [2:15] Hi everyone, welcome to our roundtable today. In light of Swarthmore’s amici curiae brief in the upcoming Supreme Court decision ​Fisher v. Texas, we have decided to discuss affirmative action at Swarthmore. As always, there are a lot of different directions we could go in this discussion. Today, we’re going to focus on what we think affirmative action should look like at Swat, and what the value of “diversity” is on a campus like ours.

Joining us today are News Writer Sebastian Mintah ’19, Opinions Editor Arjun Vishwanath ’16, and Co-Editor-in-Chief Isaac Lee ’18. Odds are high that Arjun and I will bicker about legal specifics in the Fisher case, but we will try and keep it to a minimum.

avishwanath (Arjun Vishwanath ‘16, Opinions Editor) [2:22 PM] To put my cards on the table, I think that affirmative action is unconstitutional racial discrimination at public institutions under the Fourteenth Amendment, but for now,  I’ll focus on Swarthmore. As a policy matter, I don’t have a problem with affirmative action, but I think there are a few ways that it could be improved (we can get into that for later). One question I have for you all – what is the purpose of affirmative action in your eyes? Is it to provide diversity in classrooms and across campus?  Is it to help reverse the effects of institutional racism in America? Or something else? Because I think that we need to consider what the purpose of affirmative action is before we can have a productive discussion.

smintah1 (Sebastian Mintah ‘19, News Writer) [2:25 PM] I believe without a doubt that affirmative action’s purpose is to reverse the effects of institutional racism and provides diversity across campuses and workplaces.

allisonhrabar [2:28 PM] I think affirmative action originates in a desire to reverse institutional racism in America, but that its goal has (rightly) expanded. The goal of a college like Swarthmore shouldn’t just be to desegregate. A good education, in my eyes, means engaging with a variety of different perspectives. This means having racial diversity in classrooms, but diversity of economic backgrounds, gender, sexual orientations, etc. What is the purpose in your eyes, Arjun? Both nationally, and specifically at Swat.

avishwanath [2:36 PM] I think both of those are valid purposes for me – on the racism point, I think the relevant aspect is that institutional racism has provided barriers to K-12 education such that even though some students may be just as smart, their resumes may not show it. However, on the diversity point, one concern I have is that although we have some diversity on campus, we don’t necessarily have diverse perspectives. People of certain races are more likely to be friends with the same race, and as a result, the community feels less integrated.  While I’m not blaming affirmative action for this, I don’t think that it has necessarily achieved some of the positive aspects of diversity I would like to see at Swat.

allisonhrabar [2:38 PM] What kind of diversity do you want to see at Swat, Sebastian? What do you think students (or employees at workplaces with affirmative action) get out of being in a diverse group?

smintah1 [2:42 PM] I think that culture is for everyone. We may all be from different backgrounds and experiences, but when we interact with each other we are afforded the chance to see the world in a more retrospective light. You learn things that no textbook can teach you. I’ve learned so much being a part of I20 (the international students group on campus). I’ve come across students from multiple national, religious, ethnic backgrounds and it is amazing to hear their stories. It’s as if I’m there with them learning about the rest of this pale blue dot we call earth. The kind of diversity I would like to see on campus is one that represents the diversity we have on this planet.

allisonhrabar [2:50 PM] So, I guess the question becomes how do we ​find that diversity. The Fisher case (and Arjun, apparently) argues that using race in admissions is unconstitutional. Swat’s process is more holistic: race is one of many factors we evaluate, and we read literally every application that comes our way.  Do we think Swat is right to consider race as an aspect of admission? If we’re truly devoted to diversity, should we be weighing it more heavily to increase the presence of black, latino, and other students of color on campus?

isaacl (Isaac Lee ‘18, Co-Editor-In-Chief) [2:53 PM] It’s one thing to increase pure numbers alone to be diverse, but the issue is also how to create a diverse climate and experience.  I think we need to sort out the diverse experience aspect. Because while Swarthmore has made efforts in increasing the numbers of students of color, my personal experiences in student groups is that they are dominated by people of only a few groups of students. See: DG masthead

allisonhrabar [2:56 PM] Arjun and I were talking about that yesterday! The DG is definitely a student group with diversity, but not nearly enough to be representative. Could you (and Sebastian, and Arjun) talk a bit about your personal experiences? Have they been, to be incredibly vague, “diverse”?

smintah1 [2:58 PM] I see your point. Using race as  criteria for anything seems wrong and unconstitutional, but the reality is the foundation of this country was a crime against humanity to be blunt. Genocide, enslavement and institutional racism upset the balance of nature, if you will, and has caused a multitude of disparities. The restoration of racial and cultural equilibrium is therefore needed so yes I think Swat is right to consider race as an aspect of admission in that sense. At least until we see the true diverse climate and experience in society that Isaac is referring to. My experiences at Swat? Yes they have been incredibly diverse. The I20 has a vast majority of countries represented in its ranks.

isaacl [3:05 PM] While affirmative action seeks to reverse historical injustices and current institutional racism, at the end of the day some have to ‘lose’ out on a relative basis. Currently, Asians are seen as the race that has to achieve far higher results (SAT, GPA, etc.) than average to achieve the same amount of college spots. Is it fair that Asians, which had nothing to do with the historical injustices that occurred, should be on the shorter end of the stick when increasing diversity?

smintah1 [3:11 PM] No it is not fair and that is one of the short falls of affirmative action. It’s a very delicate tool that has to be implemented right-  which it isn’t always. We have debated this concept in length in South Africa.  

allisonhrabar [3:15 PM] So, how do we use it correctly? How do we avoid giving certain groups the short end of the stick at Swat?

smintah1 [3:32 PM] I’m interested to hear some of your opinions on that. It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s very multifaceted.

isaacl [3:33 PM] A lot of events and groups at Swat are dedicated to specific affinity groups. This tends to keep people separated, hence the general feeling of students not being ‘integrated’ in Swat. More inter-group events that brings the community together would be a good idea to enhance a diverse experience

smintah1 [3:34 PM] It isn’t easy creating a fair method of cleaning up the aftermath of previous unfair methods. It can be done however. We can never again allow ourselves to sacrifice one group for the good of another. Which is why we have to get this right.  If we put race aside for a moment, we’d still see disparities in wealth. Swarthmore’s solution to that? Financial aid. Financial aid is not meant to hurt or even antagonize the affluent, it is meant to help those who are disadvantaged by the system. The same can be said about affirmative action.

allisonhrabar [3:47 PM] That said, we do have need-blind admissions for domestic students: the admissions office doesn’t consider economic class when reading your application.

smintah1 [3:49 PM] Fair point

isaacl [4:11 PM] Additionally, the clubs and activities I join are usually not affinity based, but for some reason they aren’t representative of the Swarthmore student body. When I did debate for a semester, it was mostly Asian and white debaters in the team. The same can be said about the Daily Gazette, and the consulting club I’m in. Why do you think these kind of extra curriculars that do not have a specific cultural affinity also have skewed representation? And how can diversity be improved in these kind of groups? 

avishwanath [4:16 PM] I have had a similar experience as Isaac – I would say that over 90% of my friendships at Swarthmore have been with Asians and white people, which may be a part of the organizations I participate in (Squash, DG) and my majors (especially Math).

Final question – if you were to design the perfect admissions system, what would it be? Would it be like Barry Schwartz’s, where all qualified students enter a lottery for admission? Would it include certain types of affirmative action?

For me, I think an income-based affirmative action program would be ideal, while allowing race to be considered as a secondary factor. Essentially, the aim would be for Swarthmore to approximately represent the household income spectrum of the United States from a race-blind perspective, and then if it looks like that method might result in “unacceptably” low admittances for certain racial groups, some applications could be reconsidered. Another method here could be aiming at geographic diversity. My concern about any affirmative action plan is the groups that it inadvertently hurts.  The current system hurts Asian-Americans among others, and a class-based plan could hurt qualified upper-class students, but I think if we are have to potentially disadvantage a group, I would rather do it on the lines of class than race.

smintah1 [4:36 PM] Yes I agree with that. The goal should be to eventually reach economic based affirmative action. In doing so we will see true progress. No race will be disadvantaged by another. I have faith from above that one day we will all truly be ‘United.’

Image Courtesy of Swarthmore College


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The Daily Gazette is Swarthmore’s daily newspaper. The Gazette is sent out every work-day to more than 2,500 people, and has thousands of readers from across the world. The Daily Gazette was organized during Fall semester 1996 by Sam Schulhofer-Wohl ’98. The goal: to provide timely coverage of campus news and Garnet sports while maintaining complete independence from the administration and student government.

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