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Ends and means: affirming affirmative action

What is affirmative action, anyway? We take it to mean active efforts toward an inegrated society: one in which, as it was expressed on campus in April by educator Johnnetta Cole '89H, "Difference doesn't make such a difference."

The legal bariers to education and employment for people not white and male have been removed, even in america, onlly in the last half-century. The demise of legally sanctioned racial and sexual discrimination is a tremendous advance for our country. Some people believe that this is enough - that officially opening the doors to the previously excluded creates the metaphorical "level playing fied" that is the birthright of all Americans. While some who voice this opinion may do so on the basis of racecst or sexist feelings, there is no resaon to assume that all do. Indeed, if difference of opinion is among the differences we should respect, we should take care not to make that assumption.

But others do not believe that outlawing discrimination and opening the doors is enough. They believe that the matrix of official exclusion imprinted on all of us for centuries has left a kind of invisible brand on our society and on the attitudes and behaviors of the individuals within it. They believe that unless affirmative actions are taken to include the excluded, we will remain a divided nation even in our public institutions.

It has been painful to observe this spring at UMass that the debate about affirmative action - triggered, as we report on page 5, by Chancellor Scott's announcement that our admissions practicies would have to change - has been framed as a contest between these beliefs: between opponents and proponents of affirmative action. In fact, none of the principals in this debate on this campus is anything but an active supporter of affirmative action.

Affirmative action is a doctrine, not a formula. No single set of practices or measures of success exists among the many institutions that embrace and practice it - including those raised as examples which UMass should emulate in "defending affirmative action." Affirmative action is not under attack at UMass; what has been at issue is a single practice, that of offering admission to a higher percentage of minority students than non-minority students among lower-ranking applicants. While this practice was resorted to in an effort to reach goals that could not be completely achieved by admissions from the upper ranks, it 1) put the university at risk, in the opinion of its lawyers, and 2) was not working.

UMass Magazine does not have a direct line to Chancellor Scott. While this magazine is published by UMass to promote UMass, it is independently edited, and no one is asking us to report on this issue or express these views. So we wouldn't speculate unless we felt it were true, that if the chancellor and his advisers - who include the three black women he has appointed deputy chancellor, academic provost, and associate chancellor for equal opportunity - believed this practice were working, they woudl have fought for it. But can anyone believe it was working when, as Judson Brown reports in his cover story on a promising mentoring program, our graduation rate for students of color is only 44 percent? Or as Ali Crolius relates in her faculty sendate "snapshot," black students are measurably less satisfied with UMass than thier non-black peers?

If affirmative action is a doctrine, not a formula, it is also a means, not an end. The end is a diverse campus, measured not only by the number of minority students arriving each fall but by their prospects of success and satisfaction. UMass must create not just a critical mass of minority students, but a critical mass of successfu; minority students. Most students of color admitted by UMass already rank in the upper admissions categories. Encouraging more such well-prepared students to seek and accept admision here is the first step; finding ways to help the schools produce more of them, and to identify and support students whose talent is masked by their circumstances, are the menas on which the chancellor is asking s to concentrate now. To do so, he says, will be to add a noble new dimension the the land-grant mission, and we agree with him.

-Patricia Wright

Letters to the editor