After Affirmative Action: Paradox and Opportunity

The Editorial Board advocates for the college to rethink the ways it approaches diversity on campus, post-affirmative action.

With the end of race-based affirmative action in college admissions, a paradoxical reality has emerged at Amherst: The college is legally prohibited from factoring in race in admissions decisions despite considering racial diversity a core institutional value. As President Michael Elliott affirmed in a letter just hours after the ruling came down, Amherst remains “resolute” in its efforts to continue enrolling students of color at leading numbers among its peer institutions “in accordance with the law.”

The college has good reason for concern: Other colleges, admittedly large public universities, saw sizable decreases in students from historically underrepresented groups following affirmative action bans. There is little reason to think that the effects would be any less pronounced at a small liberal arts college like Amherst. In any case, though, what remains uncertain is to what lengths the college is willing to go in order to fulfill its avowed commitment to preserving diversity.

A truly incisive statement about attempts  to preserve diversity could prove legally risky as the exact implications of the ruling remain unknown. However, the college’s understandable caginess in ensuring that its language is in accordance with law brings concerns that its response to the ruling will remain empty words.

We already see evidence of this linguistic anxiety in the new description of Access to Amherst, once a fly-in program for students from underrepresented communities. Now, the program is open to all applicants but “centers the experience of students from marginalized communities.” Similarly, what was “Early Opportunities for Native Students” is now “Early Opportunities for Native Studies.” Changes like these can seem like a lukewarm attempt to make the college’s diversity outreach legally palatable.

What is sure, though, is that we should not aim to simply return to the status quo. Even as Amherst prides itself on its racial and ethnic diversity, it continues to be homogenous in other respects. With 17 percent of students coming from the top 1 percent even before the ruling and more students coming from the top 10 percent than the bottom 90 percent, Amherst’s skew towards the rich perpetually erodes the legitimacy of its claims to offering an egalitarian education.

This is an opportunity to design admissions policies that not only work to bolster racial diversity — to the best of their race-neutral ability — but also other metrics such as wealth, geography, age, gender identity that can make our community more representative of underrepresented groups. Following the recent faculty vote, the relevance of athletic recruitment should now also be more closely inspected. Amherst prides itself on geographic diversity and representing every U.S. state, but around 53 percent of Amherst students come from California, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, reflecting urban concentrations of wealth. A disproportionate number of FLI and international students also come from elite private schools, suggesting that the college may perpetuate some inequities in its attempts to redress others.

The bottom line is that diversity must be truly holistic — not simply accepting the wealthiest BIPOC students and, as put by sociologist Anthony Jack ’07, the “privileged poor.” While racial diversity is a laudable goal, leaving its intersection with socioeconomic inequity unaddressed is contradictory: It reproduces the gaps in education and other capital that sustain racial exploitation in the first place.

The Editorial Board also advocates for greater representation among educators and student leaders. While the recent A/P/A cluster hire is a step forward, the faculty remains overwhelmingly homogenous in the face of an increasingly diverse student body. The distribution of funds to student organizations — which clubs receive higher and lower amounts of  funding — should be reevaluated. To ensure equitable access to leadership positions, clubs should institute transparent processes towards e-board leadership. There are great minds on this campus, for instance, that have yet to be represented here on The Student.

Regardless of the legalities in place, if the college is truly committed to educational diversity as a principle, it must remain active in these national discussions and infuse substance into its curated image as a progressive liberal arts haven. As it is inequality at lower levels of education that deeply entrenches this higher education gap, Amherst could put its resources towards alleviating these inequities through increased investment in the local community and schools rather than trying to compensate years later. Amherst must consider how it publicizes its name to applicants and the world to set a precedent about this community. Yet, at the end of the day, the diversity of incoming classes doesn’t matter if we don’t know how to engage them once they’re on campus. The Amherst community must reflect on the sincerity of its commitment to diversity. As for the changing admissions landscape, we will wait in earnest for the class of 2028.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 17; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0).