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Shades of Gray: The gatekeepers, admitting racial diversity

Part two in a comprehensive examination of race at Brandeis

Published: April 8, 2011
Section: News, Top Stories

In March of 2006, the University Diversity Committee created an addition to Brandeis’ original mission statement to promote the importance of diversifying the student body. The “diversity statement,” now featured under the mission statement on the university website, reads, “[Brandeis University] seeks to build an academic community whose members have diverse cultures, backgrounds and life experiences … believes that diverse backgrounds ideas are crucial to academic excellence … recognizes the need to analyze and address the ways in which social, cultural and economic inequalities affect poor and privilege in the larger society and Brandeis itself.”

Though the mission statement already stated that “Brandeis strives to reflect the heterogeneity of the United States and of the world community whose ideas and concerns it shares,” the committee felt the point needed to be reiterated.

The decision to write a “diversity statement” that would complement the university’s mission statement was made at a time when “we felt we did not have the distribution of students we should be having [in terms of diversity’,” Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Elaine Wong said in an interview last month.

“We weren’t the best or the worst in any category relating to diversity,” she said. “But we always aspire to do better.”

Three years after this statement was issued, 5 percent of the student body identified as Hispanic, 5 percent as American-born African American, 11 percent as Asian American and 47 percent as white. Of the 3,317 undergraduate students, 10 percent were international students and 23 percent of American-born students’ race was unknown, according to data from the 2009-2010 academic year (the most recent year for which the university has statistics).

Despite university aspirations, Brandeis demographics do not match up to the United States population, which the 2010 census reported was 13.6 percent African American, 16 percent Hispanic and 4.8 percent Asian American. Ultimately revealing that living up to its founders’ vision is a goal the university’s admissions office has yet to reach.

In the quest to fulfill this aspiration, the university must grapple with questions of what factors classify racial diversity from an admissions perspective, and how exactly the university differentiates between the quantity and the quality of racial diversity on campus. Ultimately these lead to the vital question: Can these issues can be addressed on the university level?

Practices behind percentages

The notion of “affirmative action” was first used in 1964 when United States President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925 requiring government contractors to ensure that it did not discriminate against “race, creed, color or national origin” in its hiring practices. Since then, the term has been most widely used in reference to the practices colleges and universities use to achieve racially diverse student bodies.

In 2003, the United States Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action practices of the University of Michigan Law School, which was using students’ race as a “potential plus factor” when it came to admissions.

The court’s majority ruling, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, held that while quotas—policies regarding what percentage of the student body should be of a certain race—are prohibited by the United States Constitution, it “does not prohibit [a school’s] narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

Brandeis University supported the decision along with 37 other private colleges and universities, submitting an amicus brief stating that the university considered the gender, race and country of origin of applicants in the admissions process alongside extra-curricular and co-curricular activities, special talents and evidence of leadership.

“Diversity in the student body as well as the faculty is judged inseparable from the university’s commitment to academic excellence,” read the universities’ brief.

Today, while diversity is a priority of the admissions office, Brandeis does not have an explicit affirmative action policy.

When considering applications to the university, Vice President of Students and Enrollment Keenyn McFarlane said last month the admissions office “does not take into account race, creed, color, religion—anything.

“Affirmative action is specific and to my mind sounds a lot like quotas, which have so much negative history,” he said. “We want to matriculate the students who want to be here. If those students happen to be all Asian, for example, then I am happy they are happy, but I am not happy because it is not diverse.”

In past years, the university has attempted to increase diversity by simply increasing the number of applicants to the university, a practice in which there has been some success in recent years. In March 2010, undergraduate applications jumped to 7,738 from 6,815 the year before while maintaining an acceptance rate of 32 percent.

“If you have more applications, then the number of additional applicants who are people of color is going to go up proportionally,” Mcfarlane explained. “If those applicants of color are qualified, then they will be admitted in the same proportions as white students. It’s not something that happens by chance, nor is it by design, it’s just the way it works.”

Indeed, last year 27 percent of applicants to the university were minority students, with Asians being the largest proportion. Minorities in turn accounted for 27 percent of students accepted, and 28 percent of the class of 2014 identify as minorities.

Defining diversity

University President Frederick Lawrence said in an interview last month that he did not believe Brandeis necessarily needed to be racially diverse in order to be diverse as a whole.

“When you are thinking through the lens of percentage of minority students it is going to lead to brittle thinking” because it does not take into account “the breadth of the community.”

“Some people may all look the same but there are lots of ways for a school to completely be diverse,” he said, adding that each student brings to Brandeis their own personal experiences which may or may not correlate to their own race.

McFarlane admitted that Brandeis is not as racially diverse as he would like it to be, but said quantifying the level of diversity at Brandeis is difficult because statistics do not always take into account students of mixed race or the 23 percent of students at Brandeis who do not identify their race.

In addition to soliciting applications from a racially diverse range of American citizens, the admissions office also actively pursues applications from international students. In the fall of 2009, the international students at Brandeis hailed from 53 countries, with the top five being China, South Korea, India, France and Israel.

“Let’s say you have a student from Panama, it’s not like we are admitting them because we think we might get a Latino student,” McFarlane said. “We are admitting them because they are qualified, and they add to the international diversity. The fact is sometimes they are Latino, but sometimes they are Jewish and sometimes they are black.”

Graduate students also add to the mix of racial and international diversity seen at Brandeis. While 2 percent of American-born graduate students are Hispanic, 3 are African American, 4 are Asian and 30 percent are international students, many of whom come from African or Asian countries. This creates the illusion that the undergraduate population is more diverse than it actually is.

“When you are at Brandeis and looking around, you can’t tell if the black person you see is undergraduate, graduate, African or African American,” McFarlane said. “Graduate students certainly contribute to the visual diversity of campus, even if they are not in the undergraduate classes.”

Taking (non-affirmative) action

While the admissions office does not actively pursue applicants of color, it does strategically encourage applicants from different geographical locations that are racially diverse.

This year, the Office is particularly focusing on schools in Atlanta, Ga., a city with a large percentage of African Americans.

“We want to increase Brandeis’ exposure to markets that are more diverse,” he said. “Because of the racial makeup of Georgia, applicants from there would be more diverse than from, say, Montana.”

In order to increase the university’s name recognition in Atlanta, McFarlane is using current Brandeis students from the area as “ambassadors” so they can spread the word about Brandeis in their communities.

“It’s all about geography,” he said. “The best and brightest of the Atlanta area know more about Emory than Brandeis, and the best and brightest of the Boston area know more about Brandeis than Emory.”

“But it’s also about a concerted recruitment effort,” he said. “If the Bay Area of California is important to Emory, then they are going to know about. Georgia is a market that Brandeis thinks is valuable, so we have to make ourselves known.”

“We need guidance counselors to know that Brandeis is a place to send their kids if they can do the work.”

But targeting a geographic area in order to increase the total number of applicants, and therefore the number of minority applicants, doesn’t solve every problem.

“We have a lot of kids here from Chicago, but we are not reaching the top kids in the all black high schools on the South side of Chicago, and those are the kids that we want to come here,” McFarlane said.

In an effort to attract more minorities, and in particular, African American applicants, the university is currently in talks to establish an exchange program with historically black colleges such as Tuskegee University, Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe said in an interview last month. The program, which would potentially exchange both students and faculty members much like a foreign exchange program, could not only act to expose Brandeis students to new cultures and environments, but also to increase Brandeis exposure to markets that are more diverse.

Honest advertising

In addition to personal outreach, one key tool admissions offices of all colleges rely upon is the pamphlets and literature that are distributed to guidance counselor offices across the country, something which has been an issue in the past.

“One of the tensions in the past has been whether or not admissions is representing what the student body actually is like in view books and presentations,” Wong said.

“Sometimes you open the view books other schools put out and it almost looks like a mini-united nations,” she said. “There is the question of how many students of color are you going to put in it, and is that representative of what is going on here?”

For JV Souffrant ’14, the university brochure is misleading.

“Sometimes [it seems like] in admissions games they will show you a brochure with a picture of students in a class and you will see six African-Americans and two white people and that’s not how it is.”

“I came here and was like, well where are all of those people that I saw?”

Preparing admissions pamphlets is a delicate task for that very issue, McFarlane said, and the admissions office is caught between two goals of accurately portraying Brandeis as it actually is, and of portraying Brandeis’ aspirations, McFarlane said.

“You have to be smart about your marketing, and I recognize that it has to be both factual and aspiration,” he said. “If you don’t have that racial makeup [in the literature] you may be discouraging people from being interested in Brandeis. But by inviting that sort of interest, you may get the place to where you want it to be.”

Clogs in the pipeline

In response to the pervasive educational disparities suffered by lower-income communities in the United States, Brandeis has explored a number of different avenues to increase its accessibility to students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

“There are people who do not have access to higher education because of their socioeconomic conditions, and the fact is that many of those people are minorities,” McFarlane said.

“Access to higher education by students of color is a problem in this country. Until that access happens, you might have some incremental changes [in the number of minority students] but you are not going to see some market leap of the percentages at Brandeis being on par with the nation’s [racial demographic] as a whole.”

Only 20 percent of black students and 16 percent of Hispanic students graduate high school college-ready, as compared to 32 percent of all students, according to a study by the Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute.

Of this 32 percent of college-ready high school graduates, only 9 percent are black with a further 9 percent are Hispanic. The authors of the study suggested that “the main reason these groups are underrepresented in college admissions is that these students are not acquiring college ready skills in the K-12 system rather than inadequate … affirmative action policies.”

“How do you take a kid out of that failing school, even if you think they are smart, and then expect them to be prepared for a place like Brandeis?” MacFarlane said.

Some of the solutions to McFarlane’s dilemma already exist at Brandeis in the form of the Transitional Year Program (TYP).

TYP, a year-long academic program, prepares students for college who have shown strong determination and academic focus despite obstacles such as under-resourced high schools, many of which lacked honors and AP classes, or personal conflicts that have derailed their paths to secondary education.

Professor Jacob Cohen (AMST), the first director of TYP, said in an interview last month that the purpose of TYP was to help students “who, for many reasons, had not made it in the conventional lockstep from high school to college.”

“They are experienced, intelligent but not well educated people,” he said. Our philosophy was that what was needed was intense remediation.”

The program is just that: a remedial process that gives disadvantaged students tools and resources to develop the necessary skills for collegiate success. Coupled with academic support like tutoring and the Writing Center, along with personal support through mentorship, TYP students must successfully complete a full load of courses offered by the program in writing, math, science, social science and computer science along with one Brandeis undergraduate course a semester.

A by-product of this program is the addition of diversity to the Brandeis campus. Director of TYP Erika Smith declined an interview with The Hoot last month due to the belief that “the mission of the program is actually not to contribute to diversity, rather it is to promote educational access and equity.” She added that students are not selected or admitted to the program on the basis of race and there are not race-specific elements to the program.

“There is no racial component to TYP, it is about access to higher education, but I can’t deny that it adds to Brandeis’ diversity.”

The Posse Program is another program at Brandeis whose primary purpose is providing access to higher education but that also adds to the diversity of the student body.

Created with the idea of providing inner-city students who showed leadership skills with a support system once they entered college, Posse is a full-tuition scholarship paid for by Brandeis for ten students who show not only academic prowess but leadership and teamwork skills as well.

“The idea is if you take students from the inner city who are just absolutely exceptional, at the top of their class in high school and who show leadership skills, if instead of sending them to college one by one, you send them in a group of 10 to create a support structure for them prior to entering college,” said Director of Academic Services Kim Godsoe, who is the Posse liason at Brandeis.

Brandeis is one of 12 schools that have a posse program, and this year there were 3,000 students from New York City nominated to receive a scholarship from one of those schools. Students applying to Posse have a 4 percent chance of receiving a scholarship, and after being nominated students go through a rigorous interview process that includes group dynamic assessments, personal interviews and visits to college campus before being selected as part of the program.

Once students become a part of the Posse program, they receive pre-collegiate training, meeting once a week from January to July in workshops to build leadership and teamwork skills. On campus, Posse scholars meet in groups with a mentor once a week, and every other week individually.

Brandeis has two distinct Posse programs—one for students studying liberal arts and another for students studying sciences. Traditionally both Posses come from New York City, but after the liberal arts Posse was cut for this academic year, administrators decided to bring it back with students from Atlanta for the 2011-2012 school year.

“Posse is based in urban areas, so each posse is going to reflect the demographic of that area,” Godsoe said, saying that while the program does not make increasing Brandeis diversity one of its goals, it is a byproduct. “If you compare the diversity of New York City, for example, to the majority student population at Brandeis which in many ways comes largely, not exclusively, from middle-to upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods that are largely white, you can see … there is a difference in the student populations.”

Retention issues

Just because a minority student is accepted does not mean that they will enroll in the university. Each year, the university spends countless hours attempting to create models and formulas for how many of the admitted students will actually accept the offer.

“It is somewhat of an absurdity,” McFarlane said. “How can you predict what a 17-year-old is going to do?”

One sure way to encourage students to enroll, however, is with a competitive financial aid package.

“There is only a fractional correlation between applications coming in and that particular minority student enrolling,” McFarlane said. “You can lead them to water, but dollars speak a lot louder.”

Financial aid packages are particularly a factor with minority applicants, who may need the help more if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Not only do financial aid packages need to fulfill a student’s need, but they also must be competitive with packages offered at other schools in order to encourage a student to come to Brandeis.

This year, the university was able to meet financial need for all students it accepted into the Class of 2015, something McFarlane hoped would increase student diversity.

“Brandeis doesn’t give many merit scholarships: what we are about is financial need; if you need the money we will meet that need,” he said.

One of the six merit scholarships Brandeis does offer is the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship, founded in 1968 following the reverend’s assassination. The scholarship was originally intended to be given to deserving African American students; however, throughout the years the scholarship’s definition has changed to apply to any students who have shown “outstanding community involvement,” according to the university’s financial services website.

In past years, when financial need was not met for all students, the admissions office tried to give merit scholarships, like the MLK scholarship, to students with financial need.

“One way to matriculate a student of color would be to give them an MLK scholarship because otherwise, if you let them in but don’t give them any money, it is tantamount to rejecting them because they won’t be able to come,” McFarlane said.

He added that giving students in financial need “merit” scholarships in cases where financial aid is not enough is also “clever in terms of our enrollment yield strategy” because scholarships “mean more when you call it merit. It makes it more prestigious,” and encourages students to come to the university.

But while the Posse and MLK scholarships and the Transitional Year Program can indirectly increase the number of minorities who attend Brandeis, some students worry that the programs pad the numbers.

“I am not content if there are only five percent African American students in a school of 3,000 and the majority of those students are TYP or Posse,” Souffrant said. “If you take away those kids, how many minorities are admitted through the admissions office? You can’t just have all of your minority students from those programs because then other students will think that all black kids are from inner-city, disadvantaged schools.”

The combination of adequate financial aid and increased diversity underlies an assumption that students of color are also poor students—an assumption Godsoe said the university combats in its admission processes.

“I think that every school strives to have not just diversity, but diversity within diversity,” she said. “I’m obviously not in admissions, but I think the university actively tries to recruit students of color from different financial backgrounds, regardless of income. There are multiple layers that are on our radar.”

University-wide support

A network of support is an essential component in the success of a student. Even if a student had the intellectual ability to succeed, without affirmation and encouragement the challenge of higher education is exacerbated with anxieties and perceptions of inadequacy. This problem is all the more real to students of minority backgrounds, who must face the additional challenge of disproving preconceived notions of their capabilities while fighting off insecurities fueled by societal stereotypes.

The fact that some scholarships and programs, like the Posse scholarship, come with additional support like mentoring and peer networks for their recipients can encourage a minority student worried about attending Brandeis—something McFarlane believes is extraordinarily important.

“If I got an applicant who was able to do the work, and I was able to get them to matriculate, they are only going to stay if they feel comfortable. In order for that to happen, we need a support network for minority students,” he said.

The Student Support Services Program is one such system for students who are the first in their families to go to college and who face significant financial problems. Combining academic advising, peer mentoring, individual tutoring and workshops about the college experience, these services are, again, not only for minority students but effect many of them.

“Once you bring these students to college, you have to have support for them,” the program’s Director Gererdo Garcia Rios said. “We are that community that students can call a home away from home.”

Lawrence said one way to build a network is through co-curricular programming that discusses the integral role of civil rights equality and the obstacles that people with different backgrounds can face.

“I think issues of racial intolerance and racial injustice will for the foreseeable future be important issues in the American landscape that we have to talk about,” Lawrence said. “There are discussions of those issues on campus, but we can do more of that.”

Godsoe said support systems have “multiple pieces” that consist of what the university does formerly the campus climate among students and individuals like professors who may not have a formal support role but whom students know they can go to with problems.

“Faculty play an enormous role in reaching out to students … and there are a number of faculty members who themselves are not minority but who are very interested in issues of diversity and supporting students,” she said.

But for Souffrant, a former TYP student, being a black male means that his support system should include faculty members who are of his own race.

“It’s a motivation factor. If I can see more professors who look like me, it is an incentive to try harder,” he said. “I want to see people here who understand how I feel and who can support me, and they will make sure the conversation about race at Brandeis continue.”

Next week: The Architects—a look at the role of race in Brandeis administration and academics.