With increasing frequency, students, faculty, trustees, alumni and others have asked where Stanford should be on affirmative action. I determined several months ago to express my own views on the subject to the Stanford community at the first Faculty Senate meeting of the fall. Affirmative action involves some of the most difficult and complex issues in our society. Reasonable people differ on what it means, has meant or ought to mean. In the hope that it will facilitate further examination and discussion, I offer my full statement here to the senators, and all of Stanford, in advance of the Oct. 12 Senate meeting.
Government-mandated affirmative action began with President Lyndon Johnson's Executive Order 11246 of 1965. Affirmative action requirements applicable to the employment decisions of federal contractors, including universities, were substantially reinforced and extended under President Nixon. Most regulations originate with the executive branch rather than Congress, and require outreach, plans, goals, and timetables. State regulations also come into play. Some affirmative action - for instance, in college admissions - is voluntary in the sense of not being mandated by government.
Affirmative action does not require, and does not mean, quotas or preferment of unqualified over qualified individuals. Indeed, such preferment may violate anti-discrimination laws. Affirmative action is based on the judgment that a policy of true equal opportunity needs to create opportunities for members of historically underrepresented groups to be drawn into various walks of life from which they might otherwise be shut out. Barriers continue to exist in society, and therefore affirmative action asks us to cast our net more widely to broaden the competition and to engage in more active efforts for locating and recruiting applicants.
Of course, the very act of broadening the competition means that more candidates will seek, and be considered for, the same finite number of admissions places or employment openings and the competition for them will therefore be more intense. It would be hypocritical to suggest that affirmative action, even without quotas, does not diminish the opportunities for some who, in the past, might have benefited from a narrower casting of nets or narrower definitions of merit.
The terms "merit" and "qualified" occasionally are used as if they were self-defining. Merit, however, ordinarily depends on many qualities of an individual and on judgments about how their combination might further the tasks of a university, government agency, or any other organization. Still, I repeat: Affirmative action does not justify admitting, hiring, or promoting those who are not well-qualified for the work ahead of them.
For about 30 years, debate about affirmative action has been constant, though only occasionally very heated. In 1995, the discussion has become more intense and much louder. It is not sufficient to explain this phenomenon in terms of electoral politics. The politicians are responding to views and opinions whose forceful expression has triggered, and been triggered by, plans for a referendum in California. The "California Civil Rights Initiative," as presently worded, would prohibit using "race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment" to anyone in public schools, employment, or contracting. The initiative is not - at least not directly - aimed at private institutions such as Stanford University.
It is often unclear why a given public controversy erupts at a particular moment. I am not an expert on social movements, and my hunches may or may not have some basis in fact. To me it seems that a confluence of various trends has led to the present crescendo concerning affirmative action.
I should like to address further the specific subject of college admissions at Stanford. To the extent to which I deal with questions concerning underlying principles, much of what I should like to say also applies to, or at least has implications for, employment at Stanford. I am making these comments against the background of the national debate about affirmative action. However, I am restricting myself to what Stanford is doing and what, in my view, it should be doing. I have emphasized in the past, and I repeat now, that Stanford University is a private institution that has, and should have, considerable freedom in the pursuit of its educational goals and ideals.
Let me begin by speaking about what Stanford has stood for since its founding. When Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, lost their 15-year- old only child, Leland Jr., in 1884, they decided to use their wealth to do something for "other people's" sons and daughters. This sentiment led to the founding of our university.
In a 1902 address, which formally amended the Founding Grant, Jane Stanford stressed that the moving spirit of the founders was "love of humanity and a desire to render the greatest possible service to mankind." I quote: "The University was accordingly designed for the betterment of mankind morally, spiritually, intellectually, physically, and materially. The public at large, and not alone the comparatively few students who can attend the University, are the chief and ultimate beneficiaries of the foundation." The university's "chief object" was to be "the instruction of students with a view to producing leaders and educators in every field of science and industry."
The university's initial policy of not charging tuition was adopted, I again quote Jane Stanford, to "resist the tendency to the stratification of society, by keeping open an avenue whereby the deserving and exceptional may rise through their own efforts from the lowest to the highest station in life. A spirit of equality must accordingly be maintained within the University." I point out that Stanford admitted women when many of its peers would not even have considered the possibility.
The means that Jane and Leland Stanford chose to implement their lofty goal "to promote the public welfare" was to found, endow, and have maintained "a University of high degree." The quality of the university was the sine qua non for the pursuit of the more general ends. Nowadays, we would go beyond seeking a university merely of high degree and instead refer to achieving and keeping a university of the highest degree.
This evocation of our institutional purposes is helpful in reminding us that it would be exceedingly narrow-minded to assume that the pursuit of the university as envisioned in the founding documents calls for a one- dimensional approach in choosing those to whom we give the opportunity to study at Stanford. As we look for the leaders of tomorrow, if all we considered were capacities measurable on a scale, without taking into consideration other aspects of being "deserving and exceptional," we would be betraying the Founders. We would be betraying the Founders if we disregarded their stated concern about "the tendency to the stratification of society."
In the early years of Stanford, to gain admission as an undergraduate, you could choose between taking the university's entrance examination or presenting certificates from your school that showed that your grades were a set percentage higher than the lowest passing grade at the school. In short, you had to demonstrate the ability to do the work of the university.
Under David Starr Jordan's "radical plan," the only specifically prescribed subject was English, and Stanford, ahead of its time, considerably liberalized the other admission prerequisites. This allowed a wider group of students to qualify for admission to Stanford than under more orthodox systems in which universities overdetermined the required preparatory subjects and thus limited the pool of students to the graduates of certain secondary schools. Most students entered Stanford by certification rather than examination and, in 1911, the university abolished its own examinations, relying on the College Entrance Examination Board instead.
Under the influence of Lewis Terman, in 1920 Stanford additionally began to require an aptitude test. The Stanford test eventually was supplanted by the SAT. The Committee on Admissions used a ten-point system in which school record and aptitude test received three points each, while four points were reserved for the Committee's judgment regarding "the student's personal qualities, general promise and so on." Since 1950, the university has been looking for evidence of a strong academic record in high school, the results of standardized tests, and three recommendation letters to confirm qualities of intellectual vitality, character, citizenship, and initiative.
These generally applicable considerations were supplemented by the Faculty Senate in 1986 with a more detailed set of "Criteria for Undergraduate Admissions." According to the principles laid down in 1986, "The primary criterion for admission is academic excellence" as demonstrated by scholastic performance, scores on standardized national tests, documented perseverance and attainment in activities outside the classroom, the personal statement, and high school recommendations.
There are no restrictive quotas of any kind and admissions are decided without regard to an applicant's economic resources. Stanford seeks undergraduates of varied ethnic, social, cultural, and economic backgrounds whose talents, achievements, and characters suit them for leadership. In the case of every person admitted, there has been a judgment that the applicant is "deserving and exceptional."
A few categories of applicants - certain ethnic minorities, legacies and athletes - receive special consideration provided they meet these requirements. Children of Stanford alumni receive preference among applicants of approximately equal qualifications, as do children of eligible faculty and staff. Furthermore, Stanford is committed to a substantial presence of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans in the undergraduate student body. Finally, the Department of Athletics may designate outstanding athletes for special attention. The Dean of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid has final authority over all admissions.
All applicants receive careful consideration and the admissions review takes individual circumstances of the applicant into consideration. These efforts aim at a class characterized by diversity in terms of academic interests, artistic and athletic accomplishments, leadership qualities, and ethnic and social backgrounds. Why should we look for such diversity? The main goals are two. First, we want a rich educational environment to challenge our students. Students learn much from one another. Second, we want to be faithful to our task to educate leaders for a diverse and complex society - a society that will, we hope, overcome the undue tendencies toward stratification. This cannot be done unless the country's demographic diversity finds a presence on campus.
We do not admit minorities to do them a favor. We want students from a variety of backgrounds to help fulfill our educational responsibilities, not, to my mind, to address the effects of historic discrimination, although that might be a result. University admissions offices are not set up to sit in judgment on what injustices society should compensate for and who should pay the price. Furthermore, who possesses the wisdom and insight for the task? Admissions decisions, on the basis of an applicant's demonstrated achievements, should be forward-looking. We must not admit some and thereby exclude others because we arrogate to ourselves the power to sort out who owes what to whom.
How an individual applicant has dealt with disadvantage obviously is relevant to assessments of capability and resilience. However, I am extremely wary of any admissions process in which economic and social disadvantage (including dysfunctional home environments) become categorical criteria to be formally weighed in decisions about whom to admit as a student. In order to survive as a sane society, we should not create incentives for ever more people to think in terms of victimhood or to play the role of victims, or to suggest that one must be disadvantaged to be given serious consideration in the college admission process.
Should race and ethnic background be a factor in our decision-making? If the invisible hand could be relied upon to produce admissions pools or employment pools that reflect the ideal of equal opportunity at all levels of society, including in the leadership positions for which Stanford prepares, special outreach would not be necessary. If the members of society mostly ignored race and ethnicity, we could forgo taking them into consideration. We hope that one day we will be able to do so.
Alas, I think it would be naive to assume that racial and gender stereotypes do not work against many who would otherwise be capable of taking advantage of opportunities at all stages of life. In Fires in the Mirror, the dramatization of the Crown Heights riots of 1991 by our Stanford colleague Anna Deavere Smith, George Wolfe talks about venturing outside the African American neighborhood in which he had grown up. I quote:
And then I would go beyond a certain point
I was treated like I was insignificant.
Nobody was hosing me down or calling me nigger.
It was just that I was insignificant.
I strongly believe it remains necessary to level the field, to recognize that there are vast differences between primary and secondary schools and how they develop ability, and to make conscious efforts to increase the presence of underrepresented minorities at all levels of society. This may even work to the advantage of a minority applicant who himself does not come from a disadvantaged economic or cultural background. It is the responsibility of educational institutions such as Stanford to find and educate those who can become the leaders of the future in a multiethnic and multiracial society. Alas, our society is quite color- conscious, and we therefore cannot yet afford to be colorblind.
I am, of course, fully aware of the fact that my view of the matter leads me to take into consideration criteria that are very problematic. There is, first of all, the utter arbitrariness of racial and ethnic labeling. Boxes to be checked may look neat on paper but there is little underlying or inherent sense. What is race? What is a race? What is ethnicity? How do we deal with racial or ethnic mixing? Why is the child of a black parent and a white parent classified as black? Why does one-fourth American Indian ancestry qualify a person as Indian, while slightly less does not? Are the classificatory laws of apartheid South Africa what we end up emulating? Is our way out, self- classification, something to be fairly relied on? When government and courts dictate race relations, we quickly get caught in contradictions and absurdities.
These reservations, however, do not diminish my belief that institutions such as Stanford, if indeed they want to be universities of the highest degree, need the discretion to do as best they can in their efforts to find and educate the leaders of tomorrow. As we pursue our goals, there is no room for categorical preferences, there is no room for quotas, there is no room for preferring the unqualified over the qualified. However, there is also no room with respect to any applicant for making quantitative, scaleable admissions criteria the sole touchstones of intellectual vitality, talent, character, and promise. That has never been the case at Stanford, and I hope it never will be. It is Stanford's very characteristic that it has never been one-dimensional and yet it has been able, especially over the last four decades, to become one of the world's most selective institutions. Our capacity to pursue many excellences will remain undiminished as long as we continue to get the balance right and do not waver in our commitment to quality.
I said at the outset that many who worry about the consideration of race and ethnic background in admissions and employment decisions worry about enhancing the balkanization of American society. They worry, not without justification, about institutions falling victim to highly politicized, ethnically or racially oriented groups that pursue their own narrow agendas without care for, or in direct opposition to, the overall welfare of the institution or society. Indeed, we must at all times guard against enhancing and freezing, rather than ameliorating, cleavages. We must call attention to the citizenship held in common.
The university is an institution dedicated to the search to know - the search to know of each member in her or his individual capacity. A university needs to be integrated in order to pursue its tasks. Even with affirmative action, students are evaluated and admitted to Stanford as individuals, not in groups. No university can thrive unless each member is accepted without regards to labels and stereotypes. This is the case with students, faculty, and staff. In a university, the first question in response to an argument must never be "Does he or she belong to the right group?" Instead, the only criterion must be "Is the argument valid?" An argument must never be dismissed or accepted, ignored or respected, because the speaker is male or female, black or white, American or foreign.
As concerns affirmative action policies - which raise issues that are among the most difficult that a society can confront - I think it is of the greatest importance that all those who participate in the debate refrain from demonizing their opponents.
Maintaining and furthering Stanford University is an incredibly delicate task. It is a joint intellectual and moral effort of faculty, students, trustees, alumni, and local, national, and worldwide friends. I cannot be sure about the answers to my own questions. All of us, on all sides of the issue, are and will be open to criticism. The request I have to make of those who would be critical is that they also make the effort to understand.