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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Cracks in the Meritocracy

Gaston Hall
Georgetown University
February 25, 2003

Let me begin today by addressing an issue as timely as today's front page. With the Supreme Court set to consider affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan, the media spotlight is focused on the college admissions process. Without question, this is the most far-reaching affirmative action case since Bakke 25 years ago. Its impact may extend to every institution that shares with Georgetown the core belief that a richly diverse student body is critical to achieving our educational mission.

First, let me be clear. Georgetown does consider race and ethnicity among the myriad factors in our undergraduate and other admissions processes. We look very closely for students who have demonstrated the talent and heart and resiliency to overcome obstacles. We seek to continue those practices that help us to create-- consistent with our mission-- our own unique community of highly meritorious students-- young people who have lived inspiring life stories and who will create the multicultural future of this nation.

I am pleased to announce today that Georgetown has joined a group of leading universities, Columbia, Cornell, Rice and Vanderbilt, in filing an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Michigan. We believe strongly that universities should be allowed to continue to consider race and ethnicity among other factors in our admissions processes. Our brief, which was written by the eminent First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams, focuses on the important First Amendment and academic freedom implications at stake here, and argues that those principles warrant flexible resolutions consistent with Justice Powell's decision in the Bakke case.

Georgetown Law Center Dean Judith Areen has joined many law school deans in a brief supporting the Michigan Law School, arguing in favor of the continued ability of law schools to consider race as one of many factors in making admissions decisions. A group of Georgetown law students also has filed an amicus brief signed by students at more than 100 other law schools. I'm sure that Professor Patterson can provide more details about the Law Center actions.

The volume of briefs filed in this case has set a new record for education litigation. 80% of those briefs support Michigan and filers include major corporations like Pepsi, Nike, and Shell Oil, the Fraternal Order of Police, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two former secretaries of defense, and many, many others. Our divergent interests align in the belief that the value of diversity is incalculable as we educate the leadership of our multicultural nation. Whatever the ruling of the Supreme Court, we are seeing in this response broad support for policies of affirmative action.

That said, I want to make a critical point: the Stanford University social psychology professor Claude Steele has described America's "national experiment in racial integration." This experiment is in its infancy and will be joined, in decades to come, by our children and our grandchildren. The simple truth is that racism and discrimination have deep roots in American history and remain the fault line of our republic.

The fact is, those of us who are white have to work extremely hard to have any grasp at all of the perspectives and experiences of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other ethnic and minority groups.

With that as a starting point, this evening I'd like to raise three different, complex, but related ideas for discussion. First, I'd like to talk about the need for thoughtful consideration of what has worked and what needs work in our efforts at building diversity at Georgetown.

Second, I'd like to mention a trend that merits our attention: the growing skepticism among different communities about a once sacrosanct idea-- the idea that admission to prestigious colleges and universities is based on effective and measurable standards of merit.

And third, I'll raise several questions that we and other institutions need to think through in an environment where confidence in the meritocracy is cracking.

As universities seek to live our commitment to diversity and inclusion, we can look to many strong national models. Georgetown has its own share of success. Our Law Center ranks second only to Howard University in educating the next generation of African American attorneys.

There are many reasons for this-- the Law Center's practice of recruiting at colleges and universities with large African American enrollments, assistance in that recruiting effort from a large and active Black Law Student Association, having more fulltime Black faculty than most of our peer schools, providing a support system that helps with retention of all students, and deans deeply committed to having a diverse student body.

In addition to success at the Law Center, some of our most inspiring work has happened with pre-college students. Our Schiff Scholars Institute for College Preparation, led by Tom Bullock, is a six-year enrichment program that helps prepare District youngsters for college. Beginning in the seventh grade, Schiff Scholars take advantage of mentoring, academic counseling, Saturday and summer programs, community service projects, and outings with Georgetown students. Nearly 95% of the Scholars who graduated from high school last May have enrolled in college, including 3 who now attend Georgetown.

This program embodies Georgetown's deep, long-term, sustained institutional commitment to helping individual students realize their God-given potential.

We've also enjoyed remarkable success by supporting the Upward Bound program at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Over the past decade, this program has sent more than 150 minority students, predominantly Latinos, to summer enrichment programs at Georgetown. 18 of those students have attended Georgetown.

In our surveys, minority students at Georgetown report feeling that their aspirations are supported here. Our graduation rates are among the highest in the country. These outcomes happen for a reason. Our commitment to meeting full financial need, the resources of our Center for Minority Educational Affairs, the support and counsel of our African American Alumni Advisory Board, and outreach programs that prepare the next generation of young people for college are part of the equation.

While these are some of our successes, it's clear to me that there are areas where Georgetown still has a long way to go. These include recruiting and retaining increased numbers of minority faculty members, effective recruitment of students of color for graduate programs, and developing new and creative ways to promote not just tolerance but respect and friendship within our multicultural student body.

It's also critically important for Georgetown to deepen our commitment to the city, especially to our public schools, and to explore ways we might serve as an educational resource for minority professionals in this area and beyond.

I don't think the way to make progress in these areas is to put together a new task force. We have had many fine reports done on this campus on these matters. Professor Patterson chaired a committee that made a number of excellent recommendations about minority faculty recruitment.

Instead, I think we need to look back at the strategies behind our successes to find the common denominators and apply these principles to the challenges that I have articulated.

My hunch is that the wise use of resources is part of what we'll need, along with measurable goals, collaboration with faculty, and the establishment of accountability. None of these priorities lend themselves to quick fixes. We will judge the character of our community by how we engage these priorities for the long run.

I've been focusing on Georgetown, but my second theme concerns the larger community of highly selective colleges and universities that includes Georgetown.

Let me start with a brief history of the SAT, as developed by Nicholas Lemann in his book, The Big Test. The test that would become the SAT was created in the late 1920s. But it was during a period of post-war idealism two decades later that the test emerged as a tool to help create an educational meritocracy. Standardized testing of aptitude, as opposed to achievement, was envisioned by many as opening the doors to college for students who didn't have the advantages of a boarding school education. Universities embraced the SAT, sharing this egalitarian vision that access to the most elite institutions would be based on merit.

Today, the competition to get into places like Georgetown, Harvard, Penn, and Princeton is more keen than ever. For Georgetown graduates over the age of 40, a group to which I belong, it can be astonishing to learn that our alma mater now evaluates 16,000 applicants in the process of compiling a class of 1,500.

The demand is high for a very simple reason: people believe deeply that it matters to attend a university with the academic and other resources of Georgetown. But at the same time, with demand at this extraordinary level, it's hardly surprising that people question whether access is truly based on merit.

Let me give you a few examples of this skepticism, which I'm calling 'cracks in the meritocracy.'

First, there is skepticism that the consideration of race and ethnicity in the admissions process unfairly ignores the merit of some white students. There is similar concern that factors such as family-giving, alumni status, or athletic ability provide unfair advantages to some while penalizing meritorious applicants.

Second, we see a growing skepticism about the SAT as a measure for predicting college success. We must acknowledge a shift in perception when the president of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, calls overemphasis on SAT scores as "compromising our educational system."

Third, we see widespread skepticism regarding the ability of colleges and universities to recognize the merit of students who attend public schools. We share the public's deep concern over the ability of some schools to prepare students for a rigorous college experience, a situation with a disproportionate impact on minority and economically disadvantaged students. At the same time, college and universities like Georgetown need to address the erosion of public confidence in our ability to recognize the talents and merits of public school students. If students from public schools no longer see Georgetown as a realistic possibility, we risk losing students that matter.

I suspect, by the way, that the reason it's taken so long for these questions to emerge is due largely to the extraordinary care and attention for the individual that admissions leaders like Charlie Deacon have demanded of their programs. While we may be handling our admissions well at Georgetown, the reality is still that we may someday face a day of reckoning in which the great students of entire communities decide that admission processes don't recognize their merit, so they simply don't apply.

Because of this skepticism, the stable assumptions that we have counted on to do our work have shifted. In response to that shift, in this new context, I think there are three important questions that inevitably must occupy our very best thinking.

The first is about merit: we are aware that all across this country, students of color demonstrate enormous talent and intelligence and heart and courage in dealing with enduring racism and learning to excel in multiple cultures. Such students are finding ways to integrate the vision of community and justice in the aspirations of their own lives. My question is this: Do we need new ways to enable the college admissions process to recognize this kind of merit?

My second question derives from a decade of research by Claude Steele, who has identified what he terms a "stereotype threat" for minority students, that is, the "threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm the stereotype."

In one of Steele's experiments, he assembled groups of African American and white college students, of equal abilities, and gave them a challenging verbal test. When the test was presented as a test of ability, the scores of black students were considerably lower than those of white students. However when the test was described as a laboratory task used to study how certain problems were generally solved-- and pointedly not to measure intellectual ability-- then both black and white students earned comparable scores. The simple change in instruction reduced the anxiety-- and the stereotype threat-- for the African American students.

Steele's research has led him to explore ways to mitigate the threat of stereotyping. His highly nuanced studies indicate that "...underperformance appears to be rooted less in self-doubt than in social mistrust." Performance improves in an environment of trust, where one feels safe from the demeaning, debilitating threat of stereotyping and can realize his or her potential to the fullest.

The implications of this idea, I believe, extend far beyond the testing environment. Let me also venture to say that most of us who are not members of minority groups will have no idea of the experience of being categorized and stereotyped that minority students feel on a continual basis.

How can we deepen the trust of students from diverse backgrounds, not just at Georgetown, as important as that is, but throughout our entire system of American higher education? What steps will it take to create and sustain an environment of trust in the midst of our imperfect world-- an environment where we will accept each other for our individuality, our uniqueness, and our particular cultural heritage?

My belief is that discrimination is a global phenomenon that takes particular forms in the United States. Universities may sometimes be part of the problem, but at our core, I believe we are essentially part of the solution.

And finally, in the finest tradition of our Catholic and Jesuit heritage, we must continually engage the question of justice. While there are many achievements that we can credit to the impetus of Bakke, there is one aspect of our national conversation about race that was lost in the aftermath of that landmark legal decision. For 25 years, the educational value of diversity has been the coin of the realm in articulating what we do and why it matters.

Lost was language from an earlier era that we were rectifying injustice, past or on-going. Some in the African American and Latino communities would say that "diversity" is a softer, less demanding term, that the demands of justice as opposed to the benefits of diversity would be the stronger way to talk about why it matters to have an educational community of individuals from a variety of racial, ethnic, and income groups.

So my final question is this: Is it time to reclaim a rhetoric of justice when we articulate our larger goals and values as a society?

In this important moment, we at Georgetown don't have to look very far for inspiration. In 1973, Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, a man of enormous sensitivity to the grave social injustices in our world, issued an historic challenge to Catholic educators. In a speech to members of the Jesuit order entitled "Men for Others," he asked all of us engaged in education to undertake rigorous self-evaluation and "above all make sure that in the future the education imparted in Jesuit schools will be equal to the demands of justice in the world."

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