Chancellor's Speeches

College Board Diversity Panel
"Diversity: Our Future, Our Responsibility, Our Challenge"
Remarks by William E. Kirwan
Chancellor, University System of Maryland
Sunday, October 31, 2004

Thank you, Mabel. It is a pleasure to be here today and participate in this conversation on strategies to make our campuses more inclusive. It is also a pleasure to sit on this panel with Superintendent Carlos Garcia, Ted Spencer, and Tally Hart, three leaders with extraordinary records in the area of diversity and equity.

It is difficult to imagine more important issues facing higher education and our nation than diversity on our campuses and the elimination of the achievement gap that continues to impact African-American, Latinos and other minority students. I want to commend The College Board for the tremendous leadership it has demonstrated on this issue . . . . from Forums like this to the superb "Diversity Manual", which does perhaps the best job I have seen of defining the issues we face (legal and otherwise), examining the challenges before us, and articulating strategies to meet and master those challenges.

This meeting comes at a crucial moment in time. There are troubling dynamics in our society that, unchecked, will negatively impact our commitment to diversity. It has been a little over a year since the Supreme Court decision in the Michigan case. Thanks to the courage and conviction of Presidents Lee Bollinger and Mary Sue Coleman and the entire University of Michigan community; thanks to support from throughout higher education and from many of our nation's most important business leaders; and thanks also to outspoken leaders from the US military, the Supreme Court decision has given higher education a reprieve. Unfortunately, however, the decision was based on the narrowest of grounds. Its impact is neither deep nor wide. Perhaps most disheartening is the fact that the court failed to acknowledge in anyway the continuing impact of past and present discrimination and prejudice.

From my perspective, the very roots of Affirmative Action lie in the basic values of justice and equality that define our society. We hear a lot today about "color-blind policies and practices," but the advocates for such practices conveniently ignore the reality of life in America today. Yes, we would all like to live in an America where race, ethnicity and gender really do not matter in decisions about opportunity, compensation, and professional advancement. The sad truth is, however, that they still do matter and in ways that are disproportionately harmful to minorities and women.

If anyone doubts that fact, they should just look around their neighborhoods when they go home at night. Neighborhoods in America are still divided very much along racial lines. Or they should look at income distribution in America where minorities and women earn significantly less than white male counterparts with similar education levels. Or they should read the studies that compare rates of success in securing mortgage loans between whites and minorities with similar net worth.

Yes, we have seen progress toward becoming a more inclusive society. Indeed, it has been Affirmative Action efforts directed at minority participation in higher education that are a major factor in this progress. But the gaps have not been eradicated.

Beyond the moral underpinnings of affirmative action, we should also recognize a significant element of enlightened self interest in promoting inclusion and diversity in higher education

Our nation is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse with each passing year. Our economic self interestsurvival, if you willrequires us to embrace policies to reach and educate a larger number of minority students. If we fail to do so, there will simply not be enough college educated, technologically skilled, culturally adaptable people to support our knowledge-based, global economy. Within a few decades, we will become a nation of minorities. It is difficult to imagine a more compelling national interest than to ensure that our colleges and universities reflect the diversity of our country. Imagine living in an America where the opportunities to participate in the knowledge economy are divided along racial lines. Imagine living in an America where more and more of our higher paying jobs must be exported offshore because of the inadequacies of our workforce.

That is why so many of the world's largest corporationsincluding General Motors, Microsoft, Bank One and Pfizersupported the University of Michigan's admission policies. These corporations noted that "the future of American business, and in a real sense the American economy itself, depends upon" the ability of universities to select student bodies that are racially and ethnically diverse.

There can be little doubt that higher education represents perhaps our best hope for developing future generations of well-educated, highly-skilled citizens who value tolerance, support inclusion, and practice mutual respect. But we can only realize this potential if we have toolslike Affirmative Actionto ensure a diverse campus of qualified students.

As I noted a moment ago, the Court's decision in the Michigan case has given us a reprieve of sorts . . . one that 18 months ago many thought we would not have. The question we MUST answer now is "what will we do with this reprieve?" Obviously, we need to understand what we areand are notallowed to do on our campuses now given the confines of this ruling. But, we must also look a generation down the road and ask how we can make progress towards building a society in which Affirmative Action is not the primary avenue open to us in order for nation to enjoy the value and benefits of diversity.

I'd like to mention a few things that strike me as especially important if we are to achieve our diversity goals.

First, those in leadership positions need to be more courageous and outspoken on the issue of diversity and its importance for the future of society. In recent years, as the legal and legislative attacks on Affirmative Action increased, many campuses "voluntarily" backed away from race conscious programs, fearing legal challenges. It was distressing to see how timid many in higher education became.

These programs need to be reinstated, perhaps in enriched and strengthened forms. Recently the Governor of Washington, Gary Locke, sought to reverse that state's decision to ban race sensitive admissions programs. And while his efforts were rebuffed by the state legislature, they nevertheless exemplify the kind of outspoken, courageous leadership we need today.

And the reason behind this need is clear: The University of Michigan's freshman class this fallthe first since the Court's decision took effecthad far more white students and significantly fewer black students than last year's class. The decline was not just in admissions, but in applications as well.

At the same time, a group that curiously calls itself the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative wants to end the use of ALL racial preferences at public colleges and other state agencies with a ballot measure going before the voters in 2006. Those who oppose affirmative action are more aggressive than ever . . . we cannot afford to be complacent in our support for the principle of diversity.

We need a rise in campus-wide commitments to diversity goals. These goals must be seen as important by all and progress toward them a badge of honor for the university.

Second, we need to revisit financial aid at the federal, state, and institutional level. The need for financial aid is more urgent than ever. Perhaps some of you saw the report released by the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education earlier this year. It notes that huge reductions in state support to colleges and universities, and the consequent huge increases in tuition, resulted in more than 250,000 qualified students being denied access to college last year. A quarter of a million studentsa disproportionate number of who are minoritiesshut out from participation in what in this day and age has become America's ladder of opportunity. This is simply unacceptable!

The federal Pell Grant has been our nation's primary "work horse" for need-based aid. At one point in time, it served our nation's neediest students and our universities extremely well. But today, Pell Grants provide only about 30% of the average cost of tuition at our nation's public colleges and universities, down from 70% a few decades ago. As a result, debt burdens have reached record highs for college students. Worse, the level of debt required to get a college degree is becoming a significant barrier to the pursuit of a college degree for many high school graduates from low income families. Clearly, we need a new approach to federal financial aid. Perhaps, a more substantial federal matching program with the states would be a way of securing a greater investment in need-based aid both at the federal and state levels.

At the State level, we must redirect support from so called merit-based aid programs to aid based on need. We in higher education have created a false dichotomy with our aid programs. Most need-based aid programs already take "merit" into account. By gaining acceptance to an institution, the student has to meet certain requirements...has to demonstrate merit. For the most part, with need-based aid programs, we are talking only about college-qualified, college-capable students. By contrast, most merit aid programs do not incorporate a similar requirement to demonstrate need. And so we find ourselves in an indefensible place where the highest achieving poor students attend college at essentially the same rate as the lowest achieving wealthy students.

Merit-based aid tends to subsidize the education of students who would go to college anyway. The growth in these programs over the past decade, largely at the expense of need-based programs, is now beginning to deprive too many qualified low income students from pursuing a college degree. This is a circumstance we can no longer tolerate.

And at the institutional level, universities must commit to holding need-based aid recipients harmless as tuition increases. In addition, we should target future growth in financial aid programs to aid based on need.

The third and final effort I will note is more focused on our long-term goals and that is the need to establish stronger partnerships between higher education and K-12. In a sense, the K-12 community provides the "raw material" for higher education. We have an obligation to do all we can to make sure these students graduate from high school with the ability and expectations to handle the rigors of higher education.

In Maryland, we are engaged in efforts that link the University System of Maryland with the State Board of Education; individual institutions partner with local school boards; and university faculty with individual schools. All this is done in an effort to ensure two principles: access and success. Opening the doors of higher education is of little value if those who enter have not been properly prepared to master the curriculum. At the same time, without the promise of access, the drive to achieve may well be short-circuited in some instances.

Let me give just one example of the kind of partnerships we are creating. A few years ago, one of our institutions, Coppin State University, an inner city HBCU, entered into a remarkable partnership with a neighboring school, Rosemont Elementary. As full partner with Rosemont, Coppin is directly involved in hiring staff, developing the school's educational programs, acquiring computer hardware and software for the classrooms, and providing a wide range of basic and supplemental services. Coppin faculty members visit Rosemont weekly to work with teachers in grade level teams. Coppin students are placed in the school and in the community to fulfill practicum, internship and student teaching requirements. This past year, Rosemont was taken off the list of "failing schools" because of the dramatic rise in student test scores. The average test score for some grade levels increased 500%. The 4th-grade passing rate for mathematics, for example, rose from 7% to 78%. There is little doubt that this effort has dramatically improved the odds of success for the children of Rosemont. It is just one example of the type of real-world partnership that can make a world of difference, both in terms of achieving our goal of diversity as well as our goal of expanding access to higher education.

I will close with one observation. This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the College Board's College Scholarship Service, which has helped open the doors to higher education for countless young people, primarily those most in need. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the Brown Versus Board of Education decision, which signaled the beginning of the end for "separate but equal". Yet five decades later we find ourselves still struggling with an achievement gap drawn largely upon racial and ethnic lines. The ability to overcome this gap is within our reach if we just have the will and vision to do so. I can think of nothing more deserving of our time and attention nor more important to the future of our nation. In these challenging times, with so much at stake, I am pleased that we have the commitment and dedication of so many thoughtful, insightful people such as those here today.