Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Little Bit Like Affirmative Action

[From my archives]

It would have been sometime in 1967, as nearly as I can recall. I was in high school in Tennessee, and I got a call to go down to the Guidance Office to see somebody. I may have gotten out of a class for it, or maybe it was during a study period. That doesn't matter at this distance, though it probably did at the time. Often you don't remember all that much about the events that change your life.

The man who wanted to see me was from a college I'd never heard of: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was head of the RPI Admissions Office. Years later I learned that he had a habit of doing what he did that day. Whenever he was away from RPI on business, he made a point of making a recruiting call or two at several high schools in the area he visited. He'd call up the local guidance councilors and ask if they had any bright, scientifically- and mathematically-minded, students that might consider attending RPI. I fit the bill, so I was it for that afternoon. We talked a while about RPI, what it was, why it would be a good school to attend, and he left a catalogue that I read carefully over the next few months. Ultimately, RPI was one of the schools I applied to, and it was the one that I attended, as both an undergraduate and a graduate student.

The man's name was David Heacock. I met him several years later, at a student/faculty/administration party, and during a conversation, we realized that he was probably responsible for my attending Rensselaer. Neither of us had recognized the other, of course. We spoke for a while about his intentions on his recruiting trips. What did he have in mind?

Rensselaer is an old school, the oldest engineering college in the nation, in fact, or it has a claim to the title. Located in Troy, New York (a goodly distance from Tennessee, which was one of my criteria for a college), it is quite well-known in some places, places like New York State, especially New York City and Long Island. It is also well-known in some circles, like among engineers generally, or within General Electric. GE has research laboratories just across the Hudson from RPI in Schenectady.

But it wasn't unusual that I hadn't heard of it, because RPI is generally unknown outside of its own cultural niche, and its own geographical area. Most often, people in most parts of the nation, if they've heard of it at all, remember it as having a good hockey team. That isn't really quite what the RPI administration would like to be the school's main claim to fame, and some of the admissions people took steps to try to expand its reach. Steps like making a special effort to recruit students from Tennessee, when the opportunity arose.

During our conversation, Heacock may have used the word "diversity." Maybe not. It was long ago, and the word did not have had as much baggage loaded onto it as it does these days. Besides, I'm white, and the word isn't often applied to different groups of whites.

Still and all, I understood early on that I had a bit of an edge. RPI wanted me to attend. They recruited me. They accepted my admission. They gave me scholarship money. Was I at the top of my high school class? No, I was 11th. SAT scores? They were pretty good, but there were guys from Long Island with higher scores (especially in math) who didn't get in. But I was on the forensics team, a lifeguard at the downtown YMCA; I'd won a local short story contest, placed second in a swim meet once -- all things that added to the notion that I'd be more than an average RPI student. Which, of course, I turned out to be. Average students didn't wind up at those student/faculty/administration parties.

But all the things that gave me that edge over the generic New York student, all of them still come under the heading of difficult-to-quantify—judgment calls in other words. I say, “difficult-to-quantify,” but they did attempt to quantify it, with formulae for admission and financial aid, formulae that took all the extras into account. That moves the judgment call to the realm of deciding whether lifeguarding quantifies to the same thing as playing in the band, or being in the forensics club is as good as those last 10 points on the SATs. When all is said and done, what happened was that the admissions people looked at me and decided they wanted me to help change the mix of students at RPI, to make the place something more than a regional engineering school.

And if that Long Island student had wanted to make the argument that he was being discriminated against, he'd get no counter-argument from me. It was discrimination, and it was to my benefit.

Over the years, I've seen a lot of discrimination both against and in favor of various people, and various types of people. When I got to RPI, I spent the first couple of months getting rid of the last vestiges of my southern accent (I still remember my date who teased me because my speech rhymed "pen" with "tin."). People with southern accents, white or black, are assumed to be stupid, you see. On the other hand, being tall, blonde, and Anglo has often worked in my favor, and I'd be an idiot not to know it.

When a kid gets into college because he's the son of an alumnus, that certainly discriminates in his favor; and how many black high school students can have that sort of edge? Not as many as whites, of course. Likewise, whites have an edge when it comes to just plain buying their way into schools. Several hundred years of economic discrimination leave effects that wouldn't disappear overnight, even if racial discrimination were to vanish, which, of course, it hasn't. People of African descent are still at a disadvantage, still discriminated against. There are people who think otherwise, or say they do. I hope that they are merely wrong, and not lying, but I know that many of them are, at best, deluding themselves.

I've been writing mostly about discrimination in white and black, because that's what I grew up with. But the same arguments hold true for broad numbers of college-yearning boys and girls, children of immigrants, the racially or culturally disadvantaged, even (as was my case) the geographically disadvantaged. Most of these discriminatory disadvantages can be addressed without much comment. I was geographically disadvantaged when it came to the college I eventually attended: I'd never heard of it. A guy came by my school to try to change that.

All perfectly legal, and not worthy of much comment, apparently. But if someone wishes to try to address the ongoing advantages that white people enjoy, and the disadvantages that African-Americans suffer, there comes a gnashing of teeth and a wailing that this is horrible, that racial discrimination is so odious that it must never, ever, occur. So the lackluster sort of racial discrimination that is called Affirmative Action comes under harsh attack. This attack, it seems to me, primarily comes from those who have all their lives been beneficiaries of exactly the sort of discriminatory edge that got me into college. A discriminatory edge that would apparently have been illegal if it had been because of my skin color, but was just fine since it came from where I lived. Indeed, such is the nature of racism that people often do not even notice the sorts of discrimination that don’t involve race, except possibly in the extreme cases, like opposing partisans noting that G. W. Bush did not get admitted to the Ivy League on the basis of his high SAT scores.

Then there is this aspect: None of the advantage would have amounted to anything if Mr. Heacock hadn’t specifically recruited me. Universities like to recruit wholesale, because it’s cheaper, but I was recruited at retail. That is where so many Affirmative Action programs turn out to be just lip-service: the gatekeepers give the little extra edge in an admission formula, but there isn’t really any active recruiting to back it up; everyone prefers wholesale to retail. The minority individuals who do manage to work the system (which has been every American’s God-given right since the nation was founded), are then told that their achievements are suspect because of all the unfair advantage that they’ve been given. Odd that no one ever told Babe Ruth that his honors were suspect because he never competed against anyone who wasn’t white, but there you go.

All and all, I have to say that I think diversity is something to applaud. It's done right well by me. And I'm under no illusions that it had to be that way. I know how lucky I was, and how lucky I continue to be.

1 comment:

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