Examining Racial Quotas


In 1973, Allan Bakke applied for medical school at University of California Davis. He didn’t get in. He applied the again following year, only to be rejected once again.

In some ways Bakke was not the ordinary medical school applicant. At the time of his application he was 32, making him as much as eight years senior to many of his classmates. He had served as a Marine and at the time of his application worked as an engineer in a NASA lab. He completed his pre-med requirements at night.

Yet in other ways, Bakke was as ordinary as it gets. He was a white male, the most represented demographic at UC Davis at the time and in medical schools overall. In order to promote diversity in higher education, UC, as well as most other colleges, enforced strict racial quotas. For the two consecutive years that Bakke applied, sixteen spots were reserved for minority students. Bakke contended that he would have been accepted if these spots were open for him. He claimed this represented a case of “reverse discrimination” in violation of the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment of the constitution.

Bakke’s case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1978 Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke the court simultaneously struck down the use of racial quotas while upholding the practice of affirmative action, weighing the race of an applicant along with other factors, in public universities.

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In the 36 years since, American universities, both public and private, have embraced affirmative action in their admissions offices, rejecting quotas in the process. Given this context, the Freedom Budget’s advocacy for extensive racial quotas feels strangely ahistorical. The conversation in both academic and political spectrums has long moved on. Affirmative action is now the main subject of support or attack in popular discourse.

Nonetheless without much outward justification, the Freedom Budget provides minimum percentages for minority presence in both undergraduate and postdoctoral admissions. For undergraduate admissions this would mean a bump in the population of Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans to 10% each. On the postdoctoral side these percentages, along with the number for Asian-Americans, are summed to reach 47%. No argument emerges to readily explain the reasoning behind these numbers.

In his book Choosing Elites, economist Robert Klitgard points out that even with the use of affirmative action there is an undeniable cost in “foregone academic performance [that is] likely to be largest at highly selective universities” (Klitgard, 188). While Klitgard notes that this cost has to be weighed against the benefits of diversity in a university, both educationally and socially, the Budget’s support of racial quotas runs away with the latter value by totally subjugating academic achievement to stipulations of race.

In this sense, the Freedom Budget’s advocacy of quotas represents a greater, underlying flaw of the document. It champions the advancement of social values without due attention to the myriad other objectives present for the modern university. In the effort to play kingmaker to political goals in a collegiate setting, it neglects to reconcile its demands with even the primary effort of a university: providing an education.

This is just as apparent with regard to the Budget’s demands for a more diverse professoriate. The Budget declares, “Departments that do not have womyn or people of color will be considered in crisis and must take
urgent and immediate action to right the injustice.” It’s true that the Dartmouth faculty suffers from much the same issue of diversity as Colleges across America. According to a Harvard study, more than 90 percent of full professors at research universities are white, and more than three-fourths are male. These percentages are even higher in the sciences.

In the face of these statistics, Dartmouth should encourage academic diversity wherever it can. The administration should make every effort to create a welcoming environment for professors of color. Qualified minority professors should be enticed to teach at Dartmouth through substantive outreach.

Still, there are things that the administration cannot change. It cannot mitigate the isolating factor of Hanover’s rural setting and lack of a significant local minority population. It also cannot escape the fact that there is a dearth of minority professors in general, and that our Ivy League competitors are just as serious about seeking them out.

The greater issues of structural poverty, poor primary education, and inequality blocking these minority groups access to upward mobility, that makes their presence fewer and fewer in areas of higher education, post graduate education, and finally as professors, will not be solved shoehorning minority professors into the faculty in the same way that percentages should not be used to increase the population of minority students. As philosopher and professor Cornel West argues in his book Race Matters, these pernicious structures cannot be fixed through making a “fetish of the public square” (West, 12).

Though the Freedom Budget uses reforms to admissions and professor recruitment to forward its political agenda, nowhere is this method more out of place than its demands to reform Dartmouth’s core academic curriculum.

Universities play a key role in the public sphere of society. After all even the most banal platitudes carry some truth. Many of today’s college students, especially at institutions such as Dartmouth, will end up becoming the leaders of tomorrow. If not, one hopes that the ideal university education will help create intelligent citizens.

Instead, the proponents of the Freedom Budget place the point of contact between politics and education much sooner. Today, not tomorrow, is the proper time to engage identity politics, whether it be racial, social, or sexual. Though the Budget demands that these topics be included in the Dartmouth curriculum, it’s worth noting that they already are. In order to graduate, every Dartmouth student is already obligated to complete courses in Non-Western Cultures as well as Cultures and Identity.

Though identity scholarship has certainly become a serious area of academic inquiry, the inclusion of any courses to the required curriculum deserves added scrutiny. After all, this is what we should expect students to learn by graduation at the barest minimum. Implicit in the argument of adding even more courses on identity, though, is that the role of the university is to form the framework of a student’s political thought instead simply forming a framework for thought to begin with. Dogma and political preference make for weak foundations to root our conceptions of the world in; knowledge informs ideology and not the other way around. No where else in society is the development of thought and critical inquiry as palpable as in higher education, and it is crucial that the this role remains unfettered by politics.

The Freedom Budget also states, “as members of neglected and marginalized communities at Dartmouth, we are receiving a separate and unequal education exacerbated by the administration’s refusal to structurally address issues central to our Dartmouth experience.” In its capacity, then, the Budget’s writers seek to forge greater unity on campus, something that would be welcome by most given the recent divisive atmosphere.

Yet, the Budget’s portrayal of adding mandatory curriculum on oppression and identity as a necessary shift from the dominant narratives in the Dartmouth education does just the opposite. In obsessing on otherness and compartmentalizing the human experience into functions of race or gender, they have neglected the capacity of the traditional liberal arts education to transcend. Though many of the Freedom Budget writers would likely describe these texts as products of dead white power structures, a proper reading of the Western Canon and its non-Western companions elicits thorough and striking explorations of struggle and oppression, frustration and fear, that are by no means reserved to the minority experience but so often indelible aspects of the greater human experience. As it stands, the liberal arts is where we can come together instead of categorizing and separating our experiences as incompatible and, by the same token, incomprehensible.

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The Supreme Court ordered UC Davis to accept Allan Bakke for admission. Though campus protestors objected to his admission and the implications of his case he kept to himself, stayed away from reporters, and graduated in 1982.


— Alexander J. Kane