University “should declare our position” on affirmative action, says Shaw
University “should declare our position” on affirmative action, says ShawFebruary 24, 2003Kevin Morrowkdmorrow@syr.edu
During the Syracuse University Senate’s Feb. 19 open forum, Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw addressed the Senate on issues that arise during debates and discussions. The text of his address is reprinted here as a service to the University:
Let me begin by reiterating the importance of the University as a community – a community in which issues can be discussed openly and without rancor. Debating, informed discussion, and dialogue are all important parts of this process, and they all require a willingness to entertain other ideas and viewpoints, to be open to new ways of looking at things.
Before joining a discussion, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself the question, “Is there any information that would make me change my view on the issue at hand?” If the answer is “no,” then there is no point to participating in a dialogue. The result may be a heated debate, with no real light shed on the issues.
This spring, we are fortunate to have six formal presentations on Iraq and the Middle East where debate, discussion, and dialogue can occur. I encourage each member of the University community to take part in these and other discussions on these critical issues. By doing so, you will be participating in the true meaning of a university.
In order for this University to remain a place where free and open discussion can take place, it must not take an official position on the great majority of national and international issues. Neither should I, as the Chancellor of this University, take a public position on these issues, since my positions are often perceived to be those of the University. I remain silent on these issues to enable others to speak freely.
It is essential that no one’s voice be silenced because their views are not popular with the majority or with a vocal minority.
When I was a college student, one of my favorite professors was a man who, in his youth, had taken a pacifist position on World War II. While I didn’t agree with him, I was proud to know that he had stood up for his beliefs. I was also proud to learn that it was at a university that he found one of the few places at the time where he could express his views.
Citizens can and should take political positions on important issues. But Universities should not. Aligning ourselves as an institution with one position makes us just another special interest lobby. This can’t be seen as a place that knows the only right answer. Rather, our moral authority comes from our being a place where issues can be discussed.
I make one exception to the principles I’ve stated, and that is when national or international issues affect the University directly. Then I believe I should declare our position. This was the case recently when Syracuse University joined other private higher education institutions in a friend of the court brief before the U.S. Supreme Court supporting affirmative action.
Given that one of our core values is diversity, the court’s decision will directly affect our ability to achieve the kind of environment that provides the best education for all our members.
I believe that what has been lost in the discussion of this most recent challenge to affirmative action are some very important points:
- 1. The University of Michigan accepts only those students who can succeed there. Their problem is to choose the best class from a large number of highly qualified students.2. The standard predictors for college performance are test scores and high school achievement. But these predictors often fall far short of perfection. Many more subjective measures such as motivation, leadership potential, special talents, and other criteria can and should enter the mix. Because these are more difficult to quantify, too often critics of affirmative action ignore their importance.3. The quality of education for all students is improved in a diverse environment. The Michigan brief points to research that demonstrates this point. Our students come from a diverse world and will return to live and work in a diverse world. We must educate them in an environment rich with a diversity of ideas and people.4. It is no surprise that the U.S. military academies are also supporting affirmative action. In truth, our nation’s military has benefited from affirmative action policies more than other social institutions, at least those known to me.
In brief, then, Syracuse University must remain a place where we can continue to debate and discuss the issues of the day in a true, open dialogue. This is our moral high ground.