Affirmative Action

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(HOST) As the class of 2005 steps out into the world, commen- tator Olin Robison reflects on the value of affirmative action in a diverse society.

(ROBINSON) I have just retired – yet again – and have accepted a visiting appointment this autumn at the University of Oxford where, many long years ago, I was a graduate student. This re-affiliation with Oxford reminds me of what it is that I have in common with President Bush, which is this: President Bush and I are both pro- ducts of Affirmative Action – he at Yale and I at Oxford.

Now, I can almost see some of you looking at the radio dial in disbelief. But its true. Here’s how I know:

All those years ago, some time after I was firmly ensconced as a graduate student at Oxford University, I accidentally discovered that I had been chosen over a number of more academically qual- ified candidates for one of those highly coveted places at Oxford. Upon making this discovery, I asked the Oxford professor in charge of the process why I had been so fortunate: “Why me?” I asked.

“Because, dear boy,” said the professor, “we had never had a Texan in this group. We thought it might be interesting. We thought you would arrive with six guns and a big hat.” And he laughed.

A few years later, something similar happened for George W. Bush at Yale, from which both his father and his grandfather had graduated. The Bushes were, after all, one of Connecticut’s pa- trician families. It seems very, very unlikely that Mr. Bush was admitted to Yale on the basis of his high school grades and test scores, which he himself has publically admitted were not all that good.

Now, in neither case did they call it Affirmative Action, but that is what it was – offering admission on something other than strict academic grounds.

Affirmative Action is one of those fault lines in the American body politic, not only because of the ever recurring nature of the admis- sions cycles at the nation’s colleges and universities, but also be- cause the Supreme Court reviews some part or another of it with some frequency. It is a subject that divides Americans politically more or less right down the middle. Honorable people of good intent can and do argue passionately about it. In general, with some exceptions, Democrats tend to be for it and Republicans tend to be against it.

Back in the 1960s, Affirmative Action originally meant trying to provide redress for centuries of discrimination in America based on race. Over time it came to embrace issues of gender and ethni- city.

The societal changes brought about by Affirmative Action policies have been extremely difficult from the beginning, and the political divisions have been sharp. The liberal Democrats have pretended that Affirmative Action is cost free, while the Republicans have pretended that these deeply rooted societal problems will take care of themselves if government will only stay out of it.

Both are wrong, of course.

But do stay tuned, dear friends, for this is one of those issues that is not going to go away – no matter what one court or another decides next.

In the meantime, a little quiet soul searching on the part of the President might do a world of good. He no more got into Yale because he was the most qualified than I got into Oxford for that reason. And so, I offer the somewhat religious observation, Mr. President, that confession can be good for the soul and, in your case, quite possibly for public policy as well.

This is Olin Robison.

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