Scholarship on disabilities and the policies shaping university research

Broadening the Talent Pool:
Why Affirmative Action Matters in Graduate Education

Interview with Debra Stewart
Council of Graduate Schools - USA

September 2003

photo of Debra Stewart

Interviewer: When you spoke at the Merrill conference in June, the Supreme Court had just announced its decisions about the University of Michigan. Grutter versus Bollinger upheld the law school's policy of using race as a plus in admissions. Did the Council of Graduate Schools take a position?

Stewart: Yes, we supported Michigan's policy -- and the principal of diversity. CGS was a signatory to the amicus brief along with other higher education organizations.

Interviewer: Why did CGS take this stand?

Stewart: We believe the best interests of higher education are served when we seek to admit students from groups that are historically underrepresented in this country. We must ensure as many people as possible achieve the highest level of education possible. This position was endorsed by the entire CGS community in 1996 and reaffirmed this summer.

Interviewer: Have you seen any changes in university policies around the country following the Michigan decisions?

Stewart: It's too early to tell the precise response, but we do know institutions are responding. For example, the University of Texas is rethinking its approach to diversity programs. Their affirmative action plan was challenged several years ago. Now they have the latitude to re-institute race as a factor in admissions. For many graduate schools, the new ruling confirms what we have been doing for decades.

Interviewer: What is the benefit of diversity?

Stewart: I'm a political scientist. One of our maxims is: where you stand depends on where you sit. At the university, our method of inquiry is affected by where we sit. A graduate community should be self-consciously designed to include people from a variety of backgrounds. This enriches the exchange of ideas.

Interviewer: Why do we need affirmative action?

Stewart: There are ways that people from racial and ethnic groups are systematically disadvantaged in our society. We know this from income data. We must challenge this so that at the end of the day we live in a society where people have the opportunity to advance in all leadership roles.

Interviewer: Justice O'Conner in her decision said leadership is the key question. She cites military leaders who said they must have people of color in ROTC to maintain troop morale. What did you make of this?

Stewart: It is one of her most important points. For our leaders to be legitimate, the people must believe everyone has a chance to advance. Graduate education is about leadership preparation.

Interviewer: The O'Conner decision goes beyond questions of race, doesn't it? It's about who calls the shots on university policies.

Stewart: Yes. Autonomy is one of our strengths. The government is not deeply involved in admissions to our universities, and the courts are loathe to change this.

Interviewer: In your talk at the Merrill conference this summer, you said we've reached a crisis in terms of recruiting American students for advanced study in science and engineering. 50% of the new Ph.D.'s in engineering are students from other countries. Will the Michigan decision give universities more recruiting power?

Stewart: If the court had found the law school's practice unconstitutional, that would have been detrimental. The future of our country hinges on developing the intellectual power of our people. We must broaden the domestic talent pool. We must make the pathway to graduate study transparent and the climate hospitable.

I'm from North Carolina and I've seen an entire town fold when the textile mill closed. We once had jobs that didn't require advanced education. American jobs in the future will require highly skilled people.

Interviewer: At the Merrill conference, another of our speakers said international students help create diversity on campus. Do you agree?

Stewart: International students are a huge benefit to undergraduate and graduate programs -- they have strong intellectual talents. Their cultures and life experiences help American students understand how the rest of the world functions. That said, it is a mistake to rely on international students to complete our student population. We must create pathways to positions of power for people born into this society. That gives our institutions legitimacy.

Interviewer: Then there is always the question of how to keep minority students once we've successfully recruited them.

Stewart: Good point. We must do everything we can to graduate those we admit. Generally speaking, the selection process for graduate school is stringent enough that most people have the academic talent to finish any program to which they have been admitted. Yet, women and minority students tend to graduate at lower rates than majority students.

Interviewer: What helps with retention of good students?

Stewart: Mentoring is important. Incorporating students into the intellectual life of a program - that's important. Students need opportunities to interact with the faculty in contexts outside the classroom, to work as a team on projects. Study groups and clubs - all good things. A social network in graduate school is a key support structure for degree completion. Students also need to know the rules of the game. What do we really expect of them? What is a reasonable period of time for completion of their degree? This guidance works best, of course, in an environment where people care about the students and check on them -- so it's not just in a handbook.

Debra Stewart was interviewed by Joy Simpson, a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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