This is the second of two articles about affirmative action. The first article, “Affirmative Action in California: How the Issues Affect the Nation,” appeared in the November 1996 issue of the ASCB Newsletter.
Perhaps people are so divided over the philosophy and implementation of affirmative action in this country because the definition of affirmative action is different for different people. A short history lesson reminds us that affirmative action was initiated during the Johnson Administration in the late 1960s, and the Nixon Administration expanded the efforts by putting such efforts into law.Affirmative action began not as a defined program, but as a philosophy that there should be affirmative action in American society toward citizens of all races, ethnicities and both genders, as well as those with different religious beliefs. Before the implementation of this philosophy, there was both an active and a more subtle exclusion of citizens from education, employment, housing, and even public transportation. Affirmative action was designed to provide equal access to opportunity for all persons.At that time, affirmative action meant that employment openings would be advertised, that men and women who were responsible and dependable members of the work force would be accorded respect in their opinions and equal consideration in their loan applications, and so on.It meant that educational institutions would expect the same high performance of everyone, would recruit students based on their potential, and would judge their abilities by considering criteria in addition to their scores on standardized tests.
Why is there any concern about affirmative action in an “objective” field like research science? We need only look at the recent issues about including women in health studies, including more African Americans in studies about heart disease and diabetes, including more residents in border towns in studies about spina bifida, and including an evaluation of the selection of economically-disadvantaged areas for toxic waste sites. Those of us designing such studies need to consider that effects on people and communities may go beyond our own personal experiences. As cell biologists, our interpretation of the results of experiments in our laboratories may seem far removed from these more “global” considerations. However, we bring to our interpretations our own experiences and upbringing.Including the creative minds and experiences of the broader community just makes scientific sense. Affirmative action in the encouragement and identification of young scholars from the broader community is essential when they are trying to establish themselves within a cultural and social setting that inadvertently may not appreciate their experiences and ways of thinking. Affirmative action means that the profession cares that these individuals are successful in their training and scholarship as well as are receiving information about the available positions to which they might apply.
But aren’t those who pursue research science and the other professions that benefit from advanced scientific training self-selected? Certainly students follow their own interests, as do professionals in any field where there is gainful employment. The issues that discourage students from continuing to pursue their interests are complex, but in so saying, that does not eliminate responsibility for more senior professionals to confront those issues. Dealing with those issues does not exclude interested individuals, but rather includes talented persons who would otherwise move to other areas. The issues of peer groups, faculty representation, scientific community acceptance and involvement, and even outright negative stereotyping can direct students into areas outside their interests and talents.
Confronting those issues is affirmative action.We must welcome and include students from diverse backgrounds into the society of science. This involves much more than one program or a few faculty members or peers. It involves including the young scholar in the fabric of the profession, in the research experience, in the discussion sections, in the professional meetings, in the introductions to other scientists, just as has been done for decades for many who are now in the profession.
Eleven past, present, and future Presidents of the ASCB sent a letter to the Regents of the University of California in December 1995 in response to the Regents’ resolution to eliminate ethnicity and gender as factors in hiring and admissions to the University of California. The full text of the letter appeared in the February 1996 issue of the ASCB Newsletter (Vol.19, No.2). The following is an excerpt from the letter:
we fully support a full range of affirmative action efforts taken to encourage talented students from a variety of backgrounds to contribute to the scientific enterpriseÉ We cannot and will not rely on passive inclusion of these individuals into our disciplines, and we cannot and must not wait for the dream to be fulfilled through the eventual equal distribution of educational and community resources into all strata of American life. The needs of both the basic sciences and the economic vitality of the United States demand more aggressive and affirmative action to provide our diverse young scientists with the tools for success…
Efforts in this direction have been made much more difficult in the state of California by the passage of Proposition 209 on November 5, 1996. The Proposition, which was described in this column last month, says “the State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” In effect, the passage of this proposition eliminates and makes illegal affirmative action by the State of California and by all cities, counties and public schools, colleges, and universities in California. This proposition went into effect the day after the election. As yet, all of the consequences of Proposition 209 are not clear.
Some of the strictures of this proposition had already been mandated by the Regents of the University of California for implementation for the class of students entering in 1998. On November 6, 1996, the morning after the passage of Proposition 209, guidelines from the Office of the President of the University of California were issued. These guidelines dictate that, effective immediately, the above-mentioned criteria cannot be considered in admissions to the university or in non-federally funded programs involved in targeting and recruiting students.Financial aid resources based on these criteria already awarded are not in jeopardy, but no future scholarships can utilize these criteria. The effect on retention programs and on student organizations is likely to be dramatic and immediate. The constitutionality and the implementation of Proposition 209 will be challenged in court. In the meantime, all non-federally funded public education programs in the State of California that seek to increase diversity by targeting individuals based on race, ethnicity, gender or national origin are subject to legal attack and elimination.
If resources were truly unlimited and there were no preferences, who would be encouraged and welcomed into the sciences? Until the answer becomes, “why, anyone who truly is talented and interested!” we will continue to need affirmative action programs.Until public education and social structure allow these talented and interested students full opportunity, we have the responsibility to act affirmatively to open the research community to members from all segments of the American community.