Reaction from local universities to the Trump administration’s recent retraction of Obama-era “guidance” promoting diversity in the admissions process turned out to be something slightly more than a collective shoulder shrug but far less than an Edvard Munch “The Scream”-like freak out.
As it should be.
Neither the instructions from the Obama administration encouraging affirmative action nor the current move by the departments of Education and Justice under Trump to withdraw those letters carries the weight of law. Rather, the Obama memos offered interpretations and provided suggestions to colleges and universities seeking to foster diversity on campus via admissions and other factors. Trump’s action essentially just hits the delete button on that guidance, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling the previous directives “unnecessary or improper.”
Still, the Trump recision signals a lack of executive-branch commitment to fostering a diverse student body, both racially and socio-economically, on campuses. The fact that high-ranking administrators at nearly all Washington colleges, including Central Washington and Heritage universities, immediately reinforced pledges to actively promote diversity is well-advised and heartening.
Diversity of race, gender, class and ideology is crucial for a healthy and vibrant campus. As David Wise, Heritage’s president of marketing and communications, said, “The outcome is better for all students because they develop empathy and understanding.” True. But even more important is how attention to diversity has made tangible differences in the lives, and livelihoods, of students who benefit the most – those of color. Such enrichment is especially important in an area like the Yakima Valley, which has a large Hispanic population.
Heritage’s commitment to diversity is, essentially, its raison d’etre. It was founded to serve Native American and Hispanic students who otherwise could not afford steep tuition and lack the resources to relocate to campuses elsewhere in the state. The latest demographic data shows that 73 percent of Heritage students are Latino/Hispanic, 15 percent white and 10 American Indian or Alaska Native.
Central Washington University’s ongoing “Inclusiveness Initiative” is transforming the university’s campus in Ellensburg (and at satellites elsewhere in the state.) Enrollment figures on the college’s website show that whites still dominate, at 61.7 percent, but the Latino/Hispanic numbers (12.6 percent) are up, as are those identifying as “two or more races” (6.2 percent).
“I say this almost tongue-in-cheek, but the commitment of (other) universities to diversity has made it harder for us in recruiting students,” Heritage’s Wise said. “But, of course, we’re glad others have stepped up. It’s best for the students to have options.”
Perhaps the reason college officials in the state are not overly alarmed by the Trump administration’s retreat from promoting educational diversity is because they are accustomed to carrying on despite political obstacles in their path. Twenty years ago, Washington voters approved Initiative 200, which dictated that “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.” The “preferential treatment” language in the bill was a direct response to affirmative action initiatives.
In the years since, universities have found creative ways to promote diversity without running afoul of I-200. This past year, Senate Bill 6406 sought to repeal the initiative and “restore the fair treatment of underserved groups in public employment, education and contracting.” In a written testimony of support, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce stated, “I-200 sends the message that the UW, and Washington as a whole, does not welcome or value diversity, and when we lose out on attracting these desirable teachers, researchers, innovators and administrators, it is our students and our state that pay the price.”
The failure of SB 6406 proved just another hurdle to clear for state universities rightly committed to a diverse student body. If they can deal with the reverberations of the 1998 initiative, then they certainly have the means and motivation to handle this new directive by the Trump administration.
And how can they do that? By simply moving forward in promoting educational opportunities for those in underserved communities.
Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.