Three decades after its conception, affirmative action is still a hot enough topic to give campaigning politicians, employers, and university admissions officers nervous tremors.
Affirmative action policies are intended to counterbalance past discriminations that have lead to the inequalities of a society dominated by the white-male. But national opinion and ethical standards are dynamic - shifting frequently and rapidly. And those who fail to follow are made examples of by occasionally contradicting court rulings.
The University of Georgia has made itself the recipient of such a precedent setting ruling in the name of "diversity". Likewise, the University of Texas and the University of Michigan employ affirmative action admissions policies that borderline unconstitutionality.
John F. Kennedy first used the term "affirmative action" in 1961 when he required that federally funded contractors hire "without regard to race, creed, color or national origin." President Richard Nixon, though, instantiated policies requiring contractors to employ a quota of minority employees first in 1969. This form of affirmative action was extended from government contractors to private employers and educational institutions by 1972.
This trend began to shift, though. Adversaries accused affirmative action of being "reverse discrimination" in the late 1970s. The Supreme Court decided against Nixon's quota system 1978 - but maintained the right of schools to preference minorities - in the ruling of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
Affirmative action continues to loose battles, which are of late increasingly being fought on the grounds of higher education. Presently, a federal appeals court ruled that the University of Georgia's admissions policies are unconstitutional in their unfair preference to minorities.
Georgia is fighting this decision because it feels that allowing minorities increased acceptance to their university is its only way to achieve diversity.
The University at Buffalo likewise desires a diverse student body, but it does not include race or financial status in its formulae for evaluating applicants.
The Office of Admissions has been successful at increasing diversity on campus while maintaining a color-blind admissions process. In 1989 the "underrepresented" students (Hispanics, Africans, Native Americans) constituted 8.8 percent of the student body, ten years later, in 1999, the figures rose to 13.2 percent.
These increasing figures are not due to laxer admissions criteria for minority students, but instead a positive recruiting effort. "You can make an affirmative action effort, but you need to provide the same opportunities to non-minority students," explained Regina Toomey, director of admissions.
Specifically, the Office of Admissions invests recruiting efforts into inner-city, less privileged schools, where the students may not otherwise be as likely to even apply to college as the students in the wealthier suburbs.
Toomey, realizes though that there is more to diversity then just racial diversity. She measures her success at cultivating diversity in part by her personal surveying of students, who "comment about the fact that everyone [on campus] doesn't have the same point of view." She understands that building a diverse campus "is really not just a question of racial diversity, its political, cultural and economic."
Additionally, while UB's acceptance criteria are blind to the applicant's financial situation, some scholarships are based upon need, therefore increasing the enrollment of qualified students that may not be able to otherwise afford the lofty cost of a college education.
The office of admissions is also working to improve the composition of the student body by increasing the high school grades and test scores of incoming students, in addition to recruiting from high schools outside of the state.
Although 11.1 percent of the student body is from abroad, these students are primarily found within the graduate schools, because says Shaw, "International graduates bring in a wealth of work experience and research experience that grad departments are often looking for."
It is hard to argue that UB is not a diverse campus. Foreign languages can frequently be heard around campus, which is rare even just off-campus. Occasionally, it occurs to me that UB as an international oasis in a dessert of American asphalt and shopping malls.
If universities such as U of G are looking for ways to increase diversity on their campuses, they should look to UB.