Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, January 29, 2003

Hennessy reaffirms Stanford's commitment to affirmative action


President John Hennessy made a statement to the Faculty Senate Jan. 23 reaffirming the university's commitment to affirmative action in achieving a diverse student body. The senate endorsed the statement unanimously.

In the statement, Hennessy noted that "academic performance and intellectual performance will always top [the] list" of the many considerations weighed in selecting students.

"We remain committed to affirmative action, to the importance of diversity broadly defined, and to the principles set forth in the Supreme Court's 1978 decision in the Bakke case as practical and appropriate means to achieve such diversity," Hennessy said.

Hennessy said he felt compelled to offer the statement in light of the pending Supreme Court case on the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies. He added that Stanford planned to work with its peer institutions on an amicus brief on that case.

Several faculty praised the statement for putting Stanford on record again in favor of affirmative action. Earlier this month, the Bush administration announced it would weigh in against policies based on race and ethnicity when the Supreme Court takes up the case later this spring. President Bush denounced Michigan's admissions methods, which weight various criteria including race according to a point system, as "fundamentally flawed." In a televised speech Jan. 15 he characterized the methods as a "quota system."

Cecilia Ridgeway, sociology, asked Hennessy whether the administration had been pressed to explain exactly how it takes race into account in its admissions process.

"Our admissions process is not formulaic, and it's one based on considering the entire person and all their attributes, their life experience, as well as their accomplishments in the academic setting," Hennessy said.

John Bravman, vice provost for undergraduate education, pointed out that Stanford has been cited by opponents of the Michigan system "as an example of how it can be done correctly. ... Stanford is being held up as a way to achieve diversity without resorting to what Michigan does."

Harry Elam, drama, asked for particulars of the amicus brief. Hennessy said Stanford had been approached by several institutions to collaborate on briefs; he noted that some of those already prepared are duplicative. "The advice we have received is to try to choose a brief which would add a new element to the picture."

Andrea Goldsmith, electrical engineering, questioned what impact an adverse Supreme Court ruling would have on Stanford's admissions policies. Hennessy said the decision was difficult to predict. In a worst-case scenario, in which the court ruled race could never be a factor, "in the end it would inevitably affect private as well as public institutions," Hennessy concluded. "Remember, we get an enormous amount of money from the federal government."

Tom Wasow, linguistics, asked why there had been no references in the recent public discussion to the 1998 book examining the impact of race-sensitive admissions, The Shape of the River, by Derek Bok and William Bowen, former presidents of Harvard and Princeton universities, respectively. The book studied the experiences of students at selective colleges and found that by almost all measures African American graduates excelled. Their conclusion: African American graduates of these schools are "the backbone of the emerging black middle class."

Hennessy said that while debate surrounded some of the book's other conclusions, he agreed it argued the moral case for affirmative action. In light of the Supreme Court case at hand, however, related issues of diversity and the positive track record of affirmative action -- while important and relevant -- "are not the ones on which to make the legal case, as opposed to the moral case," Hennessy said. For similar reasons, he had not addressed the equally important issues of inequality and pervasive racial segregation in primary and secondary school systems around the country.

Luis Fraga, political science, warmly commended the president and his statement and spontaneously proposed a motion of support. It passed unanimously.

Stanford has historically supported affirmative action. Hennessy's statement reaffirms principles that were enunciated by his predecessor, President Gerhard Casper, in a 1995 statement.

John Hennessy