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Affirmative Action Discussed at Ethics Institute Forum

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The director of SUNY Plattsburgh undergraduate admissions said the university has always been committed to ensuring that access is provided to all students.

“We recruit, market and enroll a very inclusive group of students,” Troy Joseph said at a recent discussion of affirmative action at the university’s Institute for Ethics in Public Life.

troy josephJoseph said SUNY Plattsburgh has never used race as a factor in admissions decisions, adding that it’s something done mostly by top-tier universities with low acceptance rates before the Supreme Court decision outlawed the practice in June 2023.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life.”

This guidance gives admissions staff the ability to consider information like Roberts cites written in a college essay, for instance, Joseph said.

‘Students Focusing on Application Essays’

“We are seeing more students in this cycle really focusing on their essay as a core component of their application,” he said. “The essays are very compelling, and (they are) putting effort behind that to share their experiences.”

allison heardAllison Heard, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said students’ explanation of the complexities of their lives that might have made school more difficult provide necessary context that makes lower grades seem more impressive compared to those of other students who had easier life circumstances.

An essay “might include things like the fact that you worked three jobs in high school, you also went to high school, you were a provider for an elderly parent who also happened to be blind, and you mean to tell me that you passed all your courses and did so well and now you want to come to this institution of higher education?” Heard said.

After the court’s decision, Joseph said SUNY Plattsburgh removed race identifiers from the information that admissions staff can see while reviewing applications. Once admissions decisions are made, Joseph said the university will still be able to track demographic information for admitted students as it has in the past to monitor any changing trends.

“I’m tracking this really closely” to see if the racial makeup of the incoming class changes from years past,” Joseph said. “It will take time to assess fully.”

Initiatives like SUNY free application week and the test-optional policy have helped bolster the application pool, Joseph said.

New Admissions Tool

On the day the Supreme Court handed down its decision, SUNY Chancellor John King spoke about SUNY’s continued commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in a press release.

“At SUNY, our resolve to provide opportunity for all has never been stronger. The commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion will continue to be a factor in every goal we pursue, every program we create, every policy we promulgate, and every decision we make,” King said.

SUNY central administration provided SUNY Plattsburgh with a tool called Landscape, which allows admissions staff to evaluate students based on the opportunities available to them and their life circumstances, Joseph said.

“They’ve developed a tool that allows us to better understand a student’s accomplishments in the context of what is available to them and that’s really important when you’re looking at admissions applications because not every student is going to be looked at through the same lens in terms of their lived experience.”

SUNY Plattsburgh uses a holistic approach to evaluating applications, Joseph said.

“We welcome and we ask every applicant (to include) anything that’s going to supplement the application process. If you had a job, if you volunteered, everything will be taken into consideration.”

Historical Context

“I think many people believe, just in general in society, that if you have affirmative action programs, that every university must only be recruiting people based on their race, and that certainly wasn’t the case for our admissions office at all,” Heard said.

ray carmanAt the forum, Heard and Dr. Raymond Carmen, associate professor of political science, examined college admissions and discrimination through a historical lens.

Carmen, who specializes in the courts, said that until they overturned precedent, “The Supreme Court has said since the beginning, in terms of affirmative action in higher education, that doing things like making up for structural racism and the effects of it have never been an OK reason to have affirmative action in higher education. It’s only the goal of having a diverse classroom that has been a compelling government interest and therefore allowable.”

Decades ago, discussing minority identity in a college essay or mortgage application disqualified applicants because of discrimination, Heard said.

“We know laws prior to 1960, whether or not it was voting, whether or not it was housing, higher ed, people were denied based on the fact that they were women, based on the fact that they were Jewish, based on the fact that they were poor, and people automatically assumed that they couldn’t afford to be there or if you made it one semester that you could not afford to graduate,” Heard said.

Students who benefitted from affirmative action were added to classes in addition to those who were given a boost from legacy admissions, athletic scholarships, connections to fraternities and sororities, and large donations, Heard said.

She said that people assume that race-conscious admissions takes up seats, “but it’s actually fewer seats.”

‘Invisible Diversity’

Heard also said there are elements of diversity that are invisible to people at first glance in a classroom, for instance. Instead, people focus on what Heard called “diversity of the eye.”

“You can’t see cognitive disabilities. You can’t see gender identities,” she said.

By not recognizing these elements of diversity, “you’re diminishing that effort and hard work, (those) who had forefathers and foremothers (who couldn’t attend college) not because they didn’t want to but because there were barriers and obstacles that prevented them from being in those institutions of higher ed.”

— By Assistant Director of Communications Felicia Krieg

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