Gerhard Casper on Affirmative Action

In a speech to the Faculty Senate last October, Stanford President Gerhard Casper defended affirmative action. Excerpts:

September/October 1996

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Affirmative action does not require, and does not mean, quotas or preferment of unqualified over qualified individuals. Indeed, such  preferment may violate anti-discrimination laws. Affirmative action is based on the judgment that a policy of true equal opportunity needs to create opportunities for members of historically underrepresented groups to be drawn into various walks of life from which they might otherwise be shut out. Barriers continue to exist in society, and therefore affirmative action asks us to cast our net more widely to broaden the competition and to engage in more active efforts for locating and recruiting applicants.

Portrait of Gerhard CasperGerhard (Photo: Robert Holgrem)

Of course, the very act of broadening the competition means that more candidates will seek, and be considered for, the same finite number of admissions places or employment openings and the competition for them will therefore be more intense. It would be hypocritical to suggest that affirmative action, even without quotas, does not diminish the opportunities for some who, in the past, might have benefited from a narrower casting of nets or narrower definitions of merit.

If the invisible hand could be relied upon to produce admissions pools or employment pools that reflect the ideal of equal opportunity at all levels of society, including in the leadership positions for which Stanford prepares, special outreach would not be necessary. If the members of society mostly ignored race and ethnicity, we would forgo taking them into consideration. We hope that one day we will be able to do so.

I am, of course, fully aware of the fact that my view of the matter leads me to take into consideration criteria that are very problematic. There is, first of all, the utter arbitrariness of racial and ethnic labeling. Boxes to be checked may look neat on paper but there is little underlying or inherent sense. . . .

These reservations, however, do not diminish my belief that institutions such as Stanford, if indeed they want to be universities of the highest degree, need the discretion to do as best they can in their efforts to find and educate the leaders of tomorrow.

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