The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans has had amazing interns and fellows with a diversity of experiences and backgrounds. Below, please find the start of an article written by Bakar Ali – a summer 2015 graduate intern. Bakar joined us from the Wagner School at New York University and brought his unique perspective as an international ambassador for the deaf, new American from Somalia, and a devout Muslim. While a member of the team, Bakar focused his efforts on exploring ways African Americans could better take advantage of global education. We hope you find Bakar’s research paper insightful and useful during this International Education Week.
Bakar Ali meets with Deputy Assistant Secretary Mohamed Abdel-Kader of the US Department of Education’s International and Foreign Language Education (IFLE) Office
In response to globalization, higher education programs, federal agencies and non-profit organizations have established study abroad programs to provide students with an opportunity to gain valuable experience abroad. According to Dr. Allan E. Goodman, President of the Institute of International Education, “international experience is one of the most important components of a 21st century education, and study abroad should be viewed as an essential element of a college degree and critical to preparing future leaders.” Study abroad opportunities allow students to learn about other societies by living and interacting with local communities-learning their customs and traditions. These experiences help students develop an appreciation for different cultures as well as adopt new perspectives on their own American culture. Dr. Goodman and Stacie Nevadomski Berdan insist that “learning how to interact with people from other countries and cultures equips future leaders in all sectors to address urgent issues shared across borders.” Additionally, students who study abroad are also more likely to develop leadership skills, problem solving skills and an increased ability to cope with difficult and unfamiliar situations. The skills mentioned are critical for students to possess in this global economy.
Bakar Ali addressing the 19th Conference of the World Federation of the Deaf in Istanbul, Turkey
Bakar closes by making the following recommendations –
To address the low representation of African American students in study abroad, which is a critical opportunity, the following recommendations should be considered and pursued:
A program to increase African American mentors in colleges that provide study abroad programs should be created to be resource for African American students who are interested in study abroad.
Colleges should increase their outreach to African American students in order to share with them about study abroad opportunities. Direct outreach by professors and advisors have huge positive impact on student interest in study abroad therefore it should be main outreach methods that study abroad in colleges uses to attract underrepresented students like African Americans.
Study abroad advertising materials should reflect the diversity of the student body in American colleges
U.S Department of Education should encourage colleges to establish funds to support students who are not able to cover the cost of study abroad trips (e.g: flight and accommodations).
The Department of Education should also allow students to use their financial aid for flights and accommodations. This would allow more minority students to take advantage of financing study abroad with their financial aid.
Additional scholarly studies on study abroad programs/global education and African Americans should be conducted. Currently, there are few studies that have been done on study abroad specifically related to African Americans. Studies would assist policy makers to establish policies and priorities that will address the underrepresentation of African American students in study abroad.
Bakar Ali debriefs with Initiative Deputy Director Khalilah Harris about his trip to Istanbul, Turkey
 “Africa: International Students in the United States and Study Abroad By American Students Are At an All-Time High.” AllAfrica.com. N.p., 21 Nov. 2014. Web. 02 July 2015.
 Bandyopadhyay, Soumava, and Kakoli Bandyopadhyay. “Factors Influencing Student Participation In College Study Abroad Programs.” Journal of International Education Research 11.2 (2015): 87.
 Goodman, Allen E., and Stacie Berdan. “Every Student Should Study Abroad.” New York Times. N.p., 12 May 2014. Web. 2 July 2015.
 Bandyopadhyay, Soumava, and Kakoli Bandyopadhyay. “Factors Influencing Student Participation In College Study Abroad Programs.” Journal of International Education Research 11.2 (2015): 87.
In the context of school discipline, in my experience, students have regularly shared their pain and frustration of not being able to connect the discipline received to the infraction or explanation provided by adults who say they care about them.
This is just one of the many reasons why the Department of Education is committed to rethinking school discipline.
During the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in September, I participated in a panel discussing disparities in school discipline, specifically strategies to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Anita Sewell shared her story of being suspended for correcting her teacher about the history of civil rights activists. Sewell was frustrated with what she deemed a flawed lesson, and knew her tone of voice likely became inappropriate, but she also thought her voice was neither valued nor heard. I frequently hear versions of this story throughout the country in my role as Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
In October, I joined a panel with Miajia Jawara, a youth advocate and member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Miajia began by highlighting what felt like a positive experience, noting she was given an alternative to suspension by an educator who felt she was gifted and special – only to realize all of her classmates weren’t getting that same second chance. While appreciative, Miajia and other advocates struggled with feeling some students were placed on a pathway to juvenile justice and ultimately long-term confinement. This was amplified with the release of a fact sheet during the event showing the huge gap in investments between funding for schools and funding for jails in some states.
Anita Sewell passionately shares her experience.
These examples, and many others like them, highlight the need for caring and concerned adults to consider how and why students face consequences in schools and communities. Rethinking school discipline should mean using data to inform us about where there may be harsh and unfair practices, as well as considering what it looks like to hold students accountable for their behavior in ways that support positive development and accelerate learning and achievement. Using tools like the story maps created by the U.S. Department of Education to view a district’s discipline story can move stakeholders from being unclear how they can help to action, and ensure all students’ rights are protected.
Recently the National Black Child Development Institute celebrated its 45th annual conference. I participated in a panel discussion where we were charged with analyzing connections between education and the criminal justice system. Jeremiah, an eight year-old, asked the crowded room of adults how he can be sure his teachers will keep him safe and secure at school. The fact that he felt the need to ask this question was not only heart-wrenching, but also showed that even our youngest scholars grapple with the messages we send them when we exclude them from schools. Jeremiah’s reality is also a reason why we are being proactive about taking steps to eliminate exclusion from schools for our youngest students.
Jeremiah and his brother Joshua addressing the audience. (Courtesy: William Lee, NBCDI)
Children, like adults, sometimes make mistakes. Students understand the power of their voice and also acknowledge they don’t always act appropriately. However, they expect adults to see them as valuable from the moment they arrive at school, and to support their path into adulthood especially when they make mistakes. Please join the Administration as we continue to Rethink Discipline, making sure every student not only has a high quality school to attend, but feel welcomed the moment they enter our doors, receiving our love at first sight.
Khalilah M. Harris is Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
** This blog has been reposted from the U.S. Department of Education Homeroom Blog
**Cross posted from the US Department of Education Homeroom Blog
Growing up in a family of immigrants is a special experience shared by many Americans. As a child of Costa Rican and Jamaican immigrants, I learned firsthand how important it is for schools and community organizations to build bridges to new American families.
Khalilah Harris with her father Frank Nugent
I grew up with the pulse of merengue and salsa, reggae and soca music flowing both through my household and the windows to the city streets of Brooklyn, New York. Spanish was spoken fairly regularly at home and only spoken during visits to cousins and grandparents. Thankfully, in my neighborhood, just about everyone was from somewhere and building bridges between school and home designed to support the cognitive, social and emotional development of all students was a part of the fabric of the community.
We know the Black community in America is rich with many cultures and languages and has been evolving in the past few decades. In fact, according to thePew Research Center, the United States presently has the largest number of foreign-born Black people in history—a number that continues to increase. Navigating household, community and school culture can be a difficult situation for young people and it is critical schools areprepared to supportour youngest new Americans.
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (Initiative) is releasing the first in a series of tools developed in partnership with the US Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) to support educators and communities who work with Black students and families from around the world.
Thefact sheetwe are releasing today highlights key demographic data about where Black immigrants who are English learners are from, with careful attention to identifying languages spoken in their homes. Over 40% of students who are Black immigrants and primarily speak another language, speak Spanish. Many school district leaders are taking important steps to equip teachers and school leaders with the tools necessary to be thoughtful and effective. It is our hope this fact sheet, in addition to the forthcoming tools in the series, will support educators as they work to support the learning and development of ALL students.
Khalilah Harris on a summer visit with family in Limon, Costa Rica
During Hispanic Heritage Month and beyond, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans celebrates the richness of Latino people and culture in the United States. Like my grandmother who came to the United States with little education, leaving her children behind, temporarily, to create a safe and supportive space for them and my father who followed years later, many new Americans come to this country with a clear understanding of how education can increase access to opportunity and strengthen families in the process. The Initiative looks forward to continuing to provide tools to and partner with communities across the nation to expand educational opportunity and accelerate achievement.
Khalilah Harris is the Deputy Director, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans
Pictured – Students and panelists who participated in the #AfAmEdfilms launch
On September 21, nearly 100 high school students from Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia gathered at the White House to participate in the launch of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans’ (Initiative) Screening and Discussion Series (AfAmEdFilms). Panelists who spoke during the event include: Robin Hauser Reynolds, Director of Code: Debugging the Gender Gap; Dr. Kimberlyn Leary, Senior Advisor to the White House Council on Women and Girls; Dr. Kamau Bobb, Program Director and Directorate for Computer and Information Science & Engineering at the National Science Foundation; and Chiamaka Okoroha of Microsoft.
AfAmEdFilms will highlight films and multimedia that disrupt negative stereotypes and depict positive and compelling stories of African American students, families, and communities striving for academic excellence. AfAmEdFilms will also encourage active engagement and showcase resources to facilitate opportunities for caring and concerned adults to support the learning and development of African Americans. The first film, Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, discussed racial and gender disparities in STEM programs and careers and provided a platform for a solutions-oriented discussion of ways to increase access and opportunity to the STEM pipeline for Black youth. The film supports several priorities of President Obama’s administration including efforts to increase access to and success in STEM courses and careers and supporting women and girls of color.
Megan Smith, United States Chief Technology Officer Policy, provided opening remarks, encouraging students to see the “magic in technology, math and science.” Kimberly Bryant, Founder of Black Girls Code, addressed the audience, arguing that the solution to increasing the number of Black women and girls in STEM is to, “get girls interested in coding early on, so we can change the pipeline. The future is literally in your hands, and it will be written in code. There is no knowledge gap, just an opportunity gap,” she said.
During the panel discussion following the screening, of CODE David Johns, Initiative Executive Director, highlighted how the Initiative is increasing STEM success, including by collaborating with the National Science Foundation to ensure that students have access to Computer Science, Algebra, and other gateway courses required for success in STEM.
Miaela N. Thomas, M.S., School Counselor of Frederick Douglass High School, watched a transformation in her student as the youngest panel member, recent Computer Science graduate Chiamaka Okoroha, spoke on the panel. “The look in her eyes was something I’d never seen before and when she said, ‘I want to take a picture with her and meet her, I knew then that she had finalized what she wanted to major in when she goes to college,” she said.
Johns closed by reminding the students they are obligated to graduate from college; find their passion by celebrating and creating things that interest and move them; and use their brilliance for good—to improve our communities and our country.
Each month, the AfAmEdFilm Series will highlight an important theme in the field of African American education. For more information visit www.ed.gov/AfAmEducation.
Additional Films included in the AfAmEdFilms Series are as follows:
He Named Me Malala
The Souls of Black Girls
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
The E-Word: A Documentary on the Ebonics Debate
(Please note: This list is not exhaustive and subject to change.)
Note: This article is also posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s Homeroom blog.
I will never forget my experience working as a Mile 22 Hydration Station volunteer at the Boston Marathon when bombs exploded at the finish line. I can still picture the chaos that ensued moments after the bomb exploded at the finish line: the speeding of police cars from the security station behind me, the confused looks from runners who asked me what was happening, the screams from sprinters passing by as they called the names of fellow teammates, and the sobs of onlookers doubled over in fear and distress. I offered Gatorade and words of comfort to runners until the road in front of me was clear.
Lauren Mims volunteering at Boston Marathon
After the bombing, I found myself exhibiting common reactions to trauma. I had trouble focusing during my graduate classes, found myself clutching my chest in fear every time I heard a siren or car horn, and returned to my apartment at the end of each day incredibly fatigued and unable to concentrate or sleep. The sights and sounds of the world suddenly felt overwhelming. With support from friends, family, and professors as well as access to free resources from school and local community agencies, I began to recover after about three weeks.
A year later, when Arianna*, one of my African American eleventh grade students with a cumulative gpa below a 1.0, told me she felt like she was never “fully there” in the classroom, always felt like she was having mini panic attacks, and desperately wished for a break from “all of the noise,” I noticed similarities in her symptoms with my own traumatic experience. She remarked that once, when the stress and panic felt like too much to bear alone, she checked into the ER and was hospitalized overnight for suicidal thoughts. She spoke of instances of trauma and intense prolonged daily toxic stress she experienced raising her young son as a teen mom with little support in a low-income neighborhood with a high concentration of violence and drug use. She attributes meeting caring and concerned adults in my weekly program as inspiration to graduate and explore community college.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, one out of every four children in school has been exposed to a traumatic event that may have a detrimental effect on the health and wellbeing of students. Unfortunately, some stories of students who do not find support end in tragedy. Notably, a recent study found that the rate of suicide among African American children between the ages of five and eleven has doubled in the past two decades (Bridge et. Al., 2015). Between 1993 and 2012, African American children were three times more likely to commit suicide than white children. While the suicide rate for white youth decreased significantly from 1.14 to 0.77 per million, the suicide rate for African American youth increased significantly from 1.36 to 2.54 per million during this time period. The suicide rates for both African American boys and African American girls increased, though only the rate for Black boys was significant. A previous National Institute of Mental Health study found that Black girls between the ages of thirteen and seventeen may be at a high risk for attempting, but not committing suicide (Joe et. al., 2009.
It is important to seek help by reaching out to a school counselor, pediatrician or mental health professional if you think you or your child may be experiencing symptoms of a mental illness and/or toxic stress.
Caring and concerned adults can play an important role in supporting youth by:
listening and validating emotions and experiences
advocating for youth by knowing the symptoms of toxic stress and mental illness
connecting youth to resources that can promote resilience and lessen the effects of stress
On July 28, 2015 we partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for an important discussion on supporting and strengthening the mental health of African American youth. The slides and transcripts can be found here.
On September 24, 2015 we are hosting an #AfAmEdchat on the critical need to support the mental health of African American students. We look forward to meeting and speaking with each of you on this important issue and encourage you to tweet us questions beforehand using @AfAmEducation and #AfAmEdChat or emailing us at email@example.com .
Bridge, Jeffrey A., et al. “Suicide Trends Among Elementary School–Aged Children in the United States From 1993 to 2012.” JAMA pediatrics (2015).
Bakar Ali is a Masters of Public Administration student at Robert F.Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. He did his undergraduate studies at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, where he double majored in Urban and Community Studies and International Studies. He also minored in Political Science. Bakar is a recognized student leader. He currently serves as the President of Wagner Student Association at NYU. He is a member of Global Partnership on Children with Disability Youth Council advocating for the right of children with disabilities. In addition, he is a fellow of NYU Social Sector Leadership Diversity. He believes “you must be the change you wish to see in the world”. Bakar served in AmeriCorps working with homeless youth and refugees. His public service and outstanding leadership has been recognized with various awards including the Distinguished Public Service Award, the Newman Civic Fellow, and a New York State Senate Resolution. Bakar has a strong interest in community advocacy and access to opportunities for minority students and students with disabilities. While interning with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, he will be focusing on increasing engagement in global education and international experiences for African American students.
Travis Davis, UMASS
Travis Davis, a native of Mobile, Alabama, is an alumnus of Saint Paul’s Episcopal School. In his collegiate career, he studied at Morehouse College, Bishop State Community College, and the University of South Alabama. Travis is currently a Master’s of Education candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His concentration is in Social Justice Education, focusing on African American history, the intersections of color, gender, and class within that history, and how these marginalized identities continue to impact access to equitable educational experiences today. Some past research projects he has been a part of include examining the dynamics between Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray written about in Trading Twelves, a Voting Rights Act documentary aimed at Black high school youth in the Mobile County Public School System, and a study concentrating on the significance of Black student achievement in Mobile County across class, gender, and generational identities. Travis is also currently an Assistant Resident Director at UMass-Amherst, where he resides with his family. He is an avid reader and credits Toni Morrison as his favorite writer. Travis is a committed fan of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide football team, and his personal hero is Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior.
Annice Fisher, Harvard
Annice Fisher is a doctoral student in the Doctor of Educational Leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She received her Bachelors of Arts degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and her Master of Education degree from Iowa State University. At Harvard, Annice focuses her work on building a stronger secondary to postsecondary pipeline and whole school differentiated approaches to high school success and college readiness. Annice is working with the Public Education Leadership Project (PELP) and with a K-12 and K-8 school on designing curriculum around high school success and college readiness. She has consulted with the Boston Public School District and the New York City Department of Education. For ten years as a university administrator, she created innovative academic interventions, campus-wide retention approaches, and multicultural competence initiatives for students, faculty, and staff. From 2013-2015, Annice served as the NASPA national co-chair for the African American Knowledge Community. She has also led community-based educational programs for African American youth. Annice’s simultaneous engagement in higher education and the community sparked her passion to build a stronger P-20 educational pipeline—where regardless of demography, students are academically and socially prepared to reach their highest potential.
Courtney Gilmore, Columbia
Courtney S. Gilmore is a native of Gainesville, Florida. Courtney received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Florida with a double major in Criminology & Law and Sociology. After interning with the National Crime Prevention Council in Crystal City, Washington, D.C. and the Public Defender’s Office of the 8th Judicial Circuit, she has made a concerted effort to engage in the field of education with the intent to dismantle the school to prison pipeline that further perpetuates the mass incarceration issue within the United States prison system. Courtney is currently a Master’s candidate in Education Policy at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, specializing in K-12 education policy with a concentration on the disproportionate effect of school discipline policies on students of color. Through her studies, she elects to further analyze the impact of school discipline policies on the educational trajectories of Black girls, and to provide concrete policy recommendations for federal, state and local policies, to ensure that every Black girl will have an opportunity to a quality and equitable education. All in all, her topical interests include the following: educational policy, school to prison pipeline, equity, school discipline and mass incarceration.
Alaena Hicks, Grand Valley University
Alaena J. Hicks was born in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in Detroit, Michigan, where she graduated from University Prep Science and Math High School in June 2014. A first generation college student, Alaena is now a rising sophomore at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Throughout her teenage years, Alaena served as a youth role model at the Leland Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit where her active leadership sparked her interest to learn more about how faith can influence both the community and public policy. Over the past two years, Alaena fulfilled two internships—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where she shadowed the careers of the employees; and Project Healthy Schools, where she served as a student teacher to promote healthy habits and to reduce obesity of American youth. Her future goals are to educate, counsel, and mentor children on life skills that can impact their lives for the better. Alaena Hicks is the proud daughter of a mother who has worked for the federal government for more than 25 years and a father who is a retired Iraq War veteran, serving more than 25 years in the United States Air Force.
Lauren Mims, UVA
Lauren Mims is a second year Institute of Education Sciences pre-doctoral fellow in the Educational Psychology: Applied Developmental Sciences program at the University of Virginia. Lauren obtained a B.A. in English and Psychology from the University of Virginia in 2012 and a M.A. in Child Development from Tufts University in 2014. As a Masters student, Lauren developed, implemented, and evaluated an eight-week intervention, Girls Rising Above Circumstances to Excel (GRACE), that improved psychological and educational outcomes for black girls in the 10th and 11th grades with a 2.0 grade point average or below. Lauren is passionate about researching and implementing successful education reform strategies that promote positive youth development and enhance educational opportunities for African American youth from preschool through higher education.
The March 20th #AfAmEdChat is one of a series of strategies the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans is using to bring people together around issues and ideas supporting the achievement of boys and men of color. Deputy Secretary Shelton notes “Social media is the fastest and easiest way to spark discussion and exchange ideas. Conversations about race and poverty are often difficult to have face to face and are often therefore avoided.” President Obama reminded us during the launch of My Brother’s Keeper, and Shelton adds “the unique challenges facing boys and men of color should never be swept under the rug.”
According to Deputy Secretary Shelton, “folks should tune into the My Brother’s Keeper #AfAmEdChat to stay in touch with the latest details and help move the conversation forward. We will be sharing information regarding our process and next steps as well as ways for you to be involved and updated in this critical work.” In addition to White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans Executive Director David J. Johns and Policy Advisor Christopher Scott confirmed guests include:
– Mike Blake – Green For All – Director of Public Policy & External Affairs & Operation Hope – Senior Advisor- @MrMikeBlake
– Mary Brown – Executive Director, Life Pieces to Masterpieces– @LP2MP
– Christopher Chatmon – Executive Director, African American Male Achievement, Oakland Unified School District- @AAMAOUSD
– Shawn Dove – Manager of Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement – @DoveSoars
– Angela Glover-Blackwell – Founder and Chief Executive Officers, PolicyLink – @policylink
– Shaun Harper – Executive Director, Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education at University of Pennsylvania- @DrShaunHarper
Additionally, to support the work of My Brothers Keeper, the Initiative is hosting a series of Summits on Educational Excellence for African Americans in cities across the Nation to directly engage young people, schools, communities, philanthropy and businesses interested in implementing successful strategies. To learn more and to register for a Summit near you visit www.ed.gov/AfAmEducation
Khalilah Harris is a fellow with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. She is an education program and policy advisor, attorney and a doctoral student at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans hosted a weeklong series of virtual roundtables November 18th – 22nd, using the Twitter platform to commemorate American Education Week. Executive Director David J. Johns engaged national experts in discussions of key educational issues. The series was designed to increase awareness about the efforts of the President, the US Department of Education, and the Initiative to advance educational excellence for African Americans. It also provided a platform for guests and participants to discuss issues and share or propose solutions. Finally, the series served as an opportunity to test the Initiative’s plans to use social media to increase community engagement in 2014.
Khalilah Harris is a Fellow with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. She is an education program and policy consultant, attorney and a doctoral student at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education in Educational Leadership & Organizational Development.
The recent Supreme Court decision to eliminate a key provision of the Voting Rights act of 1964 reminds us there is still work to do to protect every citizens right to vote. For nearly 50 years, The Voting Rights Act has helped protect the right to vote for millions of Americans, however, today’s landmark decision, challenges practices implemented to ensure all Americans have the right to vote, particularly in places where voting discrimination is commonplace. In 2006, the Voting Rights act was reauthorized with bipartisan support, which confirmed the notion that voting is a fundamental right for all citizens. While our nation has made significant progress towards fair voting for all, voting discrimination still exists, as the Supreme Court recognizes. As a result, today’s decision does not represent the end of a fair voting era, but serves as a reminder of the work that needs to be done. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s decision has charged Congress with championing legislation that can ensure every American has the access to voting polls as well as equal protection of voting rights.
Ramon Goings is currently interning with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. He is a Special Education Teacher and 3rd year doctoral student at Morgan State University majoring in Urban Educational Leadership.
The discussion of race is an uncomfortable one. Americans tend to believe that we are a progressive nation of justice seeking individuals who stand on the mantra that all men are created equal. So when the Supreme Court has to decide on tough cases like Fisher vs. University of Texas, it makes for uneasy and emotion-filled conversations among most Americans.
Enter Abigail Noel Fisher. A Texas native hailing from suburbia America, Fisher is the product of UT alumni as both her sister and father were graduates of the state university. In high school she played soccer and the cello, was involved in many extracurricular activities, an A/B student and scored modestly well on her SAT exams. She applied to the University of Texas at Austin in assurance that she would be admitted into the Fall of 2008 freshman class. She was denied.
However as some of her peers began to receive their acceptance letters, Fisher was alarmed. She states, “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin.”
Fisher subsequently sued the University, arguing that she was deprived of her Fourteenth Amendment right to “equal protection” under the belief that she was denied admittance to the University in favor of minority students who were accepted with lesser credentials. “I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does it set for others?”
And thus, the litigation began.
UT presented the following facts to explain and defend their enrollment strategy:
As a state university, UT submits to the state of Texas’ Top 10 Law, which guarantees admission to any student who graduates from a Texas high school within the top 10% of his or her High School graduating class. 91% of the university’s freshman in-state spots were taken by Top 10 graduates. Fisher did not fall within this group
The university uses a “holistic” admissions process for all other UT applicants and evaluates candidates based on a culmination of two scores. The first is the AI score which allots points for GPA and SAT scores. The second is termed the personal achievement index, or PAI. The PAI score awards points for two required essays, community service, leadership, activities and “special circumstances” which includes social factors such as whether the student hails from a single parent household, the socioeconomic status of the student or their home school… and yes, race.
The university asserts that “due to stiff completion and the petitioner’s relatively low AI score – petitioner would not have been admitted to the fall 2008 freshmen class even if she had received a ‘perfect’ PAI score.” In other words, even if Fisher had written perfect essays, had the perfect extracurricular rap sheet, been black, poor, a first generation college-goer and received points for ALL of those things, her grades were simply not competitive enough to give her a cumulative score that would have allowed her to be accepted. (According to ProPublica, the school’s rejection rate in 2008 was higher than the turn-down rate for students trying to get into Harvard that year.)
Fisher also applied (and was rejected) to UT’s summer program, a program that offers provisional admission to some students who were denied in the fall. UT admits to offering spots to this program to students who either had equal or lower combined AI/PAI scores. One was African-American. Four were Hispanic. Forty-Two were Caucasian. In addition, 168 African-American and Hispanic students with combined AI/PAI scores higher than Fisher’s were denied admission to the summer program.
Most importantly, the University states that it must be free to build a diverse student body to achieve a competitive advantage and effectively build leaders and eliminating affirmative action would hinder their ability to ensure there is a “critical mass” of minority students represented in classrooms.
So basically, as a fellow Texan colloquially put it, Fisher was simply not “UT ready” during one of the university’s most competitive years. UT’s rating system is more complex than simply checking the “yes” box for students of color. Caucasian students were higher represented in the total pocket of those students who received provisional admission into the university.
Fisher’s Team did not respond to the argument that Fisher’s grades weren’t competitive enough but presented the following rebuttal:
UT fails to demonstrate the necessity of using racial preference in the admissions process to achieve diversity. UT has no evidence that they would not be able to achieve racial diversity if they simply used a combination of the Top Ten law and a race-neutral AI/PAI evaluation system.
UT does not show how their use of race in the admissions process is “narrowly tailored”: legal jargon that means the remedy must specifically address the problem and only the problem (ie: if the need is to grow 5%, the remedy must specifically be tailored to that end goal and not be so loosely applied that it ends up adding, for example, 10% or hindering another section).
UT has not shown how ensuring “classroom diversity” is a compelling state interest.
UT’s racial preferences have not only failed in making real progress towards diversity but in fact are discriminatory towards another minority group, Asian-Americans.
UT has received accolades as one of the Nation’s “top producers of undergraduates for Hispanics” and thus cannot firmly stand on their assertion that Hispanics are a underrepresented minority group within their classrooms.
The Grutter Case, a previous case that centered on affirmative action and allowed universities to intentionally enroll underrepresented minority groups, should be clarified or overruled to ensure that it is not misunderstood. UT has taken the case and overextended its language due to lack of clarity and that the case should never be read to be incompatible with the Fourteenth Amendment. Also, UT’s position that Grutter’s case should not be overturned because it is a “sensitive political” issue is signs that UT is using racial preferences as a “chip in the political process.”
To summarize, the Fourteenth Amendment should not be violated under any circumstances. UT is using a broad, heavy handed, discriminatory system that they have not proven to be superior to a race-neutral one. UT already is succeeding in graduating Hispanic students (to the exclusion of Asian-American students) and therefore double talk when they defend their practice.
Based on the arguments from the Fisher camp as well as the facts presented by UT, it is obvious that the case itself has little to do with Fisher (she has since graduated from the University of Louisiana and currently works as a financial advisor in Austin). In fact, her name is mentioned by her lawyers all of 5 or 6 times in the legal rebuttal. She was simply a face for an agenda. This case is actually questioning if a university (specifically the University of Texas) has the legal right to include race as a deciding factor in admissions. Blum (the man paying for the case) states that these types of practices, “unjustly punishes (whites) for long-abandoned racist practices.”
It is also interesting to note: 1) Fisher did not seek Blum’s representation… he found her. According to a Reuters article, Blum sought Fisher (and another young lady who has since pulled out of the case) out, convinced her to sue and secured both legal and financial support for the case. 2) The demographics of the 2008 incoming class was: 19% Asian-American, 20% Hispanic American, 6% African American and 52% Caucasian. 3) Blum admits that there is no way to tell whether or not Fisher’s race had anything to do with her rejection. “An argument can be made that it is simply impossible to tease out down to the last student who would have been admitted, and who would have not been admitted, had they been a different skin color,” Blum said. “What we know is skin color is weighed and ethnicity is weighed by the University of Texas in their admissions process, and that alone is enough to strike down the plan.” 4) This is the most conservative Supreme Court bench since the 1930s. Four of the six most conservative judges since 1937 now serve as Court judges.
On June 24, 2013 the Supreme Court ruled, supporting the idea that Affirmative Action should be upheld, but must be strictly reviewed. They sent the case back to the lower court stating that they had not scrutinized and confirmed that the use of race in admissions is absolutely “necessary” in creating a diverse student body.
“I am pleased that the Supreme Court ruling in the Fisher case today preserves the well-established legal principle that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body, and can lawfully pursue that interest in their admissions programs. As the Court has repeatedly recognized, a diverse student enrollment promotes cross-racial understanding and dialogue, reduces racial isolation, and helps to break down stereotypes. This is critical for the future of our country because racially diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in an increasingly diverse workforce and society.
“The Department continues to be a strong supporter of diversity, and will continue to be a resource to any college or university that seeks assistance in pursuing diversity in a lawful manner.”
Michelle Williams is currently interning with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. She is an Educational Studies student at Western Governor’s University-Texas.