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07/28/03 12:00AM By Jay Parini
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(Host) Commentator Jay Parini reflects on diversity and the coming school year.

(Parini) It's still summer, but already I feel the beginning of the academic year, with its bright autumn flowers, the hot classrooms, the freshmen with their empty notebooks and unread books, ready to go. For the first time in some years, I'll go back to school with confidence that Affirmative Action, with its benefits and problems, will continue to shape the nature of the student body and faculy.

The Supreme Court spoke clearly in early summer, reaffirming the notion that race may be considered as one of many factors in the college admissions process, with diversity on campus a goal worth pursuing.

The latest national discussion on this issue was raised by a case in which two students sued the University of Michigan for denying them admission when students of color with lesser grades and SAT scores were admitted, presumably in their place. In short: some black and Hispanic students were given a leg up over some white students. Some athletes and alumni children were also given a leg up, but race was the factor that stood out. In America, it always does.

Presidents rarely weigh in on controversial issues, but Mr. Bush did not hold back, siding with the plaintiffs. There is some irony in this, since Mr. Bush himself would probably not have gotten into Yale with his mediocre record had his grandfather not been Governor of Connecticut and his father a wealthy alumnus. He would certainly have found it difficult to get into Harvard Business School with C grades from Yale. There have been quotas in college and graduate school admissions for decades, but only for the rich and influential.

Yet the issue of racial preference remains troubling and complex, and there are reasonable and well-intentioned arguments on both sides. Affirmative action does, perhaps, work against the ideal of a racially blind society. In a perfect world, only ability and achievement would be the deciding factors in college admissions. The problem, of course, is that centuries of inequality have made the high school playing field uneven, tilted radically in favor of white, suburban students, who have all the help they need to make sure they get decent grades and SAT scores. Every glimmer of talent is nurtured, allowed to shine, in the best private and public schools. In the inner city, poorly funded schools make it difficult for even the brightest students to succeed. Until this problem is ironed out, there will be no racial equality in this country, and the need for affirmative action will remain.

I've been a college teacher for almost three decades, and have seen the difference only one or two minority students in a classroom can make. All sides benefit from the clash of realities that almost inevitably occurs when students compare their life experiences and begin the delicate process of reshaping their values and deepening their sense of the world.

In a short while, I'll be standing once again in front of a class at Middlebury College, waiting for that clash of realities, relishing it.

This is Jay Parini of Weybridge, Vermont.

Jay Parini is a poet, novelist, and biographer who teaches at Middlebury College.
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