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Gerhard Casper on Affirmative Action

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

Photo: Robert Holmgren

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.

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.

Comments (1)


  • Albert Joseph Jaramillo, Ph.D.

    It is great that your heart is willing but you want the security of objective criteria. Many potentially good things get lost or dropped between these competing notions. The concept of risk is the bead that travels on the string created by this continuum. This concept works for both the applicant and the institution. The applicant cannot demand a place in the entering class; s/he completed the application and took the risk that others might be perceived as more appropriate. Likewise, the institution cannot guarantee a degree; it took a risk by hopefully admitting a student who would fully engage and develop to the point of commencement. For me, the defining criterion has to be the willingness to fully engage with others: to challenge assumptions and to learn from others and the environment. As a global university, Stanford has to be a place where different worldviews, values, learning styles and lifestyles find compatibility and accelerated self-growth. Have as many boxes as you want, but use the threads of self-confidence and motivation as a way of weaving it all together.

    Posted by Albert Joseph Jaramillo, Ph.D. on Mar 8, 2013 8:27 AM

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