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Anti Affirmative ReAction

Four years after California voters passed Proposition 209, the impact of anti-affirmative action laws on minority enrollment in tech fields is still heavily debated.

By Randy Franz

Thirteen years ago, they saw it coming: the increase in high-tech jobs, the necessity for more rigorous educational training to fill the jobs, and the standing of minorities in such an economy. “These occupational changes will present a difficult challenge for the disadvantaged, particularly for black men and Hispanics, who are underrepresented in the fastest-growing professions and overrepresented in the shrinking job categories,” wrote futurists from the Hudson Institute research organization in Indianapolis in Workforce 2000, a book published in 1987 and funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

What the researchers couldn’t foresee is the erosion of affirmative action laws across the country. California, Washington, Texas, Mississippi and Florida all have, in recent years, supported some type of ban on or law against affirmative action in college admissions, business hiring practices or both.

The combination of an increasing demand for education and skills, and a decreasing amount of traditional minority programs would seem to indicate trouble ahead for the engineering field. If it ever desired to increase its racial diversity through special programs, the industry will have to work even harder now that affirmative action is losing steam.

“I think it is a national imperative,” says John Matlock, assistant provost and director of the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He manages UM’s research programs, multicultural activities, pre-college initiatives, student leadership training and academic enrichment activities.

“When you look at the shortage of technical people in the country and the future demographics and work force needs in those areas, it is important to get as many [minorities] as possible,” Matlock says. “The work force will be increasing in minorities and women—it is important to make sure these groups have opportunities for technical positions, not just for their own gain, but for the nation’s. We are at a point where we can’t afford to exclude anybody.”

Engineering industry experts say technical jobs are so plentiful that no qualified candidates are being excluded. They don’t see the end of affirmative action in certain regions over the past four years making much of an impact in minorities’ presence. In fact, professional electrical engineer and Sacramento State University professor Dennis Dahlquist said the quality of minority candidates he sees is rising, while the quantity is unchanged. But with this issue, there is always another view.

The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) says that across the country the number of minorities in engineering is down, both in university enrollments and professional positions. Affirmative action bans are likely contributors, according to the group’s officials. Clarence Smith, a recruiter for Seattle-based Boeing blames the end of affirmative action for creating a climate that drives more minority graduates to jobs in other states. Others say universities have been slow to invest in alternative programs to attract minority students in regions where affirmative action is out.

A true picture of the effect—if any—of affirmative action’s decline on student enrollment and professional employment is hard to grasp. Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. Technical fields require people to start building problem-solving and mathematical skills early in their school lives, as young as fifth or sixth grade, according to academians. These students will start to be impacted by race-based programs and laws as early as their teens.

Overall, has the erosion of affirmative action in certain regions over the past four years actually affected the quantity or quality of minorities in engineering? The answer depends on whom you ask.

The Rise and Fall

Two main sets of figures can be used to indicate large-scale trends: enrollments in university engineering (and computer science) programs and employment rates in those fields. Available data shows that minority enrollments from fall 1995 to fall 1999 slipped slightly, while minority employment rose during that span.

“When we talk with kids, they say, ‘Why should I waste my time going to school here when they don’t support us?’” says Smith, who works with university programs to set recruitment policy at Boeing.

NACME studied freshman enrollment rates in college engineering programs across the United States from 1992 (its peak) to 1999 and found a rise in some minority groups and a drop in others. For example, enrollment rose among Latinos by 3.3% and Native Americans by 7.0%, while African Americans dropped by 10.5%. Nonminority enrollments rose by 0.9% in that span, according to the organization.

NACME, however, would not definitively point to anti-affirmative action laws for these changes. Since 1995, when the first such statutes went into effect in the University of California system, freshman enrollment rates have shown no identifiable pattern either way, the organization said.

Employment rates are more favorable for minorities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Labor, says the percentage of African- American and Hispanic engineers nationwide rose slightly to 8.1% in 1999 from 8.0% in 1995. In the field of computer science and computer systems analysis, the rise was far greater, to 10.8% in 1999 from 8.9% in 1995. The rise was similar in the ranks of women engineers—to 10.6% of the work force in 1999 from 8.4% in 1995—but women declined in the computer science/systems analysis sector to 28.5% from 29.5%.

UC as an Example

The University of California (UC) system provides the longest-running snapshot in the affirmative action debate. The system’s Board of Regents repealed AA in 1995, becoming the first major university system in the country to do so. Its action led to a 1996 statewide ballot initiative, Proposition 209, that was passed by voters to eliminate affirmative action in all university admissions and government contract hiring in the state.

Since the UC’s decision in 1995, minority enrollments have been closely watched. Individual campuses, particularly the so-called elite schools at Berkeley and Los Angeles, have been scrutinized. Each passing year was expected to provide a clearer picture of the effects.

The UC does not provide minority enrollment figures for all of its engineering and computer science schools combined, but individual universities do. Of the five campuses that provided figures, only UC San Diego showed a significant downturn in minority enrollment, with a drop of nearly 7% (see table). None of the other schools showed as much as a 3% drop in minority enrollments from fall 1995 to fall 1999. UC Irvine’s 2.8% decline (30.9% to 28.1%) was the closest. Each of the other campuses reported reductions, ranging from 0.2% to 2.3%.

UC Davis showed hardly any difference. In fall 1995, it reported 30.9% minority enrollment in engineering. In fall 1999, the percentage was 30.7. During that period, the total enrollment in the school’s engineering programs grew 9.2%, to 2,733 from 2,502.

“I don’t think I’ve seen any impact,” says Norm Matloff, UC Davis professor of computer science who calls himself a supporter of affirmative action. “The reason is when you’re talking such small numbers to begin with . . . if you look at affirmative action in engineering—African Americans, Latinos—we had so few to begin with that any change would have been noticeable.”

“The real scandal is that we don’t have enough blacks going into the programs in the first place,” says Glynn Custred, co-author of California’s Proposition 209. “By far, [the number of blacks entering tech fields] is outweighed by the number of black Ph.D.s in education and the number in the humanities.”

UC Davis’ Matloff says one effect of affirmative action’s end in the UC system is a shifting of students among schools. “It wasn’t a matter of whether you would get into the UC, but whether you would get into the flagship campus—Berkeley. The ones who wanted Berkeley are now in Davis. That’s seen as a bad thing by proponents of affirmative action.”

Northwest Flights

In California, observers say the diverse racial makeup of the area reduces potential negative effects of affirmative action. But in a less-diverse area such as Washington state, where voters passed the I-200 initiative in 1998 to end race-favoring programs (see The State(s) of Anti-Action), the effects are more acute. And they’re not pretty, according to Patricia MacGowan, the statewide director of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) minority youth outreach program at the University of Washington College of Engineering.

“It has been a combined effect: 1) Do students still feel welcome on a campus when the special program they were attracted by is not in place? We saw that a lot at Berkeley; and, 2) Can they provide the scholarships and support they [minorities] need?”

“Our African-American numbers are definitely down,” MacGowan adds. “When you have groups that are severely underrepresented in certain fields, you need mentors and people in the industry to become role models, and that’s exactly what affirmative-action challengers don’t want you to do. These students are really underrepresented in these fields compared with their communities.”

Associations’ Roles

Engineering societies representing professionals and students form an important link in developing technical skills and opportunities. Among the minority-targeted organizations, the most prominent say they are starting to notice the fallout from affirmative action’s demise.

The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) both report membership numbers that they say reflect the reduction of mandated diversity. For example, NSBE’s collegiate membership in the region that includes California has dropped about 10% over the past year. “The chapters in California, in particular, are finding it difficult to get their schools’ support,” NSBE executive director Michele Lazama says. “NSBE’s focus is to develop our members so that they are prepared to compete for technical jobs without having to rely on affirmative action.”

NACME is a bit more circumspect about the ramifications. While it found engineering enrollments to have slid since 1992, “I don’t think you can draw any national conclusions based on these numbers,” says B. Dundee Holt, NACME’s vice president of public information.

The reason is that the figures since 1995—when affirmative action began eroding—show “a real vacillation,” Holt says. “There is no real pattern. In the past year, for the first time, there was a decline in overall freshman enrollment in engineering and in minority engineering enrollment. Both were down 1%. We’ve never seen that kind of parallel before.

“One thing we saw in California schools like Berkeley was that the numbers were down tremendously, but they picked up at the (California State University) schools.”

Turning to Plans B, C, D . . .

Schools, businesses and associations that want to maintain or increase their racial diversity are scrambling to adopt new outreach efforts that avoid legal challenges and public backlash in the wake of the dismantling of affirmative action. The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that colleges can use race and ethnicity as a consideration in admissions decisions, but they cannot put aside set numbers of spaces for members of specific racial and ethnic groups.

Some alternative methods of increasing the number of racial minorities include:


  • School systems in Florida and Texas began programs that offer admission to a certain percentage of the top-performing graduates at each high school. Texas admits the top 10%, Florida the top 20%. The University of California is considering a program that would admit the top 12.5% and require a two-year college component.
  • Admissions directors are considering more factors than GPA and standardized test scores. Various indexes take into account factors such as a prospective student’s family income and school quality.
  • All sectors—universities, companies and professional associations—are targeting younger students. They are reaching into middle schools and even lower grades, in addition to groups such as scouting organizations hoping to pique the interests of students and start them on curriculums that better prepare them for technical studies and careers.

“For those technologies in engineering and technical fields, you can’t wait until you’re in the 12th grade,” says the University of Michigan’s Matlock. “You have to build up in science and math. It’s not a profession you just jump up at the last minute and decide instantly, ‘I think I’ll do this.’ If you’re not prepared and not comfortable with it going in, there is no way you’ll be successful.”

Matlock is on the board of the Detroit-area Precollege Engineering Program, which reaches down to the fifth grade with programs and activities to expose students to engineering and sciences.

MacGowan of the University of Washington says its MESA program also starts in elementary school to build math and problem-solving skills. In addition, middle school students can meet with engineers of the same race and ethnicity “and get excited about it,” she says. “You break the stereotype of who is in those fields. We provide information about what you need to do to make it.”

“The Opportunities Are There”

Management Recruiters International (MRI) is the largest search and recruitment firm in the world and includes a specialty in engineering and technical fields. One of the those specialists, Pat Havard, an MRI franchise owner in Nevada City, Calif., says he sees few barriers for qualified engineering graduates.

“They are welcomed by our clients,” Havard says. “I don’t see any resistance. The engineers I talk with tend to wish there were more minority candidates. Whatever’s causing that [shortfall] is not related to their reception in the engineering industry. There is plenty of opportunity. If you told me I had a minority candidate and all I knew was that their education and experience was sufficient, I can place them. Period.”

Lew Shumaker, manager of college relations and recruitment at DuPont, notes the NACME figures showing freshman enrollment declines among African Americans and says he sees a long-term problem. “Obviously . . . they’re not growing by leaps and bounds,” he says. “This becomes an issue as we begin to find a lot of corporations with a maturing work force. It will be very hard, with a limited talent pool in the future, to replace these people.”

But private industry can, and should, take a leading role in assuring equal opportunities, Shumaker says. For example, his division at DuPont funds 30 universities’ minority engineering programs, which can use the money for tutors, scholarships, computer supplies and other necessities. In addition, DuPont is active in mentoring programs for both men and women, he says. “Mentoring is a pretty darn easy thing to do.”

Regardless of whether affirmative action laws remain, according to Shumaker, the bottom line is this: “You’ve got to value diversity, first of all. As long as there is prejudice, it will be a difficult road to hoe.”

Randy Franz is an independent journalist who writes about careers, health and sports for consumer and trade magazines.

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