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MSE Symposium partners with SNF Agora Institute to host debate on affirmative action

By MAYA BRITTO | November 22, 2023



The MSE Symposium event featured a debate on the pros and cons of race-based college admissions. 

The second Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium event of the year, titled “Affirmative Action Debate,” took place Wednesday, Nov. 15. The event, organized in partnership with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Agora Institute, brought together four speakers to debate the question of whether race-based affirmative action is still necessary despite the recent Supreme Court ruling against it. 

On the pro-affirmative action side were Natasha Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University, and Jonathan Feingold, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Law. The con side included Richard Kahlenberg, a nonresident scholar at Georgetown University and a Supreme Court expert witness, and Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. The debate was moderated by Stephanie Shonekan, a professor of ethnomusicology and dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland. The four speakers engaged in a lively exchange of ideas and perspectives for the two hours of the event.

Before the start of the debate, audience members were polled to gauge opinions on the issue; 64% of audience members were on the pro side, 20% were on the con side and 16% said they were not sure which side of the debate they agreed with. 

The debate began with brief, three-minute opening statements by each of the panelists. The two pro speakers expressed their main ideas first. Feingold, whose research primarily deals with the maintenance of racial hierarchy through legal regimes, stressed that certain policies could be legal but also unethical. He also advised the audience to challenge the ideas they are presented with. 

“I am deeply skeptical of debates because they privilege a sort of rhetorical jousting and illusion of engagement that actually doesn’t help us solve problems. So, anything that someone says tonight that you’re nodding your head to — be skeptical of what they’re saying,” he said. 

Feingold also described his approach to the debate and general resolutions of the same nature by summarizing the categorization of such questions as either legal, empirical, ethical or practical. The debate’s resolution could be evaluated through any of these four lenses.

Next, Warikoo spoke about how she would be addressing the resolution in a sociological context and started by highlighting major misconceptions that people have regarding affirmative action, including the belief that affirmative action doesn’t work and that most Americans disfavor affirmative action.

Later, the con speakers received the chance to lay the groundwork for their arguments. Gonzalez began by stating that the Supreme Court made a decision, most Americans have made up their mind and no further argument over the issue is necessary. 

Kahlenberg, who referred to himself as “politically liberal” took a slightly different approach. He stated that his main issue with race-based affirmative action was its ignorance of economic disparities.

“Institutions have used affirmative action instead of doing the hard work and reaching out to economically disadvantaged students of all races,” Kahlenberg said. 

Though the views of the speakers clashed at times, there were moments of agreement between some or all of them. All speakers agreed that race matters, to different extents, and that the issue of socioeconomic disparity and admissions based on class must be improved upon. However, the major point of contention was whether race needed to be considered at all. The pro side held that race was a factor that needed to be included in addition to class, while the con side stated that it should be ignored entirely. 

In response to Kahlenberg’s push to base affirmative action on class instead of race, Warikoo pointed out accumulated wealth disparities as a result of redlining and housing segregation, and the fact that even poor white Americans can still live in neighborhoods with decent public schools. Kahlenberg responded to this by suggesting considering applicants’ zip codes. 

Feingold replied to Kahlenberg’s argument by claiming that racism still had an impact on applicants’ lives, regardless of how wealthy they were, and shared a comparison with the audience to support his point. 

“You would never think that a woman can escape sexism by entering the middle class,” he said. 

The argument for class-based affirmative action as a better alternative struck a chord with some members of the audience. In an interview with The News-Letter, freshman William Mariscal talked about how although he still sides with the pro argument, the con argument for considering class was an argument for the con side that he considered valid and important. 

“It was very interesting to hear about considering other social factors, like socioeconomic factors, so it’s not all just down to race. We have to consider where these applicants are coming from,” he said. “Overall, it has made me rethink how affirmative action or remedies for racial injustice should be better done moving forward.”

Later, Gonzalez asserted that racial identities should not be used to represent individuals as members of monolithic groups. Instead, he stressed that applicants should be assessed as unique individuals with colorblind processes. Feingold and Warikoo argued against this colorblind approach, arguing that race plays an important role in shaping people’s lived experiences and the perception of them by others. 

A post-event poll was conducted at the end of the debate, which revealed a greater number of students in the audience in support of the con side.

As moderator and the only Black woman on the stage, Shonekan described her headspace going into the debate and her thoughts on what she heard from the speakers in an interview with The News-Letter shortly after the event. 

“I am a mom and have kids who are in college and through college, so I know that their experiences were very different from their white peers,“ she said. “So, I have that in the background, but as a good scholar, I put that aside and tried to listen with open ears to what the experts had to say.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, freshman Ryan Randolph explained that she chose to attend the event to see both sides of the argument, as she usually hears from just one perspective.

“For the longest time I've been on the pro side, always been pro because affirmative action affects me,” she said. “I came today to see what the con side has to say because I don’t really hear good arguments except for the same ‘[minorities] are taking away our spots.’”

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