By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 29, 2019
In 2003 I fought a doggedly battle to convince educators at (The University of the West Indies) that grades and standardized tests should not be the only criteria for selecting students to enter our university. Many people castigated me and a few called me a racist. Morgan Job bleated: “If Selwyn Cudjoe’s racist quota is implemented, UWI will have semi-illiterate African lecturers teaching illiterate students. They will go into the classrooms, the Public Service and police to compound the problems which plague the nation, and are a necessary consequence of the blight of mediocrity we have nurtured and promoted” (Trinidad Guardian, August 21, 2003).
I argued that the university should use an expanded notion of “merit” to select a more diversified student body. I wrote: “There is no reason…to think that if the whole of Central Trinidad received As on their General Certificates of Education that our university should consist exclusively of only people from Central or Laventille for that matter. Serious academicians know that genuine university learning, especially in a multiracial society, cannot take place where only one kind of people and only one kind of culture is present” (“Afro-Trinbagonians, Racism and the Education System,” trinicenter.com, September 19, 2003).
Bhoe Tewarie, the principal of UWI, responded: “We do not ask students what race they belong to. We only ask them what grades they got” (Trinidad Guardian, September 9, 2003). I predicted: “Dr. Tewarie will live to regret his remarks” (Afro-Trinbagonians).
I also countered, “No modern university bases its entrance into university exclusively on the scores one gets on standardized tests…. Although Harvard University has not begun it, many Ivy League schools have begun to deemphasize the importance of standardized tests (such as the SAT examinations) in selecting their first-year students.”
Vindication came about a month ago when Judge Allison D. Burroughs, a Massachusetts judge, ruled in favor of Harvard University’s use of race as a part of its criteria in selecting its first-year students.
In November 2014, Students for Fair Admission (SFA) sued Harvard. It claimed that Harvard College violated federal civil rights law “by holding Asian-Americans, who as a group get better test scores and grades than other races, to a higher standard” (New York Times, October 1, 2019).
SFA made four interrelated claims: “That Harvard intentionally discriminated against Asian-Americans; that it used race as a predominant factor in admissions decisions; that it racially balanced its classes; and that it had considered applicants’ race without first exhausting race-neutral alternatives to create diversity.” President Trump’s Trump’s Department of Justice sided with SFA.
Judge Burroughs ruled that “at least for now, ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race-conscious admissions….The students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs and talents. They will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences. It is this, at Harvard and elsewhere, that will move us, one day, to the point where we see that race is a fact, but not the defining fact and not the fact that tells us what is important, but we are not there yet.”
Tempered by the long and painful process of the suit, President Lawrence Bacow, wrote to alumni and friends: “Harvard College’s admissions process aims to evaluate each individual as a whole person. The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student. Everyone admitted to Harvard College has something unique to offer our community, and today we reaffirm the importance of diversity-and everything it represents to the world.”
When I fought that lonely battle sixteen years ago, I admonished fellow educators: “While we genuflect at the shrine of grades we ignore the imperative to educate our secondary- and tertiary-level students to act in ways that conduce to their moral upliftment. In genuflecting before grades and jockeying for positions of power and prestige we forget to develop the capacity for moral discernment in our students and our leaders” (Afro-Trinbagonians).
Two weeks before Justice Burroughs made her ruling I criticized the prime minister for selecting 33 Indo-Trinidadians (out of 35 students) for a national mentorship program in energy (“Misplaced Philanthropy”). The PM justified his action by arguing “Indo-Trinidadians can mount no successful argument of ethnic under-representation or of being discriminated against on any sector of the society since factual evidence is to the contrary.”
I suggested that three major considerations should have gone into the selection of those students: “how well it allows us to achieve our economic objectives, develop a balanced workforce, and conduce to social harmony. It is not socially desirable for 90 percent of our physicians to be Indo- or Afro-Tobagonians no matter how good they are.”
Although we shy away from it, it is retrogressive to leave out the “race” factor when we make judgments about our work force and education system. President Bacow insists: “Diversity of all kinds creates remarkable opportunities and complex challenges. If we hope to make the world better [if we hope to make T&T better], we must both pursue those opportunities and confront those challenges, motivated always by humility, generosity and openness.”
Race is a factor of life in T&T. It makes no sense to act as though it is an unfortunate circumstance of our society. It would help if we recognize its reality and take it into consideration when we make decisions about creating a society in which each of us finds an equal place.