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Ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision on race-conscious admissions at Harvard, Graduate School of Education Dean Bridget Terry Long maintained in a Tuesday interview that economic affirmative action cannot replicate the racial diversity of current student populations.
Long said the education school’s role is to be a “constant” throughout a changing landscape of education amid controversies over affirmative action, censorship of curricula, and the rise of artificial intelligence.
Harvard was sued in 2014 by anti-affirmative action group Students For Fair Admissions, which alleged that the College’s race-conscious admissions practices discriminate against Asian American applicants. After two lower courts ruled in favor of the University, SFFA appealed the case to the Supreme Court, which heard SFFA’s suits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the same day in October.
In 2018, Long testified as an expert at the district court level for the suit brought against UNC. Her role was to determine whether a variable other than race could be used in admissions to create racial and ethnic diversity.
Long said her research did not show such a variable exists.
“We’ve also seen that, with a Black middle class, it’s not that income protects you if you’re a person of color,” Long said.
“We’ve seen instance after instance, even here in Cambridge, where you can be the most highly educated affluent Black person and still be treated as a suspect,” Long added.
Legal scholars expect the Court to rule against Harvard due to its strong conservative majority, with a decision expected by late spring or summer. Should the Supreme Court rule to overturn affirmative action, Long said she is unsure of the impact on Harvard’s admissions practices.
“We have large admissions teams, we have holistic review — we can look at so many different dimensions of students,” Long said of Harvard College and HGSE. “But there are two big worries I have.”
She raised concerns about a potential “cooling effect” — a decrease in the number of minority students applying due to a perceived barrier to admission — and a loss of racial diversity in bigger schools that lack the resources to practice holistic admissions.
Long also discussed the following topics:
On the topic of admissions at Harvard, Long said artificial intelligence services like ChatGPT will not be a threat to the quality of students admitted to colleges.
“The essays that really make a difference are the ones that are distinctive and unique and feel real. So I’m not too worried about that,” Long said. “Though I think in the day-to-day assignments, we’re all going to need a lot of training.”
HGSE aims to consider how AI can serve as a tool to promote equity, she said.
“We need to think about ways that we can actually use technology, AI, and other tools to help bring up the bottom, to help address the needs of lower income students, so that it doesn’t increase the gaps, and in fact maybe helps us close some of the gaps,” Long said.
Long said “incredibly dangerous” campaigns to censor Advanced Placement African American Studies and other school curricula could also perpetuate inequity in the classroom.
“If we forget our history, we’re bound to repeat it. There is no question that this is a movement in the wrong direction,” she said.
“We need to be educating students about their history, about how the world is working, and also giving them hope about how progress can be made,” Long said. “I’m incredibly dismayed about the rewriting, sanitizing of history — and it’s not about making people feel bad, but I think we have to be honest with ourselves.”
Long said policies censoring classroom content will “ebb and flow,” while HGSE can provide a stable source of research-grounded advice.
“When the time comes, when Washington is ready for good ideas, we’ll have the evidence ready,” Long said.
To cultivate the next generation of educators, Long said the school wants to “foster and support interest” among undergraduates considering a career in education.
Long said a key solution to the current shortage of teachers — exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic — is both financial and personal support.
“One important part of it is compensation, monetary compensation. But we also have to think a great deal about non-monetary things: working conditions, autonomy and agency, respect,” she said.
“It’s hard to put a value on the contributions that you’re making, because every successful person has a story of at least one teacher who made a world of difference in their life,” Long said.
—Staff writer Azusa M. Lippit can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @azusalippit.
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