- Published: August 27, 2023
On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court significantly limited how colleges can factor race into the admissions process through two court decisions that effectively eliminated affirmative action — a program that was introduced under the Nixon administration in the 1970s — from the college admissions process in the U.S.
At its inception, affirmative action was a tool that colleges and universities used to ensure that students of color and women, historically challenged by unequal access to education, were fairly considered for college admissions.
The Supreme Court, comprising a majority of justices nominated by Republican presidents, including three by former President Donald Trump, ruled that two universities violated federal nondiscrimination laws by factoring in the race of applicants.
The cases at the center of the ruling were Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. Justices voted in favor of the Students, 6–2 and 6–3 respectively, with President Joe Biden’s nominee, Justice Katanji Brown Jackson, recusing herself in the Harvard case.
In addition to the thousands of potential college applicants directly impacted by the rulings are the administrators responsible for student admission efforts across the nation.
Why these rulings matter, the history of affirmative action and its effect on a societal level, were points of discussion during a recent News interview with Kenneth Durgans, associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Kansas City University in Missouri. Durgans has been successful in recruiting a sizable percentage of Black and Brown students interested in pursuing careers in healthcare.
“We [Kansas City University] are a holistic [osteopathic] medical school. We have a dental, Psy.D. and a couple master’s programs as well. One is sort of a pipeline program that actually takes students who need just a little bit of tweaking in their academics,” Durgans said. “Bringing them in, helping them develop so that they can go to professional schools, so that they can get into Ph.D. programs and expand the number of diverse individuals, and particularly people of color in the various STEM professions, our program’s been successful — 90 percent of those students go on to professional schools. It’s a very important part of this process of moving students forward.”
Durgans said diversity in the medical fields is a critical component of healthcare.
“When you talk about diversity, it is really beyond recruiting people, it is actually preparing a citizenry who come from many backgrounds, to be able to communicate effectively across cultural lines, but also to actually care, have empathy. The caring part, particularly in healthcare, should show itself in the outcomes of health for all people,” he said.
Durgans emphasized that large health disparity-gaps are still a major obstacle to building healthy communities in this country, and programs that offer cultural competency through a diverse student population are key to resolving some of the disparities.
“It could be in the curriculum; we’re teaching students about the context for the disparities. It’s not stereotypes, it’s the real reasons rooted in historical factors. And most of it is racism,” Durgans said. “Right now, we have big disparities with respect to people of color and health outcomes. And a lot of it has to do with, to be honest, a lot of people who don’t look like me and you, either not caring, or if they do, not having the capacity to understand, the various differences that come into play, to be able to effectively develop strategies to make those situations better.”
Durgans, a 1973 graduate of Yellow Springs High School, is an admissions specialist with over 40 years of experience, his last 20 years focused on recruiting students for STEM institutions. He received a degree in political science and history from Baldwin Wallace University, a master’s degree in student personnel/administration from Kent State University and a master’s from the University of Dayton. Durgans also received a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University.
“I started [working] at Baldwin Wallace where I was a hall director and went into admissions. From there I went to Wittenberg student affairs. Later, Notre Dame, where I was director of minority affairs — that was when I knew this was going to be my love and decided to get my doctorate. If you’re going to be effective, then you have to have all the credentials,” he said.
Durgans said he was in the earlier wave of Black students who entered college when affirmative action programs were just launching. His academic profile was similar to the students he now recruits.
“I had the intellect to do the work,” Durgans said of his conditional acceptance to college. “They accepted me into a learning center. … I had to go through a program where we were doing some development things. I went for the first year, did speed reading, how to structure your classes and all that kind of stuff. It’s what we actually do at the medical school for everybody now.”
According to him many affirmative action students performed better academically than the students admitted under a traditional acceptance process.
“So that’s an example of what affirmative action is. It’s not the misnomer that you were bringing in unqualified people. All you were doing was crafting a position specifically to give people who were left out a shot — it might mean that they didn’t have a certain test score, but they had other aptitudes that gave someone the impression that they could be successful,” he said.
Durgans names his undergraduate experience as a major reason why he decided on the work he does today. “We were among the first group of Black folks in large numbers at Baldwin Wallace,” Durgans said. “And we didn’t have a lot of support administratively. There was only one person of color in the administration — somewhat administration. He was a hall director when I first started. And then later, they brought in an alumnus, who was an administrator.”
Durgans described his college experience as rocky, and said administrators didn’t understand that simply admitting Black students wasn’t enough. He and his fellow students affected change through a series of protests, which Durgans said motivated him.
“I liked being a part of the process for the next generation to have some support,” he said.
Durgans began his own career in higher education during a time when diversity programs such as affirmative action were getting their sea legs.
“[Affirmative action] was more focused on Black students when I first started, and especially in the Midwest. Then it started to evolve,” Durgans said. “If you were studying it, you knew it was going to be something that was going to be around for a while as the country started to diversify.”
As Durgans’ profession evolved, he said, so did the need for a range of skills — academic, philanthropic and business-related. He recruited qualified faculty for science and technology positions and wrote grants, helping to raise over $5 million.
“You have to understand the holistic nature of high education so that you can be effective in implementing the diversity plans,” he said.
As Durgans worked hard to give affirmative action a fighting chance, pushback was already mounting: Efforts to end affirmative action began almost immediately.
“It was just the natural phenomenon that happens in a society that has been as racist as this one has been,” Durgans said. “The 1978 Bakke decision was the first major attack of affirmative action, especially in education.”
Allen Bakke was a California college student who was denied entrance into the University of California Davis School of Medicine. He sued the college, arguing that his higher grades should have allowed his admission over students that were admitted through affirmative action. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, declaring that the use of quotas was unconstitutional, although the Court upheld the use of affirmative action in other forms.
“When they struck down affirmative action, the diversity of students in the California system [top tier schools] was about 12 percent African American, about the same with Latinos. After the ruling, both of those populations dropped to about three percent, and they’ve never recovered,” Durgans said.
But according to Durgans, “there are contextual differences between the eras that will impact the future in a different kind of way.”
“I would say what is different from that era is schools won’t survive without a diverse population, regardless of what they do,” he said.
There are more professional and medical schools now, increasing competition among higher education institutions. Schools are also struggling to attract students, regardless of race, perhaps because of cost, or due to lack of interest in pursuing a degree.
“On a basic level, before we even get to the diversity issue,” he said, “most of us [schools] are struggling to keep our classes full anyway — that’s any and everybody.”
Durgans also pointed to current census numbers in the United States as they relate to the type of student who will matriculate through colleges and universities in the future.
“When you look at the 17-year-olds in this country, for example, they are already more than 50 percent diverse. We’re only talking about professional schools, and with the evolution of things, you’re talking about maybe five, six years before that impact would hit you. They’re not enough white people, and actually there are not enough Asians either … there won’t be enough students to keep institutions going,” Durgans said. “At least, that’s my prediction.”
The affirmative action ruling affects selective schools more than state schools, which don’t have the same kind of criteria that private schools do and test scores are not as relevant. And again, it’s an economics thing, because if a state school gets too selective, they can select themselves out of business, Durgans said, adding that when it comes to recruiting, relationships and partnerships are “pretty much the crux of every successful endeavor, whether it’s business, or education.”
“Part of it is how you relate to students, it’s how you care about students, it’s the environment that you create, it’s the realness that the students feel. And we’ve been pretty good with that,” he said.
Some of Durgans’ success in recruiting students has come from his ability to build long-term relationships with potential students and in making it a priority to understand the communities they come from through active and consistent community engagement.
“The other thing is that when you’re out and about, you also are learning and staying in touch with what is actually going on. If a generational change is happening, you’re there and you’re feeling it, you’re seeing it,” Durgans said.
Over the years, Durgans has worked to build a “pipeline of trust.”
“That’s what I’ve tried to build through my career. So, from moving from various institutions, I keep the pipelines, I keep the process,” he said.
According to Durgans, his recruitment philosophy is largely modeled after the late Frank W. Hale, a former vice provost for diversity and inclusion and professor emeritus for The Ohio State University. Hale was one of the nation’s most successful early recruiters of Black students who attended professional degree programs in the 1970s–1980s.
“What I loved about what he did was his all-encompassing, holistic approach. He had business relationships, he developed pipelines in the community, especially in the Black community in Columbus, and he had a relationship with pretty much every HBCU in the country,” Durgans said.
Durgans works to build rapport with students, even if they choose other professional paths at different schools.
“I try to take folks from high school, get them through [college], make sure they get support, try to hook them up with internships, so that they have the full breadth of experience to be able to move to graduate school,” Durgans said. “And then I have relationships with graduate schools to help them go to master’s, Ph.D. programs, medical schools, et cetera. That’s how we work it.”
When asked by the News if the Supreme Court decisions will impact his job, Durgans responded contemplatively.
“It’s kind of funny because when you work in diversity, sometimes people forget that I don’t have a diversity degree. You know, I have degrees and I’ve learned other things, through reading and experiences,” he said. “We knew this [elimination of affirmative action] was going to come, especially when Trump took over. … They do make our work harder, but like African Americans have done since we’ve been here, we’ve always found a way.”
Durgans said understanding the United States Constitution, particularly the 13th and 14th Amendments, have been helpful in building a strategic response to the rulings.
“When that guy [Justice Alito] was making these decisions, I know how wrong he was because I know what those amendments are, and what their purpose is. We try to craft things that anticipate the types of barriers that we’re going to face,” he said.
One of the work-around strategies involves building pipeline partnerships, and Durgans used the village as an example of how that type of partnership works in a recruitment effort.
“If I had a pipeline of students from Yellow Springs, Ohio — my hometown — and let’s say Yellow Springs was diverse like it was when we were in school. Any student that I have made a relationship with no matter what their color is, I can keep a record of. That relationship is another way to recruit students,” Durgans said.
Durgans said even if the students don’t initially choose the program at his school, they may circle back around because they’ve remembered the relationship.
“You establish a relationship because we’re all professional — I don’t care where they go to undergrad. But if we stay in touch, that’s not a race-based relationship. It’s just a relationship. Race makes it easier to document and things like that, but there are other ways that are legal. We just have to employ them.”
Durgans said his school believes diversity is still an important consideration despite the recent rulings.
“We recognized the need to diversify, so we crafted recruitment strategies to do that. I can still go to HBCUs to recruit, I could still go to diversity fairs and recruit. I just can’t write down on some paper that I am admitting a student because of their race — we weren’t doing that anyway.”
Durgans believes the rulings were politically motivated and he implores people to become familiar with the 13th and 14th amendments, which were used to undergird the rulings.
“I want people to really understand that this decision had nothing to do with law. I mean you need to read it. It was based on somebody’s personal philosophy because the perpetuation of racism is rooted in people not really understanding why things are happening,” Durgans said.
*Kenneth Durgans is the brother of Yellow Springs News Editor Cheryl Durgans.