Why Affirmative Action is Critical For Schools | Jim Wickenden | 10 Min Read

November 28, 2022

In November 2022, I was given the opportunity to write about my thoughts regarding affirmative action for colleges and independent schools.  While I eagerly accepted that challenge, I readily admit that asking an 83-year-old white male who benefited from having a privileged life, I may not have much credibility with people of color who were not given the opportunity to attend an all-white male independent boys school, an all-white male college in Bristol England, and an all-white male university in Princeton, New Jersey.  Despite that background, however, I have become a staunch advocate of affirmative action.  Not surprisingly, this transformation took time and involved my learning lessons from various people I respected and admire.  

I’ll start with my father, the former 36-year Headmaster of Tabor Academy.  As much as I admired the job he did in enabling that school to grow from 42 boys when he became the Head of School to 550 boys 36 years later when he retired, I still remember and respect the fact that he made two decisions that required courage.   Right after the conclusion of World War II, Dad admitted a young man from Japan who wanted to learn English and then go on to a university in the United States (Harvard).  Five or six years later, Dad admitted two African American young men.  This stunned many of the citizens of the then-lily-white community of Marion, Massachusetts.

The second step in my moral development occurred in 1957 when I had the opportunity to attend Clifton College in Bristol, England.  As much as I enjoyed and benefited from that experience, I readily admit that I was appalled by two phenomena over which I had no control.  Specifically, I was stunned by the fact that students from India were openly referred to as “Wogs.” That was not a term of endearment.  In addition, I was also taken aback when I learned that all of the Jewish students who lived on campus were required to live in a separate dormitory, and they were required to attend the daily Christian chapel service.  To say that I was a confused “Yank” was an understatement.

The third step towards my moral maturation process occurred when I enrolled as a freshman at Princeton University.  Assuming that my memory has not deteriorated too much, I think that there were only three African American students and a similar number of Asian-Americans in my class.  

In 1964, the then Director of Admission at Princeton, Dr. E. Alden Dunham, hired me and four other Assistant Directors, all of whom were white males.  To Alden’s credit, he told us that our major challenge and our primary goal was to increase the diversity of the University and in so doing change Princeton’s culture by recruiting African-American men (in 1964, Princeton was still an all-male institution). Honoring the directive of Alden Dunham, my colleagues and I visited inner-city schools to recruit students who were eager to become trailblazers.  Our efforts resulted in 18 African American students accepting our offers of admission. While my colleagues and I were patting ourselves on our respective backs, we were soon humbled when the rest of the Princeton community was not prepared for the changes a more heterogeneous culture created.  

In 1978, I was recruited by Princeton University to return to my alma mater to serve as the Dean of Admission.  Although I had been away from Princeton for only ten years, a sea change had occurred.  Not only was Princeton now coed, but a concerted effort was made to recruit and admit people of color.  Leading that initiative in the Admissions Office was Frank Moore, who turned out to be a major force with respect to increasing the number of Black undergraduates at Princeton.

From 1978 to 1983, the five years that I served as Dean, we experienced a steady increase in the number of Blacks and Latinx candidates at the University.  We also witnessed a significant increase in the number of Asian Americans who applied and were admitted, as well as a steady increase in the number of international students who applied and were admitted. While pleased with this significant increase in applications, the percentage of admits from 1983 to 2022 steadily declined. For example, in 1983 Princeton received applications from 13,000 men and women and had an admit rate of 13%.  Of those who were admitted, 11% of the class were African American students.  For comparison purposes, the number of Asian Americans and Latinx applicants at that time was equally low.


The following data for the Class of 2026 will give you an idea of how the University has changed in the last 40 years:

Acceptance Rate3.8%
Admits from public schools64%
First-generation admits22%
Asian Americans21%

During my five years as the Dean, I learned several lessons.  One of the most important was understanding the culture in which the candidates were raised and educated.  One’s natural reaction is to compare the comments an applicant presents with one’s own experiences and education.  Fortunately, we were able to counter that tendency by hiring admissions officers from various backgrounds.  Those remaining white officers were given lessons by people of color about different cultures.  The recruited athletes had credentials that were evaluated not only by former college athletes but also by admissions officers who had never set foot in a gym.  Applicants who expressed an interest in engineering were evaluated by a staff of the engineering school along with admissions officers who had never taken a course in engineering.  And most importantly, having members of the Admissions office who were Black, Hispanic, and Asian contributed to our making decisions about candidates whose academic credentials may have been less than stellar, but had overcome adversity.

Another learned lesson helped those of us in the Admissions Office to recognize the obvious, namely that culture matters.  Some of us were raised in homes in which both parents were college graduates.  These homes developed a culture of meritocracy in which the children were expected to do well in school and grew up with the expectation that they would pursue a college degree.  Furthermore, if youngsters grew up in schools in which both parents went to and graduated from college, one can assume that these parents were likely to have jobs that would enable their children to attend an institution of higher education.  Conversely, if children were raised in a home in which paying the rent and buying food exhausted the financial resources of the parents, these youngsters had visions of doing whatever they could to secure a job at an early age in order to help support the family.  In other words, those of us in the Admissions office were committed to building a heterosexual residential community of interesting people who came from different backgrounds. For example, we admitted Michelle Robinson (Obama), former First Lady, Brooke Shields, whose experiences as a model and movie star put her in a class by herself,  and, thanks to the strong support of one of Princeton’s engineering professors, Jeff Bezos, one of the best decisions—even though it was easy—that I made.  Please note that none of the aforementioned were admitted because of affirmative action, but because each of them brought different skills and perspectives that we felt would enrich the lives of the Princeton undergraduates.


Through no fault of their own, many youngsters in America have not been given the opportunity to develop skills that would enable them to overcome being dealt a bad hand.  To overcome adversity and to help young men and women who have the motivation, ability, and discipline to achieve lofty but realistic goals, the opportunities provided by affirmative action increased the chances of closing the educational gap caused by a poor to mediocre school system, racial discrimination, and socio-economic hardship.

Having read the August 2, 2021 article in the New Yorker, “Can Affirmative Action Survive?”, the following observations warrant comment:

  • Affirmative action is one of several policies that take race into account as a way of reversing the effects of centuries of discrimination. The critical words in the sentence are race, discrimination, and policy.  Those who have studied the impact of racial discrimination know that a concerted effort was made by slave owners to prevent Blacks from receiving an education.  While the practice of slavery resulted in parents and children becoming skilled in mastering the agricultural tasks of picking cotton and harvesting tobacco, they were not given the opportunity to develop the critically important academic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  During Reconstruction, the freed but uneducated former slaves did not have the requisite skills to function successfully in business or government.  Although schools were built and teachers were hired during that period, the facilities, equipment, and quality of instruction were far from stellar.  Stated another way, the lack of education for most of the slaves was comparable to an athlete in a 100-yard race starting 20 or more yards behind the others.
  • Racial integration, while ordered by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, did not have the sweeping impact that many had hoped for.  Decades ago, the U.S. military separated Blacks and whites.  This was overturned by President Truman when he issued Executive Order 9981, which declared “that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”  In short, that Executive Order put an end to racial segregation in the military. With respect to institutions of higher education and independent schools, these were predominately white until the 1960s when the Civil Rights Act resulted in significant change.  After the U.S. military became more integrated, other organizations, including colleges, universities, and independent schools followed suit. While colleges and universities varied in their reactions to instituting and endorsing affirmative action, the independent schools varied not only in their commitment to racial integration but also in whether or not these schools should use and honor a policy that would create a change in their culture.  Suffice it to say, however, that the most prestigious independent schools assumed a leadership position in combatting the adverse effects of racial discrimination by not only recruiting and admitting people of color but also by beginning to hire teachers and administrators of color.
  • Students of color in public education are far more frequent victims of structural racism because many of them live in segregated, depressed neighborhoods.  Undeniably, the funding of schools, be they public or private, is a major determinant in the quality of education a student receives.  The funding of public schools varies enormously not only from state to state but also from district to district within the states.   A school district that is funded by families who are struggling to live from paycheck to paycheck will not be able to recruit great teachers.  Students who are not fortunate enough to be educated by great teachers are not likely to perform well on the standardized tests that are used to determine the quality of education provided by a district. Worse, these standardized tests can be used to identify racial differences that then lead to unfortunate stereotyping.  The results of the standardized test can also have an adverse impact on a student’s perception of their ability. 

    Thus, if students live in a well-funded area, the chances of them having better teachers, better materials, and being surrounded by other well-educated colleagues are greater than the students who live in significantly less affluent areas, attend a school that is not well-maintained, has less access to good materials, and cannot afford to recruit highly talented teachers.  The outcome of this inequity is powerful and long-lasting.  In an effort to level the proverbial playing field, institutions of higher education can and have adopted an affirmative action policy to help close the gap between those who have been blessed with the opportunity to attend affluent public and independent schools versus those who attended a high school whose standards and expectations are significantly lower.  

In closing, I’d like to share a quote from a letter written by the President of Harvard University, Dr. Lawrence Bacow. He wrote to members of the Harvard community about the importance of affirmative action.  It reads as follows:

“Whatever promise we hold as individuals—for ourselves and for our world—is not predicated on narrowly structured measures of academic distinction. When Harvard assembles a class of undergraduates, it matters that they come from different social, economic, geographical, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.  It matters that they come to our campus with varied academic interests and skill sets.  Research and lived experience teach us that each student’s learning experience is enriched by encountering classmates who grew up in different circumstances.”

Jim Wickenden

Jim is a Principal at DRG and Founder of Wickenden Associates, an affiliate of DRG. Having been the CEO of one of the premier education executive search firms in the United States, Jim brings unparalleled experience and networks to best serve clients. With over 30 years of experience identifying and guiding Heads of Schools and other senior administrators of schools across the country, Jim approaches each search with flexibility and openness that responds to the individual needs and concerns of schools and their leaders. Before founding Wickenden Associates, Jim served as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University and Director of Student and Alumni Affairs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A graduate of Tabor Academy and Princeton University, Jim holds a master’s degree in Counselor Education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in the General Purposes of Education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. As a former member of eight boards of independent schools with a wide range of missions and resource levels, Jim also knows firsthand the responsibilities shouldered by today’s trustees; and knows how to guide boards through tough transition processes and on good governance practices. Jim lives in Princeton, NJ, and when he is not at the office he enjoys reading enlightening books.

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