Office of the President

March 31, 2007

International Affirmative Action Debates

Office of the President

Despite the stunning differences between India and America, we have much in common. As a student of politics, one of the most obvious similarities to me derives from our systems of government—the U.S. being the oldest democracy, India being the largest. We both also work hard to operate these democracies in the midst of significant diversity and pluralism. And like so many things with democracies, the processes are not always neat and tidy.

Here in India a great deal of energy and attention have been devoted to promoting equality of opportunity and pluralism. The latest chapter in this ongoing story unfolded on Thursday, reflecting both the importance of education and the difficulties with affirmative action. It struck many familiar themes to an American educator.

Diversity in India revolves around issues of caste, which are in turn tied to questions of religion, ethnicity, and economic class. But none of these definitions or the social interplay they foster are simple. Indeed, they are very complex, and no one should presume to understand them on such a short visit.  Nonetheless, obvious comparisons to the U.S. are made by Indian officials, and I was asked to share my views by a number of reporters and academics.Â

Education here is largely under the control of federal agencies.  Recognizing the need to provide educational access (as well as access to jobs and many services) to people across castes, the Indian constitution established a system to set aside seats in universities and institutes for those from the lowest castes. Schools have operated under this system of “reservations,” as the are known, for decades, routinely assuring that about a quarter of all admissions were given to these students.  Recently, however, parliament expanded the reservation system to include “other backward castes,” or OBCs as they are labeled. With the addition of these OBCs, the total quota for reserved positions at universities increased to 54 percent of available seats.

Not surprisingly, those not from OBCs objected. In good democratic tradition, opponents took the matter to the courts. On Thursday the Supreme Court ruled the new expansion unconstitutional, throwing the admission process for next year into great uncertainty. Some schools announced Friday that they would implement the new law nonetheless; others debated the matter vigorously, and still others seem quite uncertain how to respond. In other words, it looked just like the U.S. during these debates.

It appears to be a global truth that few subjects can light a fire under people quite as much as who does and who does not have access to education.

Love and Marriage

The best part of the trip so far has been the opportunity for informal talks with Indian students. I have delighted in hearing about their plans and aspirations, the role an American education might play in their lives, and the obvious pride they have for India’s growing prosperity. They sound much like our students in so many ways.

But when the talk turns to social relations, particularly dating and romance, comparisons with American students flies out the window. At a dinner with current students and recent graduates, each person at my table expressed not only an understanding of why arranged marriages work in India, but also a clear preference that this be the case. As one engaging young man (bound next fall to a prominent MBA program in the U.S.) put it, “I don’t have time to find a wife. My parents can do it better.”  Now, it has been a while since I heard that from an American student.

Curiosity aroused, I asked a number of others. All agreed. I was even regaled with the story of a young woman who received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in America. She was thrilled at the prospect, but was also told by her parents that she would not be allowed to go unless she was married before she left—only four months later.

She and her family agreed, so the hunt was on. In August she was introduced to a man the brothers thought suitable. They married in October, and she headed for the U.S. while her husband waited in India. All worked out perfectly and happily.

But here is an interesting flip-side to these conversations. When Indian students who had studied in the U.S. were asked what most surprised them, they repeatedly pointed to the American families they met. In every case, they were amazed to find that American families were loving and caring toward one other. The images portrayed by TV and movies had convinced all of them that the U.S. was home to completely dysfunctional and broken homes.

Last night I saw an ad on Indian TV for the movie Little Miss Sunshine. I loved the film, but certainly understand how those unfamiliar with our sense of humor would get the wrong message. Adding to the image, of course, are those cultural ambassadors whose scandals are reported in the gossip magazines. It’s always good to go abroad every so often and look back at your country from a different vantage point. Likewise, it’s certainly good to have Indians come to us and meet the real America.