Jeanne Arnold says affirmative action is no longer just about ensuring people access to opportunities. That much, she says, is now assured, thanks to laws recently upheld by the Supreme Court.
It’s what happens after a person is in the door, Arnold says, that may be the larger problem—or, at least, the tougher problem to solve. “You have all these laws in place that say you have to let people have access,” says Arnold who took over as director of Penn’s Office of Affirmative Action last year. “But there’s no like system to improve the environment so you can help people [after they arrive]. It’s much more subjective. There’s no laws, no guidelines.”
Figuring out how to solve that problem is now a major focus for Arnold, who besides running her often very busy department, also recently began work on a Ph.D. dissertation, in the Graduate School of Education, on the ways traditionally white institutions can become more receptive to people of color. She hopes her research will turn up strategies that could be put to use right here at Penn.
“Really, it’s a two-part issue: We have to monitor our system for access, and then we need to figure out what to do to make the environment livable,” Arnold says. “And not just livable, actually. You want people to thrive here, not just survive here.”
Q. Before coming to Penn for your first job, as director of the African-American Resource Center, you worked at the Crime Prevention Association here in Philadelphia. What was it like, at first, coming into academia?
A. I wasn’t really sure about coming into academia, because I am a social worker. I didn’t know if it was going to be about real-world issues. It took me about a month to realize there are plenty of issues right here, and that we really are a microcosm of the larger society. Some of the things I was doing in the community I am now doing right now, helping people better fit into their environment and be successful at what they’re doing.
Q. What kind of challenges do you expect affirmative action, as an idea, to face in coming years?
A. I feel really good about where Penn is on affirmative action. I have not to date been presented with that many challenges, since the Supreme Court has really upheld our right to consider race in a variety of ways. Penn was already doing that in the appropriate way, so we didn’t have to change too much about what we’re doing. It’s been good to work for an employer who understands those things and who supports the concept. But will the challenges continue in our society? Absolutely. There are people, I’m sure, hard at work right now, trying to undo it and make problems for those particular laws, but that’s always going to be the case..
Q. Tell me exactly what your office does.
A. We are the University’s central mechanism for monitoring the implementation of affirmative action here at Penn. So how do we do that? A few key ways. One is complaint resolution. We are one a few different places on campus where people can come if they feel they have been discriminated against, based on race, gender or any other protected category. We will investigate that through a fact-finding investigation. Another big piece of what we do is consultation and training. I was fortunate enough to secure a new position for the office, and that person just started last September to focus solely on training, which is very much in need. We’re big believers in being proactive and educating folks in our environment. … We also work very closely with Human Resources to oversee the search and selection process for staff, to make sure the pool of candidates are a diverse pool of candidates and that the search process is fair.
Q. How busy is your staff? How many complaints do you have to deal with?
A. It really goes in cycles. Sometimes we’ll be really busy and get eight new cases in one month, and then a couple of months will go by and we won’t get any. It just depends. We try very hard to, within a six-week period of time of receiving a complaint, complete the entire investigation. Now that could mean five witnesses or 20 witnesses, so that’s a lot to get done in a short period of time. In that time, we will assess what we believe happened, and we will make recommendations for what we think will resolve the situation. Sometimes we find the person has been discriminated against, but we might still find, even if that’s not the case, that the department could use some training in a couple of areas … Other times, if we do find discrimination, we will work with the heads of those departments to implement what we think would be the best plan.
Q. Do you think there will come a time when departments such as yours won’t be needed?
A. I think that’s probably a dream. It’s not one I won’t keep hoping for, but I think it’s probably unrealistic, in my lifetime, because I think the problems of our society in terms of racism and segregation are in some ways worse than they were in the ’60s and ’70s. So we as a campus reflect that, just like any college campus. Until those things get resolved a little bit better ... they’re not going to go away here.
Q. Is there a part of your job you find particularly enjoyable?
A. I think I like being a source of information for people and clarifying for them what affirmative action is and what it isn’t. I think there’s still a myth out there that affirmative action means you have to accept unqualified people … and it’s actually the furthest thing from that.
What affirmative action is, is about helping people who otherwise face barriers to have access just to the opportunity to be hired, as staff or faculty, or to be accepted as students.
They have to compete just like everyone else. Sometimes there’s just so many barriers that they can’t get through the front door. It’s about, really, leveling the playing field—and that’s probably an overused phrase—but that’s really what it’s about: Giving people an opportunity to show what they know, and show what they can do.