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Beyond Affirmative Action: Reframing the Context of Higher Education

reviewed by Adalberto Aguirre Jr - 2003

coverTitle: Beyond Affirmative Action: Reframing the Context of Higher Education
Author(s): Robert A. Ibarra
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press, Madison
ISBN: 0299169049 , Pages: 323, Year: 2001
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I am often apprehensive of book titles that use certain keywords such as “beyond” because they imply that the book extends itself over customary boundaries.  Beyond Affirmative Action is such a book. Beyond Affirmative Action continues the discussion regarding academia’s resistance to diversity and multicultural initiatives. Ibarra focuses on this issue by examining the micro-context of higher education, the operation of cognitive processes and social mechanisms that victimize difference by hiding diversity within organizational culture. He argues that if higher education were to accept the idea that multiple ways of seeing the world are not just competitive mindsets but have the potential of building collaborative frameworks, then higher education would become more inclusive of diversity.  As such, diversity, operating as multicontextuality, would reframe the context for higher education.


So, where does affirmative action come into play?  It doesn’t.  Beyond Affirmative Action is a very concise, comprehensive discussion on reframing the context of graduate education for Latinos.  As such, the book addresses a timely topic.  However, it does not meet the book title’s expectations to go “beyond” affirmative action.  Given the rather turbulent context surrounding affirmative action, this may not necessarily be “bad news” for the book.  However, any book that attempts to go “beyond” the discussion of affirmative action should be more responsive to the issues that have framed the context of “who benefits” from affirmative action in higher education.  Again, the author may have been prudent in steering away from such a discussion given that it might have shifted the discussion to moral and technical issues.  And as such, it would have deprived the reader of observing the social forces that affect the institutional presence and participation of Latinos in higher education.


Beyond Affirmative Action is comprised of three parts: Part I: Reframing the Context of Higher Education, Part II: Latinas and Latinos in Graduate Education and Beyond, and Part III: The Engagement of Cultural Context in Academia. Parts I and II consist of three chapters each, while Part III consists of two chapters. There are three appendices to the book that identify the postsecondary institutions attended by the persons interviewed by the author, graduate enrollment in U.S. institutions of higher education between 1986 and 1996, and Latino faculty issues.


The author identifies the book’s purpose in Part I, as: a) “the analysis of and explanation for a new paradigm for education that is emerging from the synergy of ethnicity and academic culture” (p. 5). The author proposes to look at the “current challenges for enhancing campus diversity in general and then the demographic conditions for Latinos in higher education” (p. 5). He identifies the framework for the book as the outcome of an earlier study he conducted for the Council of Graduate Schools in 1994 and 1995 involving seventy-seven Latino persons participating in higher education as faculty, administrators, or graduate students.  The author, however, does not offer a reason for focusing on Latinos other than the opportunity to elaborate on an earlier study for the Council of Graduate Schools.  While he suggests that the lack of attention in the research literature is a reason for focusing on Latinos in higher education, it does not suffice if the reader is interested in why Latinos are portrayed as possible change agents in the academic culture.


Regarding the representation of Latinos in higher education, the author argues that very little is known about Latinos in graduate education because their small numbers suggest that they are barely treading water in graduate education programs.  To this end, he uses student enrollment data to show how the participation of Latinos in higher education has remained relatively unchanged over the past two decades.  Their small number has made it easy for academia to ignore them.  In an effort to explain the tenuous presence of Latinos in academia the author suggests that one consider their presence in higher education as the result of two conflicting cultural forces: “the influence of culture and ethnicity imprinted on individuals in childhood by family and community, and a second set of cultural forces that reshapes them throughout their precollege and postsecondary educational experiences” (p. 42).  According to Ibarra, Latino ethnicity must be viewed as a fluctuating and highly differentiated concept that makes possible a variety of adaptive responses to academia.


The author’s treatment of ethnicity as a fluctuating and differentiated concept is the basis for multicontextuality .  According to Ibarra, multicontextuality represents the “admixture of multiple human conditions and sociocultural contexts” (p. 64). In addition, a “multicontextual individual is likely to have a pluralistic ethnic identity and be sensitive to both gender perspectives” (p. 65). Ibarra’s notion of multicontextuality is based on a synthesis of Edward Hall’s ideas of high and low context cultures, and Manuel Ramirez’s and Alfredo Castaneda’s research on bicognitive development. In general, Ibarra uses multicontextuality as a vehicle for arguing that social interaction is a process of negotiation that involves diverse cognitive processes and multicultural life experiences.  Regarding Latinos, multicontextuality is an adaptive strategy that allows them to negotiate their way through academia.  Multicontextuality, however, is not exclusive to Latinos because the author notes that multicontextuality may be exhibited by anyone in academia.


In Part II of the book Ibarra summarizes the graduate school experiences of the individuals he interviewed.  He notes from the interviews that graduate education is an alien experience for Latinos that often makes them alter their own ethnicity: “Unfortunately, few of us write about the painful process of exchanging ethnicity and/or gender for membership in the academy” (p. 82). Accordingly, the Latinos interviewed also observed that they found little support in their graduate education: “from the outset, many new graduate students find their major professor distant and detached rather than encouraging and supportive” (p. 88).  In short, the author’s interviews with Latinos show that academic culture is often a threat to Latinos interested in maintaining their own cultural identity, and a dissociating experience for Latinos interested in identifying with the academic culture.


Part II also summarizes the experiences of Latino faculty with academic culture.  For example, the author notes: “Latinos find their allegiance lies somewhere between two adaptive strategies: to ‘buy in’ to the faculty value system and become a stakeholder in traditional concepts of academia, or ‘hold fast’ to their own cultural and ethnic values” (p. 112).  The “to be or not to be” dilemma Latino faculty find themselves in is not easily resolved by fluctuating between the two adaptive strategies.  According to the author, fluctuation between the two adaptive strategies may result in Latino faculty being perceived by Latino students as cultural contradictions – “as Latinos ‘who forgot who they are’” (p. 113).


The author includes in Part II a discussion of the social and cultural forces that affect Latino faculty presence in the academic culture.  He discusses the status of Latinos in the U.S. professorate, the stressors associated with Latino faculty in the academic workplace, the institutional (workplace) expectations for Latino faculty, and the differentiating effects of academic culture on Latino identity.  The discussion is enhanced by the contrast of Latinos in academia with Latinos who left academia.


In Part III of the book Ibarra discusses general issues regarding the infusion of diverse and multicultural perspectives into academic culture.  From the author’s perspective, academia must find institutional strategies that transform it into a more inclusive learning community.  One strategy is to make the faculty more sensitive to cognitive learning styles within a cooperative educational framework.  Faculty must accept the reality that an increasingly diverse society will require enhanced sensitivity to “new” ways of looking at the world.  The big question appears to be: will diversity lead change in academia?  Will leading for diversity in academia result in transformational change, and not in transitional adaptation to changes in the environment?


Despite the book’s comprehensive approach to the study of diversity and academic culture, there are a few unresolved issues.  The author appears to be advocating a “client oriented” model of higher education.  But, why focus on Latinos?  Their structural position (e.g. minority status) in U.S. society predicates that societal institutions are not likely to see them as “clients” who should be addressed.  It would have helped the reader better understand the context for Latinos in higher education if the author would identify the basis for making them the focal point of the book.  I think it has to go beyond the argument that students of higher education do not study Latinos.  We need to focus on the reasons why they are ignored.  I am not convinced by the author’s suggestion that there are “hidden forces” in higher education other than institutional racism that account for the marginalization of Latinos.  From my perspective, Latinos are the victims of persistent institutional racism in higher education because it offers unintended benefits to the majority (Aguirre, 2000).  Do we expect Latinos to convince the majority to trade these unintended benefits in order make academia more diverse?


I share the author’s concern that very little is known about Latinos in higher education if one is only considering the work of majority (white) scholars.  A review of the book’s lengthy bibliography shows that some research literature is missing that might have allowed the author to provide a more descriptive portrait of Latinos, especially Mexican Americans/Chicanos, in higher education.  Missing from the bibliography, for example, are the following: Michael Olivas’ (1979) ground breaking work on minorities in two year colleges – an early attempt to examine the condition of Hispanics in community colleges; Carlos Arce’s (1976, 1978) critical observations on how the academic culture responds to the presence of Chicano students and faculty in higher education.  A notable omission is the work by Richard Delgado (1988) on the educational experiences of minority law school faculty.  Delgado’s work is one example of how to use narrative data in describing the social, personal, and institutional forces that shape the interface between minority status and academic culture.


A comprehensive listing of works omitted in the bibliography would burden this review.  My point is that Latinos, especially Mexican Americans, have been documenting their experiences in higher education; however, the insensitivity of mainstream academic journals, in particular, to divergent viewpoints has kept them away from the research record dominated by majoritarian interests (see especially: Delgado, 1984, 1992).  I believe there is a wealth of literature out there by Latinos about their own experiences in higher education that is ignored because it lies outside the mainstream research literature.  One must consult it in order to construct a reasonable portrait of the Latino experience in academia.


The notion of “multicontextuality” is not necessarily a new idea; it’s just under different labels.  Proponents of multiculturalism in higher education, for example, have argued that “multiculturalism” is an effective vehicle for transforming academic culture.  The essays collected by Valverde and Castenell (1998) are an excellent example of how multiculturalism can introduce competing mindsets into academia that can result in an academic culture that is inclusive of social and cultural orientations that are not majoritarian based.  While all of the essays in the collection offer valuable insights to the reader, the following enhance the author’s notion of how multicontextuality might operate in academia: Howard L. Simmons, “External Agents Fostering Multiculturalism”, Enrique Trueba, “Race and Ethnicity in Academia”, Flora Ortiz, “Career Patterns of People of Color in Academia”, and A. Reynaldo Contreras, “Leading From the Margins in the Ivory Tower.”  In addition, Padilla and Montiel (1998) offer a critical discourse on the role of diversity in transforming not only academic culture, but the social forces that shape the institutional presence of diverse populations in higher education.  These two works are also noticeably absent from the book’s bibliography.


Finally, while “multicontextuality” may be a novel way for addressing the inattention of academic culture to diversity, it is not really clear how it would change an organizational culture that is highly conservative and very resistant to change.  Paradigmatic change requires support from the mainstream, or from actors vested with presence and voice in the academic discourse.  Latinos unfortunately are peripheral to the academic discourse.  If Latinos are to be the proponents of multicontextuality in higher education then the chances for a paradigmatic shift are very small.  Also, the roots of multicontextuality in conceptual models focused on interpersonal aspects of behavior suggest that multicontextuality might be an adequate approach for raising the awareness of persons in academia, but not necessarily an effective tool for transforming social structural arrangements.  Academia is a rational, goal-seeking organization that is designed to exploit the structural positioning of persons in society.  Latinos are marginalized in U.S. society, and academia exploits their marginal status by alienating them in the academic enterprise as either students or faculty.




Aguirre, Jr., Adalberto. (2000).  Academic storytelling: A critical race theory story of affirmative action.  Sociological Perspectives, 43 (2), 319-339.


Arce, Carlos.  (1976).  Chicanos in higher education.  Integrated Education, 14, 14-18.


Arce, Carlos.  (1978).  Chicano participation in academe: A case of academic colonialism.  Grito del Sol: A Chicano Quarterly, 3, 75-104.


Delgado, Richard.  (1984).  The Imperial Scholar: Reflections on a Review of Civil Rights Literature.  132 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 561.


Delgado, Richard.  (1988).  Minority Law Professors’ Lives: The Bell-Delgado Survey.  Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Law School, Institute for Legal Studies, Working Paper Series 3.


Delgado, Richard.  (1992).  The imperial scholar revisited: How to marginalize outsider writing, ten years later,  University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 140,  1349.


Padilla, Raymond, and Montiel, Miguel.  (1998).  Debatable diversity: Critical dialogues on change in American universities.  New York: Rowman & Littlefield.


Olivas, Michael.  (1979).  The dilemma of access: Minorities on two year colleges.  Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press.


Valverde, Leonard, and Castenell, Louis, (Eds.).  (1998).  The multicultural campus: Strategies for transforming higher education.  Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 1, 2003, p. 54-59
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10959, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:36:44 AM

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About the Author
  • Adalberto Aguirre Jr
    University of California-Riverside
    E-mail Author
    ADALBERTO AGUIRRE, JR. is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Riverside. His teaching interests are in social inequality, the sociology of education, formal organizations, critical race theory and sociolinguistics. Professor Aguirre's research has focused on workplace issues for women and minority faculty, the relationship between race and death sentencing, the role of the master narrative in the social sciences, and the association between bilingual proficiency and grammatical knowledge.
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