Leaders Like Ken Noble Remind Us of the Value of Affirmative Action

The New York Times
The New York Times

This week the New York Times ran an obituary of one of its own—Kenneth B. Noble. Noble closed his professional career as a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley. He had started that career with 17 years as a reporter for the Times, including a five-year stint as head of the paper's West Africa bureau.


As I looked at the photo published with the obituary of a seasoned professional at the top of his game, I could not avoid comparing the Ken Noble who accomplished so much with his life to the Ken Noble I met as an undergraduate at Yale. In many ways, that comparison evokes a paean to an America that had just closed out Jim Crow, the age of American apartheid, and had just come to embrace a wider vision of diversity and inclusion.

As a freshman about to start a grand adventure in the fall of 1971, Ken was part of a massive influx of black students who were part of a change in Yale University's academic culture.

It had only been recently, since the late 1960s, that Yale and other elite colleges had begun a transformation from universities dedicated to educating the sons of the rich and the elite—who might or might not be extraordinarily talented—to universities dedicated instead to educating the next generation of leadership for all of America.

So instead of recruiting from sources that some might describe as stodgy, Yale recruited "the best and the brightest." And one is tempted to make the inference, given the university's very high ranking, as reported and emphasized to the consuming public through U.S. News & World Report and similar publications, that Yale began to admit only the students with the most impressive GPAs and SAT scores, but this has never been Yale's claim.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of students not admitted to Yale with scores and grades equal to or better than those of the students who are admitted. Yale is too small to admit every applicant who is "qualified," and the body of applicants who are "qualified" is so broad that Yale can afford to choose the people who individually and collectively can take advantage of and produce the most advantage from a Yale University education.

This practice allows Yale to reach out affirmatively and expand its search to include talented young black people, who may or may not have had top SAT scores, but who nonetheless promise to perform well at the university and in their careers.


People like Ken Noble, whose education had included segregated elementary schooling in Florida, would have been well off Yale's radar just a few years before.

Like other elite universities, Yale has done this because it's good for Yale. The university draws students who mutually enhance one another's interests and experiences, and it produces a cadre of alumni who are leaders across any number of fields.


Taking only the applicants with the highest test scores and grades would simplify admissions business but quite likely would produce a student body skewed in terms of geography and interest, in ways that are unpredictable. A student body made up completely of New Yorkers? With no musicians and no one interested in pursuing government, business or literature? With no one to play football or field hockey? Or maybe with substantially fewer black and other minority students?

If Yale's admissions policy had not become more inclusive, so as to be open to people like him, perhaps Ken Noble would not have been admitted. And perhaps journalism would have lost his contribution. And as a society, we may have lost the contributions of the many who shared the campus with him who have gone on to achieve mightily.


But Yale did admit Ken Noble, no doubt with affirmative action and diversity in mind. His successes, along with those of his classmates and contemporaries and successors, suggest that admissions decisions that include the tool of affirmative action actually work.

American universities are in the business of producing leaders for the future. In today's world, when there is a national debate as to whether affirmative action should be pursued in admissions decisions, Ken Noble's many accomplishments should remind us that there is no value to be had in a policy that consciously eliminates racial minorities from our elite universities. And there is value beyond the telling in universities seeking leaders from all spheres.


(Editor's note: In an earlier version of this article it was incorrectly reported that Noble attended a segregated high school.)

Raymond T. Diamond is the James Carville Alumni Professor of Law and the Jules F. & Frances L. Landry Distinguished Professor of Law at Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University. A legal historian and constitutional-law scholar, he is the co-author of Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution.