College Diversity At Risk

January 2012

There have been few moments in our history when the nation so badly needed institutions to unify the country, overcome divisiveness, and dispel the unfounded “jealousies and prejudices” that our first president warned against. As George Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton, bringing together the youth “from different parts of the United States” at a university would allow young people to learn there was no basis for “jealousies and prejudices which one part of the union had imbibed against another part.”

Yet if the Supreme Court decides to hear a case called Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, colleges could be severely restricted in continuing to serve this unifying function.

A white student named Abigail Fisher has argued that she would have been admitted to the University of Texas if the school had refrained from considering race in its admissions decisions and that her constitutional rights have been harmed as a result. Lower courts decided against Fisher, ruling that the university’s efforts to assemble a racially diverse student body complied with the constitutional standards established in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court’s definitive holding on affirmative action in U.S. education.

A move away from the court’s recognition in Grutter of the “substantial” and “laudable” benefits of a diverse student body would be as damaging to higher education as it would be ill-timed for the nation at large. When students encounter others’ points of view and discover how contrary opinions have been forged by different life experiences, they learn more than how we differ: They learn what we have in common.

The places in U.S. society where people of different backgrounds have a meaningful opportunity to learn about each other are far too rare. Yet instead of cultivating these unifying social institutions, we have been undermining them. Sixteen years ago, California adopted a ballot measure banning the consideration of race in admissions decisions. Within five years, only 3 percent of the students in California’s public law schools were African American (compared with 10 percent at the state’s private law schools), and black enrollment declined throughout the state system. Similar ballot measures have passed in Arizona, Washington state and Michigan, where a federal appellate court is reviewing the law’s constitutionality. This year, New Hampshire banned admissions policies that value racial diversity.

Especially in this era of economic insecurity, the argument is made that diversity in post-secondary schools should be focused on family income rather than racial diversity. Of course, we want both. When universities are granted the freedom to assemble student bodies featuring multiple types of diversity and possess the resources to support “need blind” admissions with full financial aid, the result is a highly sought-after learning environment that attracts the best students.

Consider Columbia, where our undergraduate student body has the highest percentage of low- and moderate-income students and the largest number of military veterans of our peer institutions, as well as the highest percentage of African American students among the nation’s top 30 universities. But our country cannot rely on private universities such as Columbia to realize these benefits. Far more students attend our great public universities, where a combination of declining state support and unfavorable ballot measures pose a serious risk to our model of higher education.

Dismantling an educational system that for decades has valued contact among students with different sensibilities and replacing it with one that does not would be regrettable on many fronts. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority in Grutter v. Bollinger that the benefits of a diverse student body are “not theoretical but real”: Indeed, more than five dozen leading corporations, including Microsoft, General Electric, Shell Oil and 3M, told the court in 2003 that students learning in diverse educational settings can be expected to be better workers. These companies cited skills ranging from creative problem solving and the ability to develop products with cross-cultural appeal to the employees’ ease with global business partners and their positive effect on the work environment. In an amicus brief submitted to the court, retired U.S. military leaders also advocated racially diverse student bodies, noting that with minorities constituting 40 percent of the active-duty armed forces as of 2002, “success with the challenges of diversity is critical to national security.”

Last month, the departments of Education and Justice announced new guidance on the implementation of Grutter intended to encourage schools embracing the educational benefits of a diverse student body. The action is a strong antidote to what had been a prevailing vagueness in legal guidance and its attendant chilling effect on university presidents and admissions officers. But the impact could be short-lived, for it will remain relevant only so long as the rationale for considering race in admissions remains constitutionally valid.

This is the wrong time for the Supreme Court to abandon its decades-old commitment to the role colleges and universities play in unifying and elevating U.S. society. To ensure the nation’s prosperity and fulfill our founding ideals of equal opportunity, the court should stand by its strong endorsement of diversity in higher education.