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Bollinger writes: "There have been few moments in our history when the nation so badly needed institutions to unify the country ... 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."

File photo: multicultural hand graphic. (photo: AP)
File photo: multicultural hand graphic. (photo: AP)

College Diversity at Risk

By Lee C. Bollinger, The Washington Post

16 January 12


here 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.

Lee C. Bollinger is president of Columbia University and a director of The Washington Post Co. He was the named defendant in the 2003 cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. your social media marketing partner


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-18 # Rick Levy 2012-01-16 19:04
Diversity is a noble concept and goal, but no one should have to suffer for it.
+7 # MJnevetS 2012-01-17 05:59
Quoting Rick Levy:
Diversity is a noble concept and goal, but no one should have to suffer for it.

The inverse of that statement is that "no one suffers from a homogenous student body", which, according to the author and Grutter v. Bollinger, is untrue. Not only do the minorities, who are excluded, suffer, but the remaining non-diverse student body suffers as well. As someone with a Jewish surname, a group which has suffered from improper exclusion from institutions in the recent past, you should be more sensitive to this fact.
0 # Rick Levy 2012-01-18 02:25
MJnevetS, How would you react if YOU were the victim of reverse discrimination?

BTW, since affirmative action began, qualified Jewish students have been rejected in favor of less qualified applicants.
+1 # Karlus58 2012-01-17 10:48
Are you kidding us? Do you realize how many HAVE suffered for it? That's why it is a noble concept....all those that have and still are....
+1 # Texas Aggie 2012-01-17 21:16
I notice that you have no problem with people suffering from lack of diversity. Why is that?
+2 # jwb110 2012-01-17 03:02
Given the the White Financial Sector and their policy of creating no jobs for the educated I guess these guys and gals will make friends in the un-employment offices.
+2 # 2012-01-17 08:26
Ignored is the solid evidence that black students matriculating under affirmative action guidelines fail academically at much higher than average rates. It is likely that this is largely due to the fact that they are less well prepared for college, a fact that is reflected by their lower scores on SATs.

The end result of affirmative action admissions however is negative for minorities. Students who might have been prepared adequately for a moderately challenging college are thrust into high-powered environments where they cannot succeed. Those students may well have graduated and gone on to productive and lucrative careers had they gone to an average college, but, instead at an Ivy or demanding Engineering school, they too often fail and drop out permanently.

The goal of attaining diversity on campus is laudable and should be pursued but it should not be pushed to the point where minority students are damaged by well-intentione d policy makers for the sake of establishing some utopian race ratio in the student body.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+5 # AndreM5 2012-01-17 14:46
Excuse me but we got GW Bush as the result of another form of affirmative action. Yale, Harvard, et al., are filled with rich, white, entirely unremarkable affirmative action "legacy" students.
+1 # lilpat126 2012-01-17 11:03
Sound discrimination to me. Why now? Is it part of the Republican drive to get rid of "the lower class"? Education is necessary for us to progress as a nation. Ivy League colleges aren't the only way to learn. Technical schools and state universities are also needed. But, of course if you think that exposure to new ideas will make the young reject the party line you preach then you want to keep your kids away from people who think. Heaven help us if people think for themselves!. I was brought up to reject discrimination. My father came here in 1922. He was 10 and had to fight just because he was German. On my mothers side they were Irish Catholics. The very scum of the earth. Then it was blacks. How many time are we going to fight the same stupidity in this country before we learn to accept people for what they are. Everyone is unique and it is what made this country what it WAS. We won't get it back by starting discrimination all over again.
Smile at everyone, offer encouraging words to strangers be a friend to humanity.
+1 # Glen 2012-01-17 11:47
Another forgotten minority are rural students - of any race. Their struggles to keep up with too much of a "standardized" test system renders their viewpoint and answers null and void regardless of the success of their education over all. Socially, they struggle as much as any minority which very often ruins their academic success in college. Their viewpoint and addition to any college is as worthwhile as any when attempting diversity.

Lee's comments are worth noting. In a country with as large a population as the U.S., somebody is bound to be left out or discriminated against but there is no need to make it so much of an unrealistic challenge. I have actually known high school students who much preferred learning a skill over a college experience due to knowing already that they were not college material regardless of their race. They are living decent lives using those skills.
+2 # narguimbau 2012-01-17 17:32
In a country as diverse as the United States (and the global village that is more and more the adult milieu of professionals), exposure to diversity is an absolutely indispensible part of education. Nothing can replace daily interaction for years on an equal basis with people of differing racial, ethnic, religious,and economic bacgrounds to prepare a person for a productive and comfortable life in the "real world."

Whites, in a world in which they are a minority and a nation in which the are rapidly becoming a minority, are the primary victims of an educationasl system from which diversity is missing.
0 # Texas Aggie 2012-01-17 21:36
Your post is especially true as we become more and more segregated into our little "ghettos" of communities based on ethnic and socioeconomic similarities. According to some studies I've seen, we are becoming more segregated than at any other time in the recent past. Higher education and the military are the only places that we are likely to ever interact on a prolonged basis with someone not of our own "tribe."

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedne ss and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." - Mark Twain
0 # 2012-01-18 06:32
While I am a blue-eyed blond, I choose to live in a mixed community where my immediate neighbors are mostly Hispanic, Cape Verdean, and black. I clearly agree that exposure to people with different perspectives and ethnic heritages is constructive.

But we have a moral imperative to avoid doing additional damage to marginalized kids and our university affirmative action programs are often so aggressive that they do significant damage -- and all so that university administrators can crow about their statistics and meet government mandates. Who cares that so many of their minority students flunk out after a semester or two: they can always get a new batch with the incoming freshmen.

Seek diversity but do not do it so aggressively that the people you are seeking to help are damaged.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+2 # RMDC 2012-01-17 19:10
Diversity is important in all american institutions. But I would not listen to anything Lee Bollinger has to say. He's one of the nations top hypocrites. He runs Columbia like a plantation. He's allowed outside Jewish groups to bully Arab faculty unmercifully. His performance when Iranian President Mahmoud Achmadinejad came to speak there was just disgusting beyond belief. The petty rudeness marked him as a pure lackey of the zionist donors to Columbia.

When he apologizes to Achamdinejad, then I might listen to him.
0 # Glen 2012-01-18 08:39
I had forgotten about the incident with Iran's leader. Thanks for bringing that up. Yep. It was despicable and yes, the man is a lackey. Too many universities have a corporate mentality that is susceptible to outside influence.

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