The distance the United States has traveled in overcoming racial discrimination reflects one of our nation’s greatest achievements. Our long struggle toward redeeming the country’s founding ideal of equality has been embraced for decades by virtually every institutional sector in American society. But we still have a long way to go. And with an imminent Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case in which a white student has challenged the school’s affirmative action policy, we are at risk of historical amnesia, of unraveling a heroic societal commitment that we have yet to fulfill. This is occurring amid a public debate too often framed by a false choice about diversity in higher education.
On university and college campuses, the educational benefits of racial and ethnic diversity are not theoretical but real and proven repeatedly over time. This is a conclusion embraced both by the Supreme Court in its definitive 2003 ruling on the matter, Grutter v. Bollinger (as University of Michigan’s president at the time, I was the named defendant), and by my colleagues at 13 schools which, along with Columbia, jointly submitted a brief in the Fisher case asserting that “diversity encourages students to question their assumptions, to understand that wisdom and contributions to society may be found where not expected, and to gain an appreciation of the complexity of the modern world.” Empirical studies have demonstrated that exposure to a culturally diverse campus community environment has a positive impact on students with respect to their critical thinking, enjoyment of reading and writing, and intellectual curiosity. Indeed, there is a nearly universal consensus in higher education about these benefits.
For many years now, the value of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints has been embraced as essential to the fabric of our major institutions, from the military services to private corporations. Yet there is evidence that, particularly in the private sector, the commitment to racial diversity is eroding. A change in the law at this moment making it harder for colleges and universities to supply racially diverse professional talent could be devastating.
Yet, today, we are hearing the argument that higher education’s historic commitment to racial diversity must be replaced by efforts to enroll more children of low-income families at top universities—as though these are mutually exclusive goals. The obvious reply is that the right course is to pursue both. Certainly at Columbia, we take great pride in an undergraduate student body with as high a percentage of low- and moderate-income students as any of our peer institutions and the largest number of military veterans, as well as the highest percentage of African American students among the nation’s top 30 universities. Over and over, our students tell us that they come for the intellectual excitement produced by the various kinds of diversity on our campus. In fact, last week at commencement when I addressed Columbia’s class of 2013, the loudest applause from the graduates came in response to my suggestion that encountering the diversity of their talented classmates was the most influential part of their experience on campus.
Many other universities and colleges are equally committed to creating educational communities that reflect the widest possible ranges of talent, background, and human experience. For those of us whose job is to preserve and enhance the quality of higher education, the new insistence on choosing either socioeconomic or racial diversity makes no more sense than deciding that we can dispense with exposing our students to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America because they’ve already read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. To view them in the alternative is willfully and unnecessarily to impoverish the educational mission.
How, then, has this binary choice, at once voluntary and wrongheaded, come to inform the latest round of American society’s recurring discussion of race, discrimination, and diversity?
To start, there is widespread discomfort in this country with government or institutional policies that factor race into decision-making. One concern, a legitimate one, is that this door swings both ways: By opening it in order to use racial identity for benign purposes, such as overcoming past discrimination or promoting diversity, we also make ourselves vulnerable to institutionalized prejudice and bias.
The real challenges intrinsic to gaining diversity’s many benefits must not be conflated, however, with the very different and erroneous idea that the United States in 2013 has become a post-racial society, for that surely is not the case. According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, the nation’s population of African American and Latino K–12 students is more segregated than at any time since the 1960s. One-third of black students and almost one-half of white students attend a primary or secondary school where 90 percent of their classmates are of their race, a trend that shows no signs of abating. Particularly for these students, a college experience of immersion in a diverse student body will be essential if they are to thrive in the multi-racial society they will inhabit as adults.
Another familiar argument for ending affirmative action in higher education, cloaked in new data and rhetoric, is that such efforts put African American and Hispanic students in educational environments where they are over their heads and bound to fail. However well intended, this “mismatch theory” has been widely criticized by scholars for employing flawed methodology. Indeed, if there is one thing that respected studies have shown, it is that both minority and low-income students who went to top-tier colleges do better later in life than equally smart students who did not.
Finally, it is understandable that public concern about high tuition costs and growing student debt has focused attention on maintaining socioeconomic diversity. But let’s be candid. The source of increased tuition is not too much racial and cultural diversity; nor will the problem be solved by ending affirmative action in admissions. The real culprit here is the foolish decision of too many state governments to slash investment in public universities, like the one I graduated from, where the vast majority of students in the U.S. receive their college education and find a ladder of opportunity.
America’s race problem was centuries in the making and is far from solved. This is not the moment for reversing our collective progress by limiting the ability of institutions of higher education to achieve racial diversity along with class diversity, and other forms as well.
If we were to reverse course, we would find ourselves living in a changed and diminished America, where the number of black and Latino students admitted to the nation’s top schools would be much smaller. At California’s flagship state universities, UCLA and Berkeley, the percentage of admitted undergraduate students who are African American is still 40 percent below what it was 17 years ago when the state adopted a referendum banning any consideration of race in the admissions process. The figures for admission of Latino applicants are better only because of the huge increase in the proportion of California’s high school graduates who are Latino. Make no mistake: This outcome hurts all students on campus by robbing them of the skills learned through exposure to diverse people and perspectives, the very skills needed to succeed in today’s global marketplace.
Should the Supreme Court make it impossible or difficult for colleges and universities to continue their affirmative action efforts, many will wonder why we saw fit to abandon our commitment to racial diversity in higher education. At that point the real mismatch will be painfully apparent—the one between the supposed gains brought about by banishing race from college admissions, and the reality produced by such a change.