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Diversity and the Future of Affirmative Action

By William D. Adams, President

The increasingly noisy public debate over the role of affirmative action in higher education took a decisive turn this year in two separate court cases involving the University of Michigan. In light of the nature of those cases and the opinions they produced, it now seems almost certain that the U.S. Supreme Court will once again address the matter, nearly a quarter century after its landmark decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The outcome could affect profoundly the admission practices of colleges and universities for many years to come.

The cases at Michigan focused on admission policies in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the Law School. In both cases, plaintiffs claimed that the University's practices violated provisions of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The judges in the separately argued cases arrived at perfectly contradictory conclusions regarding that claim, in one case upholding (the College of Arts and Sciences), and in the other striking down (the Law School) the admission policies in question.

The key issue in the Michigan cases concerns the latitude colleges and universities have in pursuing diversity as a goal of the admission process. In Bakke, Justice Powell's tie-breaking and solitary opinion affirmed the legitimacy of the goal of diversity and permitted college and university admission processes to consider race as one of a number of factors in admission decisions regarding specific candidates. Since that time, and increasingly over time, many institutions, Colby among them, have sought to recruit classes composed of students from diverse backgrounds in keeping with Powell's decision in Bakke.

Unlike affirmative action in employment practices, where remediation of the effects of past discrimination has been the primary philosophical and legal justification, affirmative action in college admission has been tightly linked to the educational mission. That linkage is grounded in the notion that students learn more and more powerfully when they are living and learning in an environment composed of individuals from very different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. While identifying individual students of academic talent and merit, admission processes should also attempt to create an intellectually challenging mix of students from the pool of qualified applicants. It is this essentially pedagogical claim for diversity that Justice Powell confirmed as a "compelling interest" in his opinion.

At Colby and most other highly selective liberal arts colleges, the pursuit of diversity over the past several years has meant several things. We have focused very directly and intensely on increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups, including, importantly, students from American racial minorities. But our pursuit of diversity has not stopped there. By growing our financial aid resources, we have been able to recruit and enroll students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, even as the cost of private higher education has increased dramatically over that time. In more recent years, we have increased dramatically the number of international students on the campus, as well as students from outside the northeastern United States. And we have always sought a diversity of talents--athletes, bassoonists, debaters--as an important element in the construction of each class. All of these differences have educational value and significance for our students and faculty.

What makes the prospect of the Supreme Court's review of affirmative action now more likely and worrisome is the deep disagreement in the Michigan rulings over the force and meaning of Powell's defense of diversity in Bakke. In Gratz v. Bollinger, Federal District Court Judge Patrick J. Duggan concluded strongly that "under Bakke, diversity constitutes a compelling governmental interest...justifying the use of race as one factor in the admission process." In the case at the Law School, Judge Bernard A. Friedman ruled in exactly the opposite direction. "The court does not doubt," he observed, "that racial diversity in the law school population may provide...educational benefits.... Nonetheless, the fact remains that the attainment of a racially diverse class is not a compelling state interest because it was not recognized as such by Bakke and it is not a remedy for past discrimination."

Since the Supreme Court has not revisited the essential issues in Bakke for more than 20 years, it is impossible to say with certainty how it will receive new challenges to the diversity argument. But the court's recent rulings on the scope of affirmative action in employment, combined with the inherent ambiguities of Bakke, give plenty of reason for concern.

Stated in the broadest possible terms, that concern is this: any serious and broad legal retrenchment on the legal argument for diversity would be very damaging to American higher education. Though we have some distance left to travel, our colleges and universities have made important gains on the diversity front in recent years, and the education we offer is far better as a result. Our students know more about the world because of the differences they encounter in college life, and they are better prepared for the challenges that wait for them beyond our campuses. We must not back away from our obligations to the future and to the broader public good we are committed to serving.


Diversity Call Renewed: Students, President Bro Adams, faculty and others join in effort to appreciate and accentuate differences.
Making Waves: An inside look at the news you love to hear--from Colbians.
A Simple Feast: Wylie Dufresne '92 is one of the hottest chefs in New York City.
President's Page: President Bro Adams on the court and affirmative action.
Commencement 2001
Alumni Reunion 2001

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