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The Future of Diversity

The Future of Diversity
The foursome above discussed "The Future of Diversity"
on May 24 in Harlem. From left, panelists Lani Guinier,
Lee C. Bollinger and Theodore M. Shaw with
moderator David Dinkins.

As a professor of Constitutional law, Columbia President Lee Bollinger often recounts the history of the Supreme Court’s decisions on segregation and affirmative action. But when he told the story last month to an audience in Harlem attending a discussion of the future of diversity, his account seemed particularly heartfelt: For the last decade, President Bollinger has been part of that history, as the defendant in two Supreme Court cases challenging affirmative action.

The past, present and uncertain future of affirmative action was the subject of a lively discussion between three prominent legal experts on May 24th at the landmark Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library on Malcolm X Boulevard. Sponsored by Columbia University in a partnership with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 90-minute discussion featured provocative exchanges between Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier, Ted Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Bollinger.

In 2003, the Court upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action in one of the cases in which Bollinger is a named defendant by a 5-4 majority. But with opponents of affirmative action mounting new offensives, and two new justices on the Supreme Court, its future is in doubt. “We are at a moment of crisis,” Bollinger told the crowd. “Affirmative action is under siege.”

The Future of Diversity
Panelists Lani Guinier, Lee C. Bollinger
and Theodore M. Shaw.

The discussion, moderated by former New York Mayor David Dinkins, a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, focused on ways to maintain diversity on campus, whether or not affirmative action survives. The audience at the included many recognized leaders of the city’s black community such as Percy Sutton, Eugene Webb, Hazel Dukes and Paul Robeson, Jr.

Guinier, a leading race relations scholar, said she worried that even well intentioned affirmative action “can be used to reinforce stereotypes rather than to dismantle them.” that Guinier said she is beginning to question the entire notion of merit. “I’m worried that the way we have thought about diversity is an exception to a rule, and the rule is defined as merit,” she said. “It becomes an uneasy bargain, my call to you tonight is that we begin to question that bargain.”

President Bollinger responded by saying that “race” and “merit” are not separate considerations. Admissions officers “look at an astounding array of personal attributes” under the university’s admissions policy. In terms of ability, the differences between groups are “so small that to single out this particular criterion and to say that it shows that a group of people are not qualified is really an outrage,” he added.

The Future of Diversity
Panelists Lani Guinier, Lee C. Bollinger
and Theodore M. Shaw.

More and more, Shaw said, he hears that affirmative action should be based on class, not race. But since the majority of poor people are white, Shaw said, such a shift would leave black and Latino students underrepresented. He also had these words for those who say it is time for a color-blind society.: “I refuse to let go of the issue of race, because the issue of race has not let go of us.”

At the end of the discussion, there were so many questions from the audience that the panel barely had time for answers. “How will we know when it’s okay to stop using affirmative action?” was one, and another was “Does the fact that people sorted us by race in the past give us license to continue doing it today?”

Bollinger summed up the consensus of the panel. “We have come a long way since Brown vs. Board of Education,” he said. And we have to be very very careful that what we have achieved is not reversed, even more than it has been in the past couple of decades.”

– Written by Fred A. Bernstein. Photographs by Chris Taggart. Special advance story from The Record.

Published: June 04, 2007
Last modified: Jun 26, 2008