Why Diversity Matters

June 1, 2007

As published in the Chronicle of Higher Education

During this frantic admissions season, it is easy for our applicants to think that the most important moment in their college career is when they rip open the mail to find out where they got in and where the didn't. but we in higher education understand that the admissions process has less to do with rewarding each student's past performance -- although high performance is clearly essential -- than it does with building a community of diverse learners who will thrive together and teach one another.

When it comes to creating the kinds of diversity we sorely need in this country, however, disturbing trends and setbacks are making it difficult for many public schools and universities to succeed. The reality is that as much as we may want to believe that racial prejudice is a relic of history, conscience and experience tell us better.

Even now, the Supreme Court is considering two public-school cases out of Washington and Kentucky that would subvert the resounding principle that Brown v. Board of Education established 53 years ago on May 17, 1954, that "separate is inherently unequal." If successful, both cases would ban local districts from developing voluntary desegregation programs that seek to maintain racial balance in our schools and counteract the worst resegregation crisis we have faced since the early days of the civil-rights movement.

According to the 2000 census, only 14 percent of white students attend multiracial schools, while nearly 40 percent of both black and Latino students attend intensely segregated schools where 90 percent to 100 percent are from minority groups. Further, almost half of all black and Latino students attend schools where three- quarters or more students are poor, compared with only 5 percent of white students; in extremely poor schools, 80 percent of the students are black and Latino.

Beyond elementary and secondary schools, higher education continues to face its own challenges, including statewide bans on affirmative action. Recent news reports have noted how hard some of our leading public universities are working to revise recruitment and admissions policies to comply with those bans without jeopardizing the diversity of the students who attend their campuses. What's important, however, is why those universities are trying so hard to maximize diversity -- even though no law requires it, and in several states affirmative action is explicitly forbidden.

I have been deeply involved in two U.S. Supreme Court cases -- Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) -- that ultimately upheld the constitutionality of affirmative-action policies at public universities. Let me suggest why, having vindicated the legality of affirmative action, higher education must not lose the practical and political battles to maintain racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse student bodies.

Universities understand that to remain competitive, their most important obligation is to determine -- and then deliver -- what future graduates will need to know about their world and how to gain that knowledge. While the last century witnessed a new demand for specialized research, prizing the expert's vertical mastery of a single field, the emerging global reality calls for new specialists who can synthesize a diversity of fields and draw quick connections among them. In reordering our sense of the earth's interdependence, that global reality also cries out for a new age of exploration, with students displaying the daring, curiosity, and mettle to discover and learn entirely new areas of knowledge.

The experience of arriving on a campus to live and study with classmates from a diverse range of backgrounds is essential to students' training for this new world, nurturing in them an instinct to reach out instead of clinging to the comforts of what seems natural or familiar. We know that connecting with people very -- or even slightly -- different from ourselves stimulates the imagination; and when we learn to see the world through a multiplicity of eyes, we only make ourselves more nimble in mastering -- and integrating -- the diverse fields of knowledge awaiting us.

Affirmative-action programs help achieve that larger goal. And the universities that create and carry them out do so not only because overcoming longstanding obstacles to people of color and women in higher education is the right thing to do, but also because policies that encourage a comprehensive diversity help universities achieve their mission. Specifically, they are indispensable in training future leaders how to lead all of society, and by attracting a diverse cadre of students and faculty, they increase our universities' chances of filling in gaps in our knowledge with research and teaching on a wider -- and often uncovered -- array of subjects.

At the same time, such policies foster a greater spirit of community on campuses as well as between universities and the cities and towns they call home. The days of the gated university are past, and affirmative action is crucial to making our universities welcoming places for community members to visit, take classes, and inspire their children to dream.

Opponents of affirmative action forget that broader purpose in their demand for what they see as a "pure" admissions meritocracy based on how students perform in high school and on standardized tests. But it is far less important to reward past performance -- and impossible to isolate a candidate's objective talent from the contextual realities shaping that performance -- than to make the best judgment about which applicants can contribute to help form the strongest class that will study and live together. For graduate schools and employment recruiters, that potential is the only "merit" that matters because in an increasingly global world, it is impossible to compete without already knowing how to imagine, understand, and collaborate with a diverse and fluid set of colleagues, partners, customers, and government leaders.

By abolishing all public affirmative-action programs, voters in California and Michigan (and other states if affirmative-action opponents are successful) have not only toppled a ladder of equal opportunity in higher education that so many of us fought to build and the Supreme Court upheld in 2003. They will almost assuredly make their great public universities less diverse -- and have, in fact, done so in California, where the impact has become clear -- and therefore less attractive options to potential students and, ultimately, less valuable contributors to our globalized society.

As the president of a private university, I am glad that independent institutions retain the autonomy to support diversity efforts that make our graduates more competitive candidates for employers and graduate schools, as well as better informed citizens in our democracy and the world. But as an alumnus of one public university and a former president of another, I worry about a future in which one of America's great success stories slides backward from the mission of providing generations of young Americans with access to an affordable higher education.

From the establishment of the land-grant colleges in the 1860s to the GI Bill after World War II to the Higher Education Act of 1965, our public universities have advanced the notion that in educating college students for the world they will inhabit, it is necessary to bring people together from diverse parts of society and to educate them in that context. Far from being optional or merely enriching, it is the very essence of what we mean by a liberal or humanistic education.

It is also vital for establishing a cohesive, truly national society -- one in which rising generations learn to overcome the biases they absorb as children while also appreciating the unique talents their colleagues bring to any equation. Only education can get us there.

As Justice Thurgood Marshall knew so well: "The legal system can open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. ... We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same." Cutting affirmative action short now only betrays that history of social progress. And, in the process, it threatens the core value of academically renowned public universities at a time when many Americans list rising tuition costs as one of their gravest economic concerns.

All of this leads to the conclusion that diversity -- one of the great strengths of American education -- is under siege today. At the elementary- and secondary-school levels, resegregation is making it exceedingly difficult for minority students to get the resources that inspire rising generations to apply to and then attend college. At the same time, the elimination of affirmative-action programs at our public universities is keeping admissions officials from lifting those same students up to offset the structural inequalities they had to face in getting there.

As we honor the parents, students, lawyers, and nine justices who spoke with one voice in Brown on that May day 53 years ago, we would all do well to remember that when it comes to responsible diversity programs -- those that help our public schools and our great public universities fulfill their historic roles as avenues of economic and cultural mobility -- what is wise is also what is just.

Lee C. Bollinger is president of Columbia University and previously served as president of the University of Michigan.


Bollinger writes that the experience of arriving on a campus to live and study with classmates from a diverse range of backgrounds is essential to students' training and to nurture in them an instinct to reach out instead of retreat. Bollinger writes that connecting with people who are different stimulates the imagination: and when students learn to see the world through a multiplicity of eyes, they become more nimble at mastering--and integrating--the diverse fields of knowledge awaiting us.