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.