Why diversity in higher education is worth fighting for
Nearly seven years ago, I found myself standing on the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court addressing a group of reporters.
I was the new president of The University of Texas at Austin, and the university’s legal team was defending the use of race as one factor in a holistic admissions process. Six months later, the Supreme Court would rule in UT Austin’s favor in Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin.
It was a historic moment, validating the educational benefits of diversity and upholding the precedents established by Regents of the University of California v. Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger. At the time, I remember feeling pride and also relief. Now, as the president of Emory University, I am deeply concerned.
Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for two cases focused on the use of race as a narrowly defined aspect of college and university admissions. And the stakes — the future of diversity at American colleges and universities — couldn’t be higher.
Why is this important?
Without the ability to consider race, even in a limited way, many colleges and universities will struggle to recruit diverse classes. If we want graduates to be prepared to solve the greatest challenges of our day, colleges and universities must give them the chance to grow and learn through their studies and from both their professors and classmates. A diverse student population makes that possible.
Diversity is an essential element of the educational experience. This fact is embedded in the mission of colleges and universities: to advance society while improving lives, livelihoods and communities. Diversity doesn’t merely enhance education; it is integral to education.
In the classroom, faculty provide knowledge and direction, and students add vibrancy, depth and their own perspectives to the learning process. Outside the classroom, students are exposed to the views and insights of their fellow students, and they are forever changed, building understanding while preparing for careers and lives in a diverse and interconnected world.
Now imagine what it would be like if, for an individual student, nearly every classmate they interacted with came from a similar background and had, more or less, the same life experiences as them. Think of all the opportunities for growth, collaboration and shared understanding that would be lost.
I have seen firsthand what can happen when race is removed as a factor in admissions. In 1996, I was a professor in the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. That year, Proposition 209 came into effect, banning affirmative action in California public universities. In 1998, the percentage of underrepresented minority students entering UC Berkeley was reduced by half, dropping to 11 percent. In the intervening years, Berkeley has invested heavily in diversity initiatives and improved representation but continues to contend with the limiting effects of Proposition 209. Today, more than a quarter of a century since the proposition passed, California employers are struggling to hire diverse workforces, and it’s painful to think of all the talent that could have been prepared for leadership during that time.
Looking ahead, I am worried that Emory and many other colleges and universities across the country could face similar impediments should the Supreme Court reverse more than 40 years of precedents. Emory admits immensely talented, diverse students from across the nation and the world. No one is accepted or denied admission because of their race. Race is only one factor, but without the ability to even consider it, the consequences are clear: Emory will become less diverse and minority enrollment will decline to the detriment of all who teach, learn and work here.
I have spent my entire career in higher education in the pursuit of knowledge and discovery. I have watched tens of thousands of students benefit tremendously from sharing classrooms and campuses with peers of all backgrounds. The Supreme Court has made this possible by enabling universities to provide the educational benefits of diversity and serve as unparalleled engines for upward social mobility — changing lives, energizing the world’s most dynamic and innovative economy, and helping individuals realize the American dream like nothing else in our society.
The outcomes of these upcoming court cases will either sustain or undermine that dream for generations of students. It’s as simple as that.
Gregory L. Fenves is president of Emory University.