The Diversity Dilemma

Is affirmative action the victim of its own success? That’s one conclusion to be drawn from Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, two cases challenging affirmative-action policies at the University of Michigan. Affirmative action has always counterposed two basic aspects of the American notion of equal opportunity. Opponents argue that taking race or gender into account in hiring or university admissions is discrimination pure and simple. Proponents counter that taking such characteristics into account redresses a legacy of discrimination; in effect, affirmative-action programs create a level playing field where certain groups historically have been denied the opportunity to compete. Legally, affirmative action has barely survived scrutiny, and is far from assured of a future under the Rehnquist Supreme Court. Yet over the last thirty-five years accumulating evidence demonstrates that sociologically and economically affirmative-action programs have played an indispensable role in the emergence of a new black middle class and in opening doors to women in the university, the professions, and the corporate world.

The two cases involving the University of Michigan challenge the legality of the university’s undergraduate admissions policies as well as those of the law school. Both actions against the university are being funded by the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based public-interest law firm determined to dismantle race-based preferences. The suits have been called the Alamo of affirmative action, and the most important race cases in a generation. In response, the University of Michigan has mounted a comprehensive legal defense of affirmative action, at least as the university practices it.

Trial testimony documents the fact that racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom improves the critical thinking skills and intellectual motivation of all students. Further, students who attend schools with diverse populations are more likely to later settle in heterogeneous communities and to be active in improving those communities. Businesses, once opponents, now say they have benefited from affirmative action in higher education: twenty Fortune 500 companies, including Microsoft, General Mills, Texaco, Intel, Lucent Technologies, and Eli Lilly, submitted a brief in support of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions procedures. The brief asserts that diversity in higher education is so vital to the companies’ efforts "to hire and maintain a diverse work force" and to employ people "who have been educated in a diverse environment" that the government has a compelling interest in allowing public colleges to continue using affirmative action in admissions. The university won its case on undergraduate admissions in federal district court this past December.

The Gratz and Grutter cases are noteworthy and controversial for other reasons, however, reasons that go beyond the classic justification for affirmative action as a remedy for historical and legal discrimination, most notably against African Americans. The new justifications invoked in the Michigan cases rest on the benefits that have come from affirmative action now defined as "diversity" broadly understood. The Supreme Court in Baake (1978) paved the way for this development when it ruled that colleges and universities could use race as one factor in selecting students. Other factors have since emerged. Initially, the University of Michigan adopted affirmative action in an effort to provide an admission’s boost to groups who had previously faced barriers in education and employment. Now the university defends its admissions policy to promote the benefits of diversity in the student body.

For some affirmative-action supporters, the evolution toward diversity is problematic. Won’t the goal of providing opportunity to injured groups be obscured? If diversity is the good to be achieved, why not expand affirmative action to include Pakistanis, Norwegians, Arabs? Should recent immigrants benefit from affirmative-action programs originally designed to help black Americans? Certainly affirmative action opponents think the d-word opens a Pandora’s box of racial and ethnic gerrymandering. The plaintiff in the pending suit against the University of Michigan Law School, for example, is an older, so-called "nontraditional" woman applicant. Might not she bring diversity benefits to the classroom too? Put on the waiting list at the law school, she argues that her scores and grades would have earned her admission had she been a member of a minority group.

One way for the university to address these questions is to voluntarily and periodically review its admissions policies in light of new demographic data, new sociological studies of affirmative action’s impact, and the current debates on affirmative-action trends. This information is vital to the university’s continual refinement of its goals in embracing affirmative action.

What is really at stake in these cases, however, is not the meaning of the term diversity, but the purpose of a university. In the plaintiffs’ view, higher education is a means to individual advancement: therefore admissions must be strictly meritocratic (a notoriously amorphous standard itself). Scores and grades, they argue, are the only things that should count. The university sees its mission in a broader context. Yes, it must train scholars and contribute to the expansion of knowledge. But a public university also has social and moral obligations. Extending the benefits of education to all groups within society is one such obligation. If the studies showing the success of affirmative action are reliable, the extension of those benefits will not compromise the academic integrity of the institution, but will actually contribute to its improvement.

Published in the 2001-03-09 issue: 
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