Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, gave voice to what is now a standard appeal for diversity in American institutions of higher learning on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 5, 2013). Challenging Justice Clarence Thomas’ claim that there is “no principled distinction between the University’s assertion that diversity yields educational benefits and the segregationists’ assertion that segregation yielded those same benefits,” Bollinger avers that not only is there a distinction, but that diversity is consistent with the educational mission of the nation.
He asserts, without empirical evidence, that “students learn better in educational environments that confront them with people who are, or whom they perceive to be, different.” In fact, study after study demonstrates that racial and ethnic diversity on campus hasn’t any relationship to cognitive development. Some students do contend that confronting classmates from different backgrounds may be a rewarding dimension of the college experience, but that claim in itself doesn’t prove diversity enhances learning opportunity.
Mr. Bollinger goes on to cite the way we educate our children in overcoming “two centuries of slavery and another hundred years of Jim Crow laws” is an historic yardstick. Of course, there is a need to repudiate slavery and Jim Crow, but is the application of race admissions to colleges the way to do it? Because a college has a mixture of racial and ethnic groups on campus does not ensure the integration Bollinger glibly asserts. In a visit to a cafeteria at Columbia, I noticed that two tables were occupied by black students without the presence of one white person. That, in itself, is an insufficient example from which to draw any conclusion, but it does raise questions about the assumption undergirding racial diversity.
The recent Fisher case, which sidestepped the issue of affirmative action leaving it to lower courts to decide its veracity, will force universities to consider criteria for arriving at the conclusion diversity should be an essential feature of higher education. To be sure, Columbia and most elite institutions examine a kaleidoscope of talents and backgrounds in making admissions decisions. Since race is presumably one of those factors, perhaps religion might be another. How many born-again Christians are among the recently constructed admissions’ class? Moreover, if diversity is the goal, has an effort been made to identify conservatives whose point of view may be different from President Bollinger’s?
In his article Mr. Bollinger attempts to connect “the educational benefits” of diversity with the ideals in the Constitution. Alas, Bollinger ignores the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments that contend we are equal before the law and should be treated equally without the application of race as a handicap or an advantage. He concludes with the hyperbolic claim that “what we have not achieved, and need desperately to have, are more decisions with heart – conveying the essence of why it matters to the broader moral and social needs of the nation.”
Here again, I take exception. What we need are decisions that rely on our “head,” on the essence of fair play and why it matters that a university – as a contributor to the nation’s moral foundation – understands that disparate admission standards based on race violate the basic principles of this nation and are wholly inconsistent with our social needs.