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.