Affirmative action: Next steps for college diversity | Opinion
“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday, does not permit discrimination based on the color of one’s skin.
In its landmark decisions striking down race-based admissions at universities, the Supreme Court provided some guidance as to how schools can keep their focus on building intellectually diverse and vibrant student bodies.
Universities may legally consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university,” the court said. It added, “Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
The rulings, in two decisions concerning race-based admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, led to a predictable range of reactions and opinions across a broad landscape of interests Thursday. The emphasis, however, ought to be forward looking.
Colleges and universities will need to craft admissions criteria that can measurably gauge character, ability, worldview and other qualities. While no one seems to know yet what that would look like, the nation’s brightest minds can certainly find a way. In fact, after Oklahoma banned affirmative action considerations in university admissions back in 2012, the university’s student body became even more diverse.
In the court’s ruling, the majority was not impressed by a list of higher education’s affirmative action goals it said included “training future leaders, acquiring new knowledge based on diverse outlooks, promoting a robust marketplace of ideas, and preparing engaged and productive citizens.
“It is unclear how courts are supposed to measure any of these goals, or if they could, to know when they have been reached so that racial preferences can end,” the ruling said.
The court has always maintained that affirmative action was to be temporary, until goals had been met.
Harvard’s response to Thursday’s rulings was to assure that it “will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values.” Every university interested in fostering a diverse campus ought to be undertaking a similar discussion, but adding a discussion on preserving the values of the Constitution.
There is another, much larger discussion that Americans ought to be having, and that has to do with the bedrock public school principle of providing equal educational opportunities for all Americans, beginning with the earliest grades.
This is a much more difficult problem to solve because it involves complicated and interlocking factors that delve into socioeconomic status and cultural differences, and the necessity to measure performance in a consistent and fair manner (think grade-point average and entrance exams). But, at its heart, it concerns the reality that poor and minority children tend to perform worse at school than their wealthier counterparts.
In its ruling Thursday, the court lamented its own negative role in this problem by, in 1896, issuing a decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that created the concept of segregated schools being “separate but equal,” a thing it said “would come to deface much of America.” The notion was a fiction, as schools continued to provide unequal educational opportunities based on race.
And yet today, long after that concept was struck down, one could hardly argue that schools are equal nationwide. Recently released data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that performance gaps are widening for race, as well as for gender.
Experts noted that the pandemic diminished scores across the board last year, but that the losses were especially bad for female students, who fell 11 points in math over 2020 results, and Black students, whose scores dropped by 13 points. White students saw scores decline by six points, and male students overall dropped by seven points, compared with a seven-point decrease for male students overall.
The nation’s high court has made it clear that the era of race-based admissions is over. From the beginning, it had always been clear that the concept would come to an end one day.
No one, however, should doubt the value of diversity — in thought, opinions, culture, religion, backgrounds and every other way — on America’s college campuses. Obtaining that diversity will now demand evaluations including in great measure the content of one’s character.