Good News for Higher Education and the Nation: The Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action

By M. Lee Pelton
President, Willamette University
Salem, Oregon

Slightly edited versions of the president's opinion piece are scheduled to appear in The Seattle Times June 25 and in The Chronicle of Higher Education delivered June 30 but dated July 4, 2003.

The Supreme Court's ruling on the two cases challenging University of Michigan's admission practices is good news for American higher education.

Taken together, the Court said "no" to the affirmative action opponents who seek to undo decades of hard-earned social progress - who want the nation to turn its back on America's commitment to equality and social justice.

The Court has affirmed three principles that are fundamental to the core purposes of our nation's colleges and universities. First, it says that colleges and universities - not the courts - may decide who they admit and on what basis they may be admitted. Second, it says that diversity remains a compelling educational interest. Third, it says that institutions of higher learning may continue to use affirmative action in achieving diversity, as long as the methods of doing so are "narrowly tailored."

The Court - by a 5 - 4 vote - upheld the law school's use of race to create a "critical mass" of minority students in its student body. By contrast, the Court voted 6 - 3 that while the undergraduate school's educational diversity interests were compelling, its point system was not sufficiently "narrowly-tailored."

Perhaps, the best news of all is that the Court's ruling supports the important notion that each college and university should be free to establish its own educational mission. Since 1819, when Daniel Webster uttered the now famous words on behalf of his alma mater, "'tis a small college but there are those who love it," in defense of Dartmouth College's assertion that the State of New Hampshire had no right to claim it as a public university, the courts have held the view that institutions of higher learning may choose what they teach, who will teach and who will be admitted. (See American Council on Education Amici Curiae Brief, pp. 4 -12.)

Additionally, the Court's ruling recognizes that race matters in America. The Court seems to agree with William Bowen and Neil Rudenstine, who have said that "it is morally wrong and historically indefensible to think of race as 'just another' dimension of diversity... [because] ... racial classifications were used in this country for more than 300 years in the most odious ways to deprive people of their basic rights." (Race-Sensitive Admissions: Back to Basics, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 7, 2003, p. B10.)

Diversity matters.

Yet, despite the clear and urgent need for us to do a better job of bringing and supporting diversity in our communities of learning, there are those who are opposed both to the methods of inclusion as well as to the inclusion itself.

Those who actively oppose affirmative action do not plan to stop with this failed attempt. This is just a single battle in a long war that they plan to wage.

We know by now that the opposition to affirmative action in college admissions is based on powerful cultural myths, none of which is true. We have not achieved true equality in America. We do not all begin the race from the starting line with an equal advantage. Colleges and universities have never admitted students based purely on academic merit without consideration of other factors. Today's high school students do not come to our institutions with greater exposure to diversity, but rather we know that our public high schools are more segregated today than they were 15 years ago. And lastly, affirmative action does not stigmatize those whom it is designed to benefit.

I will not recite the many other arguments against affirmative action here. Instead, I am reminded daily that this issue has a human dimension - it has a human face.

The opposition to affirmative action as one means to achieve diversity bothers me greatly. I take it as a personal affront.

My own beginnings were very modest. My grandparents were sharecroppers, and my family belonged to the class of people called "the working poor." On more than one Saturday morning I woke up to nothing to eat in the house save a can of Carnation milk that my mother mixed with water, a green apple and day old donuts that she bought because they were half price. And though we were never on welfare, many around us were. My mother finished high school. My father did not, earning his G.E.D. certificate when I was a young boy. Though he lived in a predominantly white school district, he was forced to walk each day to the "colored-only" segregated school several miles away.

My father was a laborer and my mother cleaned houses for a living. Like many in my generation, I was the first to go to college. I went to Harvard on a scholarship that was designed to increase the enrollment of students of color. No one called it affirmative action back then - but that is what it was. Its purpose was to provide an incentive for bright young men and women to consider pursuing a Ph.D. in the graduate school of arts and sciences rather than law or business or medical school or, the truth be told, to attend Harvard rather than, say, Yale or Princeton or Stanford.

This opportunity changed my life forever. I am the perfect example of why these policies are important to preserve and to enhance until they best serve the crucial goals of diversity and opportunity.

In 1916, John Dewey described democracy as the most ethical aspiration conceived by ethical communities. The aspiration was unobtainable, he wrote, without a society's commitment to a life-long education to develop the "capacities for associated living" in a society characterized by complexity and diversity.

This is the great American dream. That we can create out of the rich diversity of human experience communities of learning - communities made both beautiful and effective by their pluralism - communities of learning that will turn the tide of human want into a sea of joy and light.

No one can afford to be silent until the table is set for all to enjoy life's bounty and where our nation's motto - e pluribus unum - the one out of the many - is a living creed.

We must find what binds us together, in common hope and need, not what divides us. For we may or may not all come to love one another, but to be part of the best of this place we must have the moral courage to respect one another.

This is our hope as a nation committed to equality and social justice.