By Sharon Davies, Executive Director,
The challenge in the Fisher v. University of Texas case is about more than whether the University of Texas (and others like it) should be permitted to factor race along with numerous other aspects of an applicant’s biography when attempting to create a diverse learning environment. It is an attack on diversity and inclusion as a value.
This was openly revealed in a column written by respected conservative George Will back in June, and pointed questions put to the attorneys who argued the affirmative action case before the U.S. Supreme Court last week echoed some of the columnist’s sentiments.
Will’s column bemoaned the “declining value” of a college education in an age of rising tuition costs and then named the culprit he believed to be behind it: the government’s misguided judgment that too few students attend college and its related willingness to subsidize the education of those who otherwise would be unable to afford it. Will predicted that the resulting student loan debt is the next big bubble waiting to burst, and just like the group of unqualified homebuyers he thinks never should have been given mortgages, “lowered standards” of universities across the country are allowing unworthy students to fill scarce college seats.
In addition to the corps of students being unwisely benefited by such government largesse, the conservative columnist took aim at soaring college costs burdening parents of college-bound children and then linked those costs to the ill-advised decisions of universities to fund the salaries of diversity and inclusion administrators and programs. He then proceeded to name a number of them: UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor of Equity and Inclusion, employees of UC Davis’ Diversity Trainers Institute and its LBGT Resource Center, UC San Francisco’s Office of Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Diversity, and UC San Diego’s vice chancellorship for equity, diversity and inclusion. Will also criticized UCSD’s decision to add “diversity requirements for graduation,”, as if that could have any redeeming social or educational value for college graduates headed into a global economy.
On the first day of its new term several of the Supreme Court’s more conservative justices seemed similarly disdainful of admissions policies designed to bring a “critical mass” of underrepresented students of color into the nation’s most selective universities. Only nine years ago, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reaffirmed that student body diversity is a compelling state interest, and while universities could not enroll minority students in accordance with some pre-set quota or numerical target, they could strive to admit sufficient numbers of students of color to prevent them from feeling like “spokespersons of their race.”
But this week several of the justices could scarcely contain their antipathy for the critical mass idea. Chief Justice Roberts pressed UT’s attorney to Identify precisely how many minority collegians would constitute a “critical mass,” despite the Court’s repeated warning in the past that setting such a number would make an admissions policy constitutionally indefensible.
Tipping his hand, Justice Scalia referred to the critical mass concept “as a weird kind of fact,” and suggested that replacing the concept with a more mechanical, ostensibly race-blind rule would be better. Texas established such a rule, after minority enrollment plummeted when its courts banned the explicit consideration of race, by guaranteeing college admission to any high school student who graduated in the top ten percent of his or her class. The percent rule yielded better (though still smaller) minority enrollments, but only because high schools in the state remained largely segregated by race, which prompted Justice Ginsburg to question whether it could fairly be labeled race-neutral at all.
It can’t be known for sure whether Justice Scalia shares the view that government policies designed to make college possible for more students have diminished the value of degrees, and that college costs have been unwisely inflated by, as Will puts it, diversity and inclusion “sprawl.” But there were hints in the justice’s questions that he does. Scalia asked the university’s lawyer just out “of curiosity,” how many people UT’s “affirmative action department” employed to run its “very ambitious racial program?” Then mused: “There would be a large number of people out of a job . . . wouldn’t they, if we suddenly went to just 10 percent?”
Although Abigail Fisher’s attorney was reluctant to admit during oral argument that he is hoping the Court will overrule the Grutter decision and is critical mass concept, Justice Sotomayor rightly cut to the chase, saying no, “you just want to gut it.”
The claim that diversity and inclusion efforts are financial folly is compellingly refuted by the 73 friend-of-the-court briefs filed in support of the University of Texas’s admissions procedures from sectors as broad as business, the military, public office, civil rights organizations, professional associations, and universities across the country. The Justices should read them. Far from squandering state and federal resources, expanding educational opportunity and producing the multiculturally competent citizens and leaders that our nation and world will need is an investment with limitless payoff. Diversity promotes cross-racial understanding, reduces harmful stereotypes, and prepares students to succeed in a multicultural world. The nation and its citizens deserve nothing less.