Uphold diversity

February 16, 2003|By William E. Kirwan

THE U.S. Supreme Court soon will hear two cases challenging the University of Michigan's admissions policies, which take into account the race of student applicants.

In effect, the court will review its 1978 decision in University of California vs. Bakke, which found that the goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race in admissions decisions.

If the court reverses Bakke, the decision will reach far beyond our campuses; it will have the far broader impact of discarding the values of justice and equality that we hold dear. The fact is, fostering diversity in higher education is a moral, economic and social imperative. The evidence of this is more than convincing; it is overwhelming.

Those who argue for "color-blind principles" ignore the reality of life in America today.

Yes, we have seen great progress in becoming a more inclusive society. Whether it's test scores, income levels or employment rates, the black-white gap has been closing. Affirmative-action policies, especially those directed at minority participation in higher education, are a major factor in these trends. But can we seriously claim that the shameful legacy of centuries of state-sanctioned racism has been expunged? Colleges and universities have an obligation to acknowledge and respond to the discrimination and prejudice that continue to plague our society.

To those who reject the moral underpinnings of affirmative action, I offer enlightened self-interest.

Our nation is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Unfortunately, most minority groups are not participating in higher education at anywhere near the level of their white counterparts. If we do not embrace policies to reach and educate a larger number of minority students, there will simply not be enough college-educated, technologically skilled, culturally adaptable people to support our knowledge-based, global economy.

There are also compelling educational and social reasons to provide a diverse educational environment for all students - majority and minority. University of Michigan studies reveal that students who experience diversity on campus are more likely to participate in community and volunteer activities, are better critical thinkers, understand issues from various points of view, and show greater racial and cultural engagement.

In short, education represents our best hope for developing future generations of citizens that value tolerance, support inclusion and practice mutual respect.

Many opponents of Michigan's admissions policies nevertheless voice strong support for the principle of diversity and offer "race neutral" plans to achieve greater inclusivity.

The most popular of these plans guarantee a percentage (often the top 10 percent) of the graduates from each high school admission to a state university. Such "percentage programs" have a limited impact on diversity and significant flaws. By considering only class rank, they fail the key test of looking at applicants as individuals, ignoring the academic quality of students' high schools and other personal characteristics and capabilities.

Ironically, this can result in the admission of more "noncompeting" applicants than are now accepted under affirmative-action plans. The percentage plans also encourage high school students to avoid difficult courses and competitive schools in order to maintain a high class rank.

Further, they have no impact on fostering diversity at graduate and professional schools.

Finally, and most troubling, these plans presuppose the continued de-facto segregation of high schools. Our goal should be to eradicate segregation from our school systems, not implement policies that institutionalize it.

Most Americans agree that achieving diversity on campus is important. There is no easy path to achieving this goal, but there also is no doubt that we must continue our efforts.

The Supreme Court would be wise to not only uphold Michigan's policies, but to acknowledge its success in providing opportunity to more young people, improving the educational experience for all students and contributing to our nation's goals of economic prosperity and social harmony.

William E. Kirwan is chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

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