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My Turn: We must provide a foundation of equality in education

The U.S. Supreme Court revisits the issue of affirmative action in higher education this term in Fisher v. The University of Texas. It does so against the backdrop of its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that the University of Michigan Law School’s consideration of race as a plus factor in admissions decisions was constitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

In Grutter, the court held that Michigan’s law school had a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body – and that its aim of enrolling a “critical mass” of minority students was crucial to realizing the benefits of diversity. The critical mass concept is important for two reasons: First, it recognizes that, absent a group of peers of the same race, a minority student may feel isolated, alone, unsafe and inhibited; and, second, a school that has achieved some limited diversity may still be predominantly made up of students from one race.

As the Grutter majority noted, achieving a critical mass of diverse students promotes cross-racial understanding, helps break down racial stereotypes, enables students to better understand students of different races and makes classroom discussion more lively, more spirited, more enlightening and more interesting. That in turn prepares students for a diverse workforce and the ability to succeed in a global, multicultural economy. Business leaders, high-ranking retired military officers and civilian leaders of the military all filed “friend of the court” briefs in Grutter, emphasizing the profound importance of diversity. The court cited and relied upon those briefs in articulating its holding.

Fisher involves an admissions process at the University of Texas under which race is considered as a plus factor in admissions decisions as part of a full-file evaluation. The university guarantees enrollment to any student who finishes in the top 10 percent of his or her Texas public high school class and considers the applications of residents who do not achieve that rank under another scheme involving a multi-step holistic review. It is as part of the holistic review that the university might consider race in its decision-making process.

The court in Fisher should not undo the achievements of Grutter and turn its back on the gains in racial sensitivity and awareness America has experienced over its history. The nation achieved those gains through pain, war, death, peaceful protest, advocacy and tenacity. Considering race in a full-file admissions review is sensible, given all the factors we educators are free to consider – wealth, the ability to throw a football, the ability to play the flute or tuba, leadership skills, home address, whether a parent or family member is an alumnus, etc. To be able to consider such things but not be able to consider race as part of a carefully tailored plan would inhibit higher education’s aspirations to truly improve the world through our students’ educations.

Another, narrower issue in Foster revolves around the phrase critical mass. The court in Grutter did not expressly define the term. At oral argument in Foster there was colloquy about the need to define the term; some have suggested that the University of Texas achieved a critical mass of minority students through its top 10 percent program and thus no further consideration of race in admissions is necessary. The court should not narrowly define critical mass for all colleges and all situations. Ultimately what is or is not a critical mass of students from any one group depends upon the surrounding context, the population from which a school draws its students, the institution’s history in respect to diversity efforts, and more.

Individuality, equality and opportunity have come together in America to shape a great nation. Our educational system is a reflection of those same values. We must move forward honoring those traditions by bringing out the best in all of us, regardless of our circumstance. The sacrifices and dedication of so many should not be forgotten. From Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln to Susan B. Anthony to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr. to Thurgood Marshall to Robert F. Kennedy and beyond, many have striven for a nation where all people truly are equal. The base of the foundation of equality is education. Educators must be allowed to continue to work to create that better, equal world for all.

(Thomas C. Galligan Jr. is president of and a professor at Colby-Sawyer College in New London. He previously served as dean and professor of law at the University of Tennessee College of Law and taught law for 12 years at Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center).

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