The Supreme Court's recent announcement to hear the Fischer v. University of Texas case has set off alarms at college and universities throughout the country. In a New York Times article, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, said that be believes [the Fischer case] "threatens to undo several decades of effort within higher education to build a more integrated and just educationally enriched environment."
Looking back at the history of affirmative action, cases over the course of the past three decades have produced varying opinions from justices on both sides of the issue. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1973), Justice Lewis Powell maintained that diversity was in fact a compelling state interest. In a dissenting opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Justice William Rehnquist argued the opposite, that race was not a compelling state interest.
Like Dr. Bollinger, I agree that the Fischer case has the potential to undermine efforts to increase diversity in higher education. I am not a lawyer and cannot speak to the legal implications of this case, but I can speak from a higher education perspective. If Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) is overturned by the Fischer case, this is not just bad news for racial diversity on college campuses; it is bad news for all types of diversity on campus.
Is diversity legally compelling? While the Supreme Court debates this issue again, social science research and student development theorists have already spoken out about the importance of diversity in higher education.
Sylvia Hurtado, Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, has completed extensive research in higher education around the importance of engaging diversity. Hurtado's work shows that "diversity has value-added benefits for student learning. Students who engage with diverse peers achieve change across a wide range of outcomes related to the capacity for citizenship, and a diverse student body is necessary to increase the probability of contact opportunities."
A recent report, "A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future," released by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, outlines the importance for students having knowledge of diverse cultures, deliberation and bridge-building across differences, open-mindedness, and capacity to engage different points of views and cultures.
In "American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us," Robert Putnam and David Campbell's research highlights the importance of meaningful encounters between people of different religious backgrounds. Putnam and Campbell point out that getting to know people from different traditions actually increases your warmth toward that person's faith tradition.
If research consistently shows that a diverse environment in higher education is essential for student development, and the government sponsors a task force on this same subject, then why is the Supreme Court sending a contradictory message to the rest of the country?
At Interfaith Youth Core, where I work in Chicago, we seek to make interfaith cooperation a social norm in society. We focus our work on the higher education sector because we believe that college campuses are the ideal environment for diversity work. Together in partnership with many campuses throughout the country, we see firsthand the importance of engaging religious diversity in higher education.
While the Fisher v. University of Texas focuses on racial diversity, it is a slap in the face for students, staff and faculty throughout the country who understand how important it is to create a learning environment that honors and values all types of diversity on our college campuses. As our society continues to become more politically polarized, creating opportunities for students to engage with those who are different is crucial. Diversity is a compelling interest now, and will be even more important in the future.
More and more research shows that diversity matters, and that higher education plays a crucial role in engaging that diversity. If the Supreme Court overturns affirmative action in Fischer v. Texas, it is ignoring the ugly history of past discrimination in the United States. The Court would be telling the country that we all stand on an equal playing field right now. Ask Muslims, Mormons and many others in minority groups whether they feel like they are on equal playing field with those in the majority. I am guessing their answers would be much different than the answers of four or five justices on the Supreme Court.