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Supreme Court Decision Undermines Education and Opportunity

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Ever since the founding of this country, we have recognized that education is indispensable to our vision of a democratic society. All men may be created equal in the abstract, but education provides people concrete opportunities to overcome real circumstances of poverty or oppression. Thomas Jefferson argued that the talented poor should be educated at public expense so that inherited wealth would not doom us to rule by an "unnatural aristocracy" of wealth. As I describe in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, a few years after Jefferson's death, African American shopkeeper David Walker penned a blistering manifesto pointing out that "the bare name of educating the coloured people, scares our cruel oppressors almost to death." Some years later the young slave Frederick Douglass received a "new and special revelation," namely, that learning "unfits" a person for being a slave.

Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning the American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have often joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. And in 2006, the citizens of Michigan passed an amendment to the state constitution banning consideration of race at their universities, undermining opportunity for minorities in the state.

This week the Supreme Court voted to uphold the rights of these citizens to forbid race-sensitive admissions policies. Previous Court decisions had allowed schools to consider race among other factors, but this judgment affirms the voters' right to overrule university policies. Under the guise of democracy and supporting the political process, the Court has allowed States to close off opportunities for those who would benefit from them the most.

As Justice Sotomayor argued in her dissent, in Michigan you can now lobby those who control admissions to pay more attention to how many alumni relatives applicants have, and you can urge the deans to recognize how much money these relatives might give the school after applicants graduate. But you can no longer successfully advocate making the universities in Michigan more racially diverse -- even if the governing boards recognized that a more diverse campus benefits everyone on campus.

Residential colleges and universities have for many years emphasized creating a diverse student body because we believe this results in a deeper educational experience. In the late 1960s many schools steered away from cultivated homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people can learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what would later be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who could navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation.

At residential universities, homogeneity in the student body undermines our mission of helping students develop personal autonomy within a dynamic community. That's why we are eager to welcome students from various parts of the United States and the rest of the world to our campuses. That's why we ask our donors to support robust financial aid programs so as to ensure that our students come from a variety of economic backgrounds. A "dynamic community" is one in which members have to navigate difference -- and racial and ethnic differences are certainly parts of the mix. All the students we admit have intellectual capacity, but we also want them to have different sorts of capacities. Their interests, modes of learning, and perspectives on the world should be sufficiently different from one another so as to promote active learning in and outside the classroom.

Creating a racially diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That's why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from under-represented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect. Education, as Douglass said, makes you unfit for slavery.

The federal government has often had to step in to ensure that states provide access to political and economic opportunity. As Justice Sotomayor put it in her dissent, in the past the court ruled that the equal protection clause of the Constitution, "guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals -- here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures."

But this week's ruling allows states to forbid university officials from considering race when determining access to higher education. When seen in the context of recent decisions undermining voting rights, it's hard not to think that we are witnessing elites, "scared almost to death," holding onto their privileges by limiting access to social mobility and economic opportunity.

Jefferson's "unnatural aristocracy" is working hard to increase its advantages, but at universities we must recognize our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized. University admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments.

It would be an enormous step backward to force our admissions offices to retreat to a homogeneity that stifles creative, broad-based education. We must find ways to protect the diversity (racial, economic, cultural) that has become absolutely crucial to the dynamism of our universities, and to lives of learning and opportunity.