This week the Supreme Court voted to hear a challenge to the ability of colleges and universities to shape the racial and ethnic demographics of their student bodies. Currently, schools are allowed to use race as a factor among many others in achieving diversity for educational reasons. When the Court hears Fisher vs. the University of Texas, we may find that the justices set strict limits on how universities can consider race in their efforts to create an educational environment in which all students learn -- and learn from one another.
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.
In our classrooms, students and teachers see the value of diversity throughout the semester. As David Kelley of IDEO and the Stanford Design School has noted time and time again, homogeneity kills creativity. The key to successful brainstorming and innovative teamwork is to have a multiplicity of perspectives. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes a similar point in his recent Thinking, Fast and Slow. Groups are beneficial for problem solving as long as they don't degrade into following-the-leader; learning takes place when people bring a variety of perspectives to the issue at hand. If almost everyone is from the same background, you run the risk of substituting mere repetition for iterative cross-pollination.
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.
At Wesleyan University our mission statement reminds us that we aim to prepare students "to explore the world with a variety of tools." Diversity is an aspect of the world we expect our students to explore, turning it into an asset they can use. We expect graduates to have completed a course of study in the liberal arts that will enable them to see differences among people as a powerful tool for solving problems and seeking opportunities. We expect graduates to embrace diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment, and creative possibility. Selective universities want to shape a student body that maximizes each undergraduate's ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to draw on resources from the most familiar and the most unexpected places.
As the Supreme Court considers Fisher vs. the University of Texas, it is crucial that the justices continue to allow universities to consider race and ethnicity within a holistic admissions process that aims to create a student body that maximizes learning. 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.
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