07/03/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Race and College


If the 5-4 Voting Rights Act decision lays bare a stark national divide, Fisher v. University of Texas, at 7-1, sends a different message. It serves as an invitation to investigate -- with open minds, not moral outrage -- how racial diversity uniquely improves student outcomes and promotes the public good. While this investigation will take time, there are three things we as college presidents can each do now.

Demonstrate the value we add.
Highly selective colleges bring in driven, accomplished young people with lofty goals that generally do not include becoming a professor. It is on us as educators to make clear why what we do is worth four years and the resources it requires.

Davidson College does not focus on job-specific skills. Yet, within six months, more than 94 percent of the class of 2012 were in professional/graduate school or employed in a career-related job. Davidson offers no business major, yet more than 26 percent of employed 2012 graduates -- students who majored in history, chemistry, political science and English -- had jobs in business.

Employers seek out graduates from schools like Davidson because our graduates learn fast, they creatively tackle hard problems and they express themselves compellingly to multiple audiences. They can collaborate effectively across boundaries of race, economic status, religion and political affiliation. They often advance quickly, because they are resilient, courageous, compassionate people of unshakable integrity who want to serve something larger than themselves. Higher education leaders need to show -- through rigorous, sound, assessment -- how our programs develop these talents and why employers value them.

Show why race matters.
In my history courses, racially mixed classes have had more productive discussions, because the questions we ask of the past are shaped by our experience. Race powerfully inflects how each of us is perceived and how we perceive the world and the past. A racially heterogeneous group collectively produces a wider range of probing questions, which in turn triggers more nuanced, insightful student research and learning. We need to understand if my experience is common and whether analogous, measurable benefits occur across subjects, institutions and instructors.

At a time when Americans increasingly self-segregate, choosing to live, worship, study and socialize with like-minded folk who look alike, Davidson students live and work for four years among people from diverse backgrounds whose experiences, perspectives and deepest convictions differ. Higher education leaders need to measure how this heterogeneity improves learning and prepares graduates for a rapidly changing, interconnected world.

Serve the students we claim to want.
Historically homogeneous colleges need to investigate how to serve a racially mixed and socio-economically diverse student body and to capitalize on the educational benefits that diversity enables. These benefits must accrue broadly -- as Justice Thomas reminds us, we cannot sacrifice children of color to redeem their white classmates.

We have already learned a lot. To help make equal opportunity real, Davidson practices need blind admission and we meet demonstrated financial need without requiring loans. Retention data led us to change how we offer academic support and to affirm our high expectations. We know that peer mentoring nurtures resilience and that research opportunities can retain students of all races in science and math. Student surveys pointed out unexamined assumptions of our curriculum, and we added courses to incorporate new fields of study. We have come far. We have a long road ahead.

Doing these three things will keep our attention on our highest aspiration -- making equal educational opportunity real. Race conscious admission emerged to combat an inherited race inequality so deeply entrenched that it survived judicial and legislative efforts to eradicate it. Our commitment to this fight can remain absolute even as we evaluate the means we have chosen to wage it. With much still to learn, let's embrace the invitation that Fisher holds out. Perhaps our myopic focus on race conscious admission has blinded us to more effective tools we can immediately deploy. Davidson welcomes allies in the urgent, ongoing quest.

Dr. Carol E. Quillen is the President of Davidson College and a Professor of History.