10/19/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Acting Affirmatively

In the wake of oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court about the future of affirmative action in higher education, several experts foresee conservative justices overturning the law. Others believe that the court will strike down portions of the policy. Few believe that it will remain unchanged.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race by recipients of federal funds. Shortly after the act was signed, colleges and universities voluntarily began to take affirmative action to increase higher education enrollment opportunities for African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and other minorities. Within four years, according to the Census Bureau, student enrollment from these diverse populations began to climb steadily.

As a former vice provost at a public university, provost at an urban private university, and now president of a mid-sized private university, I can assert that if one’s goal is to diversify enrollments, then affirmative action has been an effective practice. I have seen firsthand the positive impact it has made in regard to educational access and student populations. That being said, my experience over the years has taught me that institutions must do more than just rely on affirmative action to do the job of diversifying college campuses. It cannot be the only thing used to provide equal educational opportunities to students because, as we know, with the banging of a justice’s gavel, the entire existence of affirmative action can change.

There are additional ways we can provide educational opportunities to all student populations while continuing a concentrated effort to reach out to underserved student populations. One example is to also focus on the socioeco- nomic levels from which our students come and integrate that information as part of the determining admissions process.

The Century Foundation recently released a report that supports this reasoning. Rather than evaluating applicants based only on race, the report recommends that universities also look at family income, the wealth of the neighborhood from which a student comes and parental education level, among other factors.

“If college admissions officers want to be fair—truly meritocratic—they need to consider not only a student’s raw academic credentials, but also what obstacles she had to overcome to achieve them,” said the report.

In advocating for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, President Lyndon Johnson sought equal op- portunities for all. He knew that those who are economically disadvantaged do not enjoy the same access to higher education as do students from more
affluent backgrounds. Because a larger portion of minority students reside in households with lower incomes, affirmative action, in many ways, has helped this country close its higher education entrance gap among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Focusing on providing equal access to education is among one of the highest priorities for leaders in higher education. The Pew Research Center tells us that in 1970, the middle class earned 62 percent of the income in the country while the upper class earned less than 30 percent. By 2010, the upper class was earning 46 percent and the middle class was earning 45 percent. The middle class was dramatically expanded by the G.I. Bill, regarded by many as one of the most important initiatives in U.S. history. We are now seeing accelerating erosion of those gains.

Ensuring a vibrant and growing middle class and working to shrink the number of people living in poverty is crucial for ensuring the security of the national economy. Members of both these socioeconomic groups create and operate small businesses, which provide employment for millions. They pay the bulk of all taxes. They are not just our nurses and teachers, but our classroom aides and support staff. As the middle class shrinks and poverty increases, who will do these jobs?

If these pragmatic examples were not enough, we have a social responsibility to provide the educational tools necessary for all people to be successful. Doing this only results in us having a better-educated society, which helps make our nation more competitive overall.

Regardless of the fate of affirmative action at the hands of the Supreme Court, we must commit to ensuring that all high school graduates are prepared to enter and graduate from college, if they choose. And, if we accept students into our institutions, it is our responsibility to help them meet the academic standards we are expecting of all. This applies to success in the academic portion of our institutions as well as the co-curricular. To achieve a campus that models “inclusivity,” we must offer and support the needed knowledge, appreciation, understanding and intercultural communication skills among all students, faculty and staff. In so doing, it will help us to recognize and celebrate not only that which distinguishes us individually, but also that which binds us together as human beings.

Broadening our perspectives about acting affirmatively during these times will lead us toward achieving a more successful, global, inclusive and pluralistic society. In so doing, we achieve what our nation needs to flourish—we help ensure equal opportunity for all.

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.