11/13/2012 06:55 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Affirmative Action's Push-Pull on Diversity in Higher Education

Last Tuesday's election showed us how the face of our country is changing. We saw the most diverse electorate in the history of the country with increases in the Latino and Asian American vote, and the African American vote at 13 percent -- the same high level as in the 2008 election. Notably, whites made up their lowest voting population ever at 72 percent of the electorate.

How do these shifting demographics impact higher education and affirmative action? The affirmative action case of Fisher v. University of Texas currently before the United States Supreme Court is a hot topic in higher education. Much has changed since 2003 when the Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious admissions policy in the landmark case of Grutter v. Bollinger, on the basis that a diverse student body enriches the education of all students.

Although affirmative action laws do not directly impact admission policies at small private institutions such as Wheelock College, I believe that this issue is important to all institutions of higher education. A diverse student population is critical to providing a quality educational experience in today's diverse and increasing global society. The growing body of research and literature on "diversity" indicates that the ability to work effectively in a diverse workforce is critical to being prepared for our innovation -- and knowledge-based 21st century economy. Learning from and working collaboratively with people of diverse cultures, religions, abilities and perspectives with genuine mutual respect fosters mutually beneficial interaction and workplace success.

A commitment to diversity has been a hallmark of Wheelock College. In just seven years, the percentage of students of color in our entering class of students has grown from 18 percent to approximately 30 percent. This increase is a result of our commitment to a college environment that reflects the world our students will experience in classrooms, practicums, and community service, as well as international experiences. Our success is due in part to our commitment to having a diverse faculty and staff (27 percent of Wheelock's faculty are people of color). We have also instituted new community outreach programs that begins as early as third grade and excellent student engagement programs that enhance the experience of our diverse student enrollment and contribute to higher retention. I believe that our growing, diverse student population has benefited our community enormously, both inside and outside the classroom. For these, and many other reasons, many college and university presidents throughout the country share the opinion that the Supreme Court should affirm Grutter v. Bollinger.

What is at stake in this case is critical because the Supreme Court's ruling will be applicable nationwide. If the ruling is upheld, universities across our nation will continue their efforts to increase diversity in enrollment. If it is struck down, there will be drastic re-workings of admissions policies and recruitment and retention programs, which risks reducing the number of minority students on college and university campuses.

In the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, the United States Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor authored the Court's majority ruling stating that the University of Michigan Law School had a compelling interest in promoting class diversity and that "the Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved."

Today, in 2012, only nine years after the issuance of Justice Day's opinion, progress has been made but not nearly enough to reverse the 2003 ruling. Too many students still do not have access to higher education -- primarily low-income, first-generation, and students of color. Many institutions are working hard to increase diversity in student enrollment. Rather than reduce opportunity, we should be seeking new and expanded ways to increase diversity on our campuses. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that in just eleven years, (2023) "minorities" will be the majority of all students in the United States and by 2042, will be the majority of all Americans. The future of higher education is inextricably linked to our ability to open the doors of educational opportunity to our increasingly diverse population.

Just a generation ago, the United States ranked first in the world in rates for college attendance and completion. Just a few years ago, we fell to 9th. In July, we learned that the United States fell again in global rankings of our percentage of young adults earning a college degree. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is now ranked 16th -- behind countries including Russia, Canada, South Korea and Japan. The number of college graduates must more than double in order to achieve President Barack Obama's goal of reclaiming world leadership in college graduation rates by 2020.

As the Fisher v. University of Texas case continues to generate debate on the role of affirmation action in higher education admissions policies, I hope that higher education institutions throughout the country will speak out loudly and clearly about the importance and necessity for increased diversity on our college and university campuses. Let us use this issue as another "teaching and learning moment."