01/12/2016 01:56 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2017

Enacting a Diverse Learning Environment: A Necessary Reminder

It is not difficult to see the disturbing gap between the official commitment to (racial) diversity espoused by higher education institutions and the stark reality on many college campuses. It might lead us to suspect that Supreme Court Justice Scalia's recent spearheading of the judicial attack on race-based university admissions is tied either to willful ignorance of the need for increased racial diversity in higher education or to a shamefully deliberate effort to preserve class privilege in the United States. Whether maintaining that "blacks" would benefit from going to "slower track schools" or making plain his belief that he doesn't "think it stands to reason that it's a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible," what we witness is a mentality that fails to understand and appreciate the value in enacting diverse learning environments. And, perhaps more concerning is the promotion of the idea that this view is committed to a meritocratic system even though the facts point in a different direction. Put somewhat differently and more directly, if critics of affirmative action were genuinely dedicated to creating a strict meritocracy, they would take aim not only at the legacy of racial (and class) discrimination and the unequal educational opportunities it has created, but also at the forms of arbitrary favoritism now enjoyed by students whose wealthy (and alumni) parents buy their children access to the "best" universities.

This collaborative dismissal of the past and present impacts of discrimination that we see in figures like Scalia and too many university leaders is not an anomaly. President Obama rose to power on a wave of moral righteousness some assumed would translate quickly to social progress. But it quickly became clear that hopes had outstripped reality. Awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, Obama developed into a leader seemingly more intent to build consensus with Washington elites than with the poorest among us. Can anyone today build a plausible case that Obama has listened to the Frederick Douglass of our time as Lincoln was forced to do? Or has it now become clear that Wall Street elites like Larry Summers--Obama's former economic advisor and strong champion of an economic deregulation at the heart of today's upward transfer of wealth to the 1 percent--have the firmest hold on his ear? Those who believed that Obama represented a serious challenge to race and class based poverty and division in the United States have been forced to reassess.

In the shadow of these destructive forms of apparent consensus, the past fifty years of higher education reform has nonetheless produced an explosion of institutions, programs, curricula, and funding mechanisms predicated on an espoused commitment to serving "under-represented" students. Once primarily the province of privileged elite--mostly wealthy, white, male, and Christian--the idea of expanding the role and purpose of higher education was to weave greater learning and awareness ever more deeply into our democracy and culture. The failure of these efforts to achieve this goal is firmly rooted in our underestimation of the real costs--both individual and collective--of the persistent effects of institutional discrimination and of the will to enact espoused commitments.

Our failure to build a strong public imagination among our citizens and leaders that could enable us to understand how the status quo cuts against equality of educational opportunity along racial (and other) lines should be recognized as one of the greatest failure of universities. But this is not a moment to despair, but rather to reorient the goals and core mission of the university so as to fight against the onslaught of forces now reshaping it for the worse. It should be stated boldly and plainly: The primary purpose of education is not to generate monetary gain, either for corporations or for individuals, thereby exacerbating the very gaps in power that we should be decrying; rather, to quote Wendy Brown, we must work on: "...developing, deepening, broadening the mind with perspective, with discernment, with historical consciousness, with diverse knowledges and literacies." In large part because it is what our democracy requires.

Today is a pivotal time for the future of the university. We need now more than ever historically aware and socially discerning critical thinkers. The stability of our society will not withstand the reduction of education to the production of economic value. For more than 30 years, since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), colleges and universities have used race, as well as ethnicity, gender and other identity-based features, as criteria in admission, based on recognition that marginalization has social effects along these lines. As the Supreme Court revisits the constitutionality of race-based college admissions in Fisher v. University of Texas, colleges and universities are in the process of rethinking strategies used to recruit students from underrepresented or 'diverse' groups. If they follow the ahistorical reasoning of the majority in Gratz v. Bollinger, universities may adopt policies on the assumption that closing educational gaps can be done without social policy and through strict reliance on individual hard work, assimilation, and individual virtue. These decisions would mark a decided institutional unwillingness or inability to acknowledge and rectify the historical processes by which certain sectors of our population--by simple virtue of their family backgrounds--have the unearned advantage of accessing higher education. Universities would risk reifying and thus reinforcing in the content of their admissions policies the results of their own failure to disseminate among the population the ability to grasp historical processes of exclusion.

From a critical social perspective, the Supreme Court's seeming willingness to dismantle diversity initiatives and, more specifically, affirmative action, on the basis of anecdotal information is infinitely disturbing. If we are unwilling to cultivate our sympathetic awareness of the changing global and local landscape and of the diverse challenges that people from different walks of life have to overcome, then not only have we failed our youth, we cannot hope that others will strive to become more sensitive and appreciative of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. We will fail not only to teach, but also to learn.