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Removing Race from Admissions Decisions Would do Lasting Damage to American Universities

We bring people together — people who are from diverse backgrounds, races and regions — and let them learn, live and talk with one another.”

This essay was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 27, 2022.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases filed against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that could profoundly alter the future of higher education in America. Petitioners will ask the court to overturn decades of precedent that have allowed the use of race as one of many factors in making decisions about admission to our nation’s colleges and universities. Doing so would cause lasting damage to American universities and to our nation.

Based on my experience as president of two internationally prominent universities and dean of two top law schools, I conclude that the damage to our educational system and our nation would be significant if considerations of race were taken off the table. At the outset, let’s clear away the underbrush: No universities, to my knowledge, are proposing racial quotas or using a prospective student’s race as the primary justification for admission. Instead, race is one among myriad considerations that our admissions professionals take into account in assessing applicants and shaping a class. In admissions-speak, this is called holistic review.

One might ask, why might race be a legitimate consideration in assessing whether to admit a person into a university? Two reasons among many stand out. The first is focused on the individual student and the second on the broader community. As was further crystallized by the pandemic, in modern America race is deeply intertwined with each of our experiences, life histories and the opportunities we might avail ourselves of. A young child growing up on the South Side of Chicago is likely to have dramatically fewer educational resources at their disposal than someone growing up in Wilmette, a suburb less than 35 miles away — fewer guidance counselors, larger classes, sparse college prep courses and fewer role models who themselves have gone on to college.

The reasons for these disparities are well known to us all. A legacy of Jim Crow laws, employment discrimination and housing segregation are just three of the many factors that make where you are brought up in America partly and, unfortunately, often substantially determinative of your life’s chances. Students apply to college with a wide variety of experiences that need to be considered in assessing whether they merit admission. Ignoring race, and the challenges that members of some groups have endured, would be blotting out an important element of the full picture or record.

Nevertheless, the importance of allowing admissions officers to consider an applicant’s race goes beyond the individual applicant. As retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor concluded in Grutter v. Bollinger, the case that petitioners are seeking to overrule, the “equal protection clause does not prohibit the (University of Michigan) Law School’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further the compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse study body.”

An interesting and unique aspect of higher education is that its quality is jointly produced by its providers — teachers, professors and administrators — and by its consumers — our students. A class discussion about all but the most technical topics is immeasurably enriched by the voices and views of people with different backgrounds, perspectives, life experiences and, yes, racial and ethnic backgrounds. This diversity of perspectives and viewpoints enriches learning; it is a benefit for all of us.

Evidence strongly suggests that we learn more and make better decisions — in education, government and business — if we are part of a diverse group. This phenomenon will only increase as our country becomes still more multicultural.

And there is broader benefit outside the classroom for all of us. Our nation is threatened today by the politics of identity and persistent cleavages based on region, class and educational attainment. Many people live in only modestly intersecting social and informational universes with each other, and for some there is no intersection whatsoever. We get our news from different outlets; our friends — physical or virtual — are more likely than ever to share similar viewpoints. We increasingly lack the capacity to understand each other and to empathize with people who are different from ourselves.

Universities, particularly our residential campuses, are among the most important and promising institutions that can get us out of this box. We bring people together — people who are from diverse backgrounds, races and regions — and let them learn, live and talk with one another. Of course, they master subjects such as physics, economics and art history, but equally important, they transform themselves and develop deep understanding and the capacity to be active and productive participants in a rapidly changing society.

If you are with me so far and you believe that race is related to one’s individual experiences and that bringing together diverse students benefits us all, there remains one last question. Are there alternatives to race in the admissions process — measures or approaches that won’t keep tugging at our nation’s deepest schism? While some universities are more successful than others, my own view, based on personal experience as a dean in a state that did not permit race to be taken into account, is that for most universities, there are no proxies available that would make it feasible to ignore race as the petitioners in the Harvard and UNC cases would like us to do.

But recall, in Grutter v. Bollinger and then in later Supreme Court cases, the fact that race can be a factor in admissions decisions does not mean it is always going to be appropriate. The court has insisted that any use of race be narrowly tailored to achieve the benefits of diversity. It is this limited use of race that the petitioners are seeking to eliminate. It would be to society’s lasting benefit, at a time of great change and rising inequality, for the Supreme Court to uphold the principle that diversity is a fundamental interest in American higher education and that race remains one among many factors we may consider to achieve that goal.