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The Educational Importance of Race
By Lee Bollinger and Nancy Cantor

Lee Bollinger is president of the University of Michigan. Nancy Cantor is the university's provost. This opinion piece appeared in the Washington Post April 28, 1998.

Until fairly recently, our society enforced the separation of the races in virtually all important areas---social, economic, political and educational. As a result of racial isolation, African Americans and white Americans often learned about each other by relying on unfounded images and stereotypes. Demeaning and hurtful images proliferated in the media, in textbooks, in movies and on radio and television. There were no countervailing institutions to perform the function of education and understanding. By design, we did not know each other.

In the decades since Brown vs. Board of Education, institutions of higher education have strongly influenced a change in this design. They have opened their doors and aggressively recruited minority students---African Americans at first, and then other underrepresented minority students---to create remarkably diverse student bodies.

Today, with a campus where nearly 14 percent of students are African American, Hispanic and Native American, the University of Michigan is the target of a lawsuit that seeks to prohibit us from ensuring a racially diverse student body by using race as one factor in admissions. The suit, brought by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), is at the center of a great public debate over one of the most important issues of our time: how our governing constitutional principles permit us to use race to achieve a truly integrated society.

Virtually all institutions with selective admissions consider race when they choose among applicants who experience shows can thrive in and contribute to a more vital educational environment. This practice was explicitly upheld against constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court's 1978 decision in University of California v. Bakke---and wisely so, for now that we have the design in place, we have begun to know each other.

Institutions of higher education have pursued a conception of education that emphasizes the joys of variety and the benefits of engaging those with different experiences and perspectives. This means we ask of every applicant: What will you contribute to the whole, not where do you stand in splendid, isolated comparison with everyone else?

A first-class education is one that creates the opportunity for students, expecting differences, to learn instead of similarities. Likewise, encountering differences rather than one's mirror image, is an essential part of a good education. Race is educationally important for all students, because understanding race in America is a powerful metaphor for crossing sensibilities of all kinds.

Our public universities have always cast a wide net in admitting students. Selecting a student body is not a simple matter of drawing a line though some rank ordering of individual applications. Universities have been especially watchful for merit wherever it is found. They have been alert to the potential of those who may not have had full opportunity to manifest their talent (immigrants, for example), those who have served the country (e.g., veterans), or who have unconventional talents. They must be responsive to the communities from which they derive (e.g., state residents) as well as to the nation itself (through geographic diversity).

The CIR lawsuit presumes that admissions is an atomized process in which each applicant is evaluated according to his or her "qualifications" and measured against every other applicant. They offer up grids that have been used in our undergraduate admissions process. These grids assign different weights to a variety of factors---academic grade-point average, test scores, alumni relationship, race, residency and so on---that help us make an admissions decision. Different outcomes will follow, depending on any variety of factors. CIR's real argument is not with our use of these grids. There are no grids in the law school process, yet CIR challenges our use of race there, too. Rather, to CIR the fact that race is one of these factors at all is what makes the process unacceptable.

CIR's challenge to "affirmative action" in higher education is a challenge to our philosophy of education and to the historical purposes of our great public universities. Implicit in its claim is a presumption that we admit some students who are not qualified. Let us be clear: All students admitted to the University of Michigan meet threshold requirements establishing that they are fully qualified to do the work of a demanding undergraduate program. That being the case, surely CIR's objectives rest on an oversimplified idea of what is, in fact, a complex process of selecting students, as well as on a constricted view of the role of universities and the nature of merit. They also rest on a profoundly mistaken conception of education and the role of race in a modern education.

CIR seeks to eliminate all consideration of race in college admissions. If it is successful, as it was in an earlier lawsuit against the University of Texas, we will in all probability soon return to a largely segregated system---de facto rather than de jure, to be sure, but segregated nonetheless. The University of Texas Law School now has only four entering African American students, where former classes had more than 30. We are particularly alarmed at the significant drop in minority admissions at the most selective institutions in the University of California system, which operates under an affirmative action ban.

The country cannot afford to deprive institutions of higher education of the ability to educate generations of young Americans---minority and nonminority---in an environment that enables all to flourish, and understand each other, in a truly integrated society.



Questions? Comments? Please send e-mail to diversitymatters@umich.edu.
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