How Does Racial/ethnic Diversity Promote Education?

Article excerpt

By the time this journal is published in July 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States will have rendered a decision on two important higher education affirmative action cases: Gratz v. Bollinger et al., and Grutter v. Bollinger et al. The crucial significance of the Court's decision for our nation cannot be underestimated, affecting not only the use of race as one of many factors in admissions at the University of Michigan, but also at every other selective college and university, both public and private, in the United States.

The consequence of the Court's decision will be felt far beyond colleges and universities. The Court's decision will either support or undermine the opportunities of minority students for top leadership positions in the military, corporations, and other public and private institutions that draw especially from the nation's most selective higher education institutions. As amicus briefs submitted in behalf of the University respondents by former military leaders, Fortune Five Hundred corporations, a wide range of educational institutions from K-12 through professional schools, and many other American mainstream institutions, the decision will ultimately weigh heavily on their capacity to function effectively in our increasingly racially and ethnically diverse society. The military brief (No. 02-241, 02-516) states:

In the 1960s and 1970, however, while integration increased the percentage of African Americans in the enlisted ranks, the percentage of minority officers remained extremely low (3% of Army officers), and perceptions of discrimination were pervasive. This deficiency in the officer corps and the discrimination perceived to be its cause led to low morale and heightened racial tension. The danger that this created was not theoretical, as the Vietnam era demonstrates. As that war continued, tit(" armed forces suffered increased racial polarization, pervasive disciplinary problems, and racially motivated incidents in Vietnam and on post around the world.... The military's leader ship 'recognized that its racial problem was so critical that it was on the verge of self-destruction. (pp. 6 7)

Through affirmative action initiatives that the military put in place--financial and tutorial assistance, recruiting programs, employing race as a factor in recruiting and admissions policies and decisions, and preparatory academies to increase the pool of qualified minority candidates--19% of active duty officers are now minority. The military Amici submit that "the government's compelling interest in promoting racial diversity in higher education is buttressed by its compelling national security interest in a cohesive military. That requires both a diverse officer corps and substantial numbers of officers educated and trained in diverse educational settings, including the military academies and ROTC programs." (p. 8) The military Amici conclude that "At present no alternative exists to limited, race-conscious programs to increase the pool of high quality minority officer candidates and to establish diverse educational settings for officers." (p. 9)

In this article, we delineate why diversity was the rationale on which the University of Michigan waged a defense of its admission policies and thus why diversity was the framework for our scholarly work on the lawsuit cases. This rationale dates back to the Bakke Supreme Court decision in 1978. We will also address how ethnic/racial diversity in the student body operates--what it can and cannot do--and what the evidence is for its impact on students through the actual experiences students have with diverse peers.

The Diversity Rationale

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote the defining opinion in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, quoting in part from a previous Supreme Court ruling in Keyshian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967). He stated that the "atmosphere of 'speculation, experiment and creation'--so essential to the quality of higher education--is widely believed to be promoted by a diverse student body. …