Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Affirmative Action and the Idea of a University

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Affirmative Action and the Idea of a University

Article excerpt

The verdict is in. After a protracted national discussion, conducted ultimately in a courtroom but also in letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, magazine articles, television talk shows, and countless dinner tables, the Supreme Court on June 23 validated the principle of affirmative action for admissions at the University of Michigan. The Court thus confirmed the reasoning of Justice Lewis Powell in the Bakke decision of 1978, which outlaws racial quotas but argues that universities may consider race in the interest of achieving a diverse student body. It is a verdict I cannot greet with a shrug. My interest in the outcome is both personal and professional, since I am part of the minority of Ann Arbor residents and of faculty at Michigan (having taught there intermittently since 1976) who had hoped the courts would decide otherwise. I say this with no lack of feeling for minority students who might not have been admitted without affirmative action. Nor do I lack respect for the Court's decision: the law is the law. The problem is that there are issues surrounding affirmative action that, even with all the legal wisdom of Solomon, will not go away. The decision has opened up a fundamental divide between ways of perceiving race in this country and hence differing routes toward racial equality. And in concentrating on diversity as the essential characteristic of academic life as it pertains to race, the law has sidestepped the larger question, for which "diversity" is only a partial answer: what are the nature and purpose of a university? The law has settled something, but not everything.

Twenty-some years ago, I sat in a lawyer's office while my husband explained his version of an alimony dispute. His avuncular lawyer turned a trained legal mind on the "she said, he said," discarded almost all of it, and pulled out the few details that had some connection to divorce law. It was a revelation. From then on (especially when paying by the minute) I learned how the law sees things. The law is a distiller. It abstracts from messy, confusing, and emotional situations only details relevant to legal principle. We feel that we have reached the heart of things. But sometimes the law sidesteps issues, oversimplifying and thus distorting the true complexity of a situation. When this happens, we end up saying that the resolution may be legal, but not ethical.

The specific problem facing the so-called elite universities in regard to admissions is that the pool of academically qualified minority students (identified by Michigan as black, Hispanic, and Native American) is too small to translate into the number of such freshmen they would like to enroll. As a country made up almost entirely of immigrants (voluntary or not) we are continually asking ourselves: what does it mean to have persons of different races and different countries living together as citizens? What ideas and attitudes ought to shape our interactions? Ought some immigrant groups, such as African Americans, to be treated differently from others? Our national experience in fighting the Civil War and in combating segregation laws during the civil rights movement attempted to answer these questions. They are crucial not only for understanding the past but also for charting the future. For better and worse, the university had become the place where such questions came to a head, until we had to ask the legal system to figure out how and on what basis we should take race into account when selecting students.

During the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on April 1, the justices asked questions about quotas, termination dates, the definition of a "critical mass" of minority students, and the nature of the state's "compelling interest" in enrolling them. All these terms, pertinent to legal arguments, were introduced under the rubric of "diversity," an educational goal accepted by both plaintiffs and defendants. Diversity, so the argument goes, is not only good for the university; it's good for the country-especially for minority students who might otherwise be denied the social byproducts of a university education-status, greater earning power, and leadership. …

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