For 145 of its 177 years, the University of Virginia was a nearly
all-white, all-male preserve, a Southern finishing school where a
gentleman's 'C' was perfectly acceptable.
It was also a place where, in February 1861, as the nation girded
for civil war, students crept atop the school's famous Rotunda and
hoisted a Confederate flag. And that's about where the affirmative-
action era found Thomas Jefferson's university in 1969, still
dragging its heels on civil rights, saddled with a history of
segregation and unremarkable academic achievement.
Fast-forward three decades to a new University of Virginia,
dubbed the nation's top public university in 2000 and - amazingly
enough - a leader in terms of racial diversity.
It's an ironic twist, yet many say the rise of Virginia's
flagship institution to academic stardom is intimately intertwined
with admissions policies that actively recruited women and today
still give a "plus factor" to minorities.
Whether it's Harvard or Haverford or Hofstra, nearly all of the
several hundred selective universities and colleges in the US claim
that a richer ethnic mix on campus means a better education.
But does diversity really promote better learning?
It's a fundamental question that hangs over American higher
education as the United States Supreme Court today hears arguments
in a case that may deem admissions policies unconstitutional if they
consider race when admitting applicants.
In 1978 the high court ruled in Regents of the University of
California v. Bakke, in which a closely divided court upheld the
right to use race as a factor in higher- education admissions to
But Terry Pell could not disagree more. As senior counsel with
the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative public- interest
law firm, he says race is not a proven factor in educational quality
and should never be a consideration for admission. The result of
affirmative action is reverse discrimination against white students,
Yet as the University of Michigan and its opponents wrangle
before the nine justices today, some see a lesson in the campus
nestled in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia - a lesson
about what has transformed a campus, and brought its once-dormant
educational promise to full bloom.
Today, gentlemanly Southern-style academics are a thing of the
past. Instead, the red-brick walks are crowded with serious students
of all races and ethnic backgrounds, moving quickly past the white-
columned academic buildings that echo Jefferson's taste in
It's become a place where John Greene, a top African-American
student, feels right at home - despite his school's history. He
could have attended just about any elite university, but chose the
University of Virginia. He knows that here, for most of a decade,
the percentage of black freshmen enrolled has been at or near the
top of the list of the 25 highest-ranked universities in the
"If it's one thing that I love about this university, it's that
everybody that's here truly deserves to be here," he says, glancing
at the multihued gaggle of students around him. "Sure there have
been [racial] incidents on campus, just like other universities. But
I still feel comfortable here."
One reason is the "critical mass" of minority students on campus.
Today about 23 percent of undergraduates are American-born
minorities, including 9 percent African-Americans - 1,142 out of
12,748 students. To many, it is no coincidence that the school's
meteoric rise in academic stature has come at the same time
diversity on campus skyrocketed.
David Nolan, a historian in St. Augustine, Fla., can barely
fathom how far the university has come since he was a student there
in the fall of 1963. He recalls taping a Time magazine cover of
Martin Luther King Jr. on his door. Before long, someone had sprayed
the letters KKK on it with lighter fluid and set it on fire. …