AMERICAN COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES have long been governed by two competing ideals: They aim to be both meritocratic centers of intellectual excellence and "model commonwealths" that bring together individuals of diverse backgrounds.
The "model commonwealth" ideal has taken a big hit over the years as one of its principal tools, affirmative action, has fallen out of favor with the courts and the public, writes William M. Chace, a former president of Wesleyan University and Emory University. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the place of diversity in higher education in Grutter v. Bollinger et al., ruling that race and ethnicity could continue to serve as criteria in admissions. But that same year, in Gratz et al. v. Bollinger et al., the Court said that racial and ethnic considerations could be made only if they were "narrowly tailored"--that is, if they were just two of many traits the institution considered in holistically evaluating candidates. No longer could institutions automatically increase the rankings of minority applicants.
Such holistic serutiny is too expensive for public universities, with their tens of thousands of hopefuls. Many states, meanwhile, have banned affirmative action through ballot initiatives and by other means. In California, a 1996 state ban cut black enrollment in the freshman class of the elite University of California, Berkeley, from 258 to 140 in less than a decade. …