Deliberate Diversity, Higher Education, and the Public Good

The world does not get better by accident. It gets better because there are champions who insist on change, who pursue change, and who effect change.

Some of those champions are on our college campuses. In 2003, those who have fought to increase access to higher education for all Americans received a boost from the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the principle that colleges have a "compelling interest" in promoting diversity.

Today, however, almost exactly a decade later, a forthcoming Supreme Court decision, in the case of Fisher vs. The University of Texas, threatens to strip away the power of higher education institutions to engineer more diversity into their student populations.

Some would ask, so what? Why, in the 21st Century, should colleges bother with recruitment efforts that deliberately reach out to students from a variety of backgrounds? What is the public good?

Colleges that pursue students from different backgrounds open the door of opportunity for individuals who may never have known that higher education is available to them. For students, it may be the only way they discover the path to a college education. For colleges, it may be the only way to identify certain students of high ability who may otherwise never show up on the admissions radar.

For our nation, the pursuit of diversity is even more important. Only by such outreach can colleges ensure that higher education will be available to all of the best and brightest talent - the individuals who will create the innovations and organizations that will keep our country competitive.

The public discussion of diversity often focuses on ethnic or racial differences, when that is only part of the issue. Real diversity on a college campus means bringing together students from not only different ethnicities, but different cultures and certainly, different economic backgrounds. Opportunity for all means making a degree attainable to those who would not otherwise know how to find their way to college, to succeed in college, or to pay for college.

To do otherwise is to perpetuate a society that is increasingly one of haves and have-nots. The divide is not only about money, and it is not only about race. Haves and have-nots must also be measured from a cultural vantage point. Students from backgrounds that did not offer exposure to learning need to learn from peers who know how to succeed in a college environment. They need to become culturally competent.

Diversity policies based on race alone can be more destructive than constructive. As CNN reported last year, recent studies have found that race-only affirmative action may have produced a society in which "there are fewer African-American professionals than would have been with race-neutral methods."

University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot told CNN that "the problem is what is called mismatch. As a result of affirmative action, black students in particular, Hispanic students as well, are likely to go to a school where their entering credentials put them towards the bottom of the entering class." The students often get lower grades than their better-prepared peers, and give up on their dreams of careers in fields like science, medicine, or law.

That is why cultural awareness is one of the greatest skills a college can teach its graduates. The late Andrew Masondo of the African National Congress put it this way: "Understand the differences; act on the commonalities." Students who have not been groomed for higher education success learn a lot of competence and confidence from their friends. In the right campus environment, they also learn to navigate multiple cultures, an invaluable aid to being competitive professionals in the global marketplace.

Colleges and universities have tremendous power to prevent our society from becoming increasingly divided among the haves and have-nots culturally, socially, mentally, and globally. As one advocacy group puts it, colleges "must establish a clear vision around a set of institutional goals that embody principles associated with higher education's unique and vital role in: (1) creating access and opportunity for all, and (2) developing robust, diverse learning environments for students progressing toward success in the global workplace and society."

Jason Collins, the NBA player who recently became the first major professional athlete to come out as gay, presented a valuable object lesson to every one of us with hopes for effecting positive change. His decision to make a public statement acknowledged that change was necessary, and that change does not happen accidentally. Positive change for our society must be deliberately pursued. Somebody has to do it.

Collins found it difficult to live with such a deep secret. "You're sort of waiting around for somebody else to ... raise their hand," he told ABC News. And he asked himself the question: If not me, who?

In the fight for diversity, there is no question. Many colleges have taken deliberate steps, taken affirmative action, to encourage diversity among their students. The result has been deliberate, positive change toward student populations that bring together individuals from different backgrounds in an environment where they can learn about each other. That is critically important for our economic survival in a global economy.

Diversity will not happen accidentally. Should the Supreme Court wipe out the ability of colleges to encourage diversity, it will reverse 50 years of positive social change. The threat is that we will devolve back into a divided society.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, "Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don't know each other, and they don't know each other because they are often separated from each other."

Only with active, affirmative, programs and policies can colleges continue to encourage diversity, pursue outreach to the disadvantaged and culturally incompetent, and help our nation build a globally competitive workforce.

There is something else Dr. King said: "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now." It would be a tragedy if the Supreme Court were to make it impossible to navigate that boat toward a better future. To produce a class of graduates who are culturally incompetent would not be a public good.