Walking the Walk

As Lee C. Bollinger begins his second decade as University president, he discusses some of his favorite topics: the new Manhattanville campus, Columbia’s Global Centers, and a Supreme Court case at the intersection of his work in law and higher education.

Published Fall 2012
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As part of the amicus brief filed by Columbia and thirteen other universities in August, I advocated that the court uphold the lower-court decision allowing what the University of Texas has done. We are strongly on record for that.

But if a majority were to go the full distance, overruling the Grutter case and declaring that considering race under any circumstances, under any program in American universities is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, it would have a drastic negative effect on racial and ethnic diversity on the leading campuses across the United States. All you have to do is look at what happened to Berkeley and UCLA since California’s Prop. 209 in 1996 to see the long-term negative effects of not being able to consider ethnicity in admissions.

CM: Could economic diversity stand in for racial diversity?
Bollinger: There has been a view for a decade that you can achieve racial and ethnic diversity just by considering income status or economic and socioeconomic diversity. The argument is that you can try to get young people from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum and you will automatically get racial and ethnic diversity. But many studies show that this is not true.

Then some people say, if the Supreme Court were to throw out Grutter v. Bollinger, universities would find other ways to identify that the applicant was African-American, or Hispanic, or Native American. Universities would do what they could to achieve racial and ethnic diversity without appearing to consider race or ethnicity. My view is if the Supreme Court holds that the Constitution forbids admissions offices at universities from considering race or ethnicity, then no American university should violate that constitutional norm. That is the basic law of the country.

However much you might think the decision is wrong, you would undermine the integrity of society at its most profound level by trying to figure out other ways of doing what the Supreme Court disallows. And you’ll be caught, because years down the line, some group that opposes affirmative action will sue, and they will get documents showing what you were doing. Those universities would be justifiably embarrassed and ashamed.

It is too easy to think that striving for racial and ethnic diversity is such a powerful part of our culture that surely it will continue. But if the Supreme Court were to declare it unconstitutional, then it will not, and should not, continue.

CM: In the majority opinion of Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice O’Connor wrote, “We expect that twenty-five years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
Bollinger: First of all, I had never known a Supreme Court case that gave a time limit to its holding. Second, my view has been that for decades, and even centuries, American admissions offices have considered many things in trying to put together student bodies that include people who have different life experiences and bring different talents to the whole community. You go back to statements by the early framers of the Constitution, who advocated that people from different parts of the country be brought together in university campuses. We do that. We take account of geographic diversity. We take account of diversity of capacities: some students are gifted in poetry, some in math, some in athletics. Some students have overcome great difficulties and have succeeded in some unusual way. We consider race and ethnicity along with lots of other things.

The issue is, how do we compose an incoming class of students? As long as we do so by looking at many factors, including race, the Supreme Court has so far held that we’re within our constitutional freedoms and rights. Columbia’s undergraduate student body is the most diverse among the top schools, and we’re proud of that. The undergraduate program at Columbia — the College in particular — is one of the most selective, one of the most successful, one of the most vibrant undergraduate experiences in the world.

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