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Why diversity in higher education isn't optional

This is a guest column by one of our Sunday guests, Debo Adegbile, who is the Acting President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc.
Debo Adegbile of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, on our show last Sunday.
Debo Adegbile of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, on our show last Sunday.

This is a guest column by one of our Sunday guests, Debo Adegbile, who is the Acting President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc. (LDF). LDF argued the Fisher v. Texas case in the federal appellate court, and filed a friend of the court brief in the Supreme Court. You can follow him on Twitter at @DeboLDF.

For many students, college is the first time that they have meaningful interactions with people of other races. Because many of our nation’s neighborhoods and schools remain segregated, not by law but in fact, the opportunities to learn from, work with, and live alongside people who are different are often limited in American life. For decades, the United States Supreme Court has helped to break down these barriers through landmark rulings that paved he way for the nation’s universities to pursue the twin goals of academic excellence and broad diversity. But a major case now before the Court could determine whether universities will be able to consciously continue their role of bringing people from different racial backgrounds together.

As the acting President of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (“LDF”), I have a particular legal vantage point on the issue of diversity in higher education. LDF filed a brief on behalf of African-American students and alumni in the Supreme Court attesting to the critical role that college plays in expanding opportunity for all students.

But I also have a personal perspective. 

I played soccer when I was in college. My teammates and I came from across the nation and world, played hard, and learned lasting lessons about our strengths, limits and character. After practices, we often recounted the day’s highs and lows as we walked up the hill to dinner -- ribbing each other along the way. But one evening, things were different. As I reached out to hug a teammate who was walking apart from the group he turned and snapped at me “get off me, you fuzzy foreigner.”

This incident was well over twenty years ago, but I remember it clearly. We were both people of modest means who loved the game, but in the blink of an eye, our similarities seemed to be meaningless. While my life in The Bronx, New York may have been “foreign” to the experience of my teammate who was from a different part of the country, it was undoubtedly my race, and perhaps my name that caused him, reflexively, to refer to me as something other than a teammate. But if our early measure of each other was affected by our prior experiences and preconceptions, at college it was not be singularly defined by them.

Had ours been a chance encounter that might have been the end of the story -- but because we attended the same college and were able to live together and learn from each other, we both had the opportunity to move past it. Through our experiences on campus, on the soccer field, in the dorm and through the classes and interests that we shared we came to appreciate both the similarities and differences associated with our distinctive racial backgrounds and built a friendship. We would later travel to his hometown during a school vacation. Years later, at his request, I vouched for his character when he sought admission to his state’s bar.

My experience and countless others like it across the nation illustrate the possibilities that living and learning with students of different races, cultures and backgrounds affords. This story is a window into a larger American challenge and the difficulties we encounter when we fail to develop tools for productive cross-racial interactions. In the absence of opportunities to understand people based upon experiences, we run the risk of reducing them to stereotypical assumptions about their most obvious feature, which is often their race.

Today the Court will hear oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that revisits the constitutionality of college and university admissions policies that seek to ensure that their student body is broadly diverse as well as academically qualified. LDF is not alone in endorsing the benefits of diversity in this case. An avalanche of over 70 briefs were filed from major corporations like Merck, DuPont, Halliburton and American Express, retired military leaders like General Colin Powell, over 100 college and universities, small businesses, religious denominations, and leading civil rights organizations. There also have been numerous opinion pieces, such as a piece in the Washington Post by Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow and Yale Law School Dean Robert Post, and another by Steve Farmer, Vice Provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina, which forcefully make the case for diversity.

This journey began over 60 years ago in a case, also out of the University of Texas, Sweatt v. Painter, when the Court first recognized the diversity principle and that law, education, and life do not exist in isolation.  Some years later, in another case, Bakke v. University of California at Davis, a pivotal opinion by one of the Justices affirmed this core value – that all students and the country as a whole benefit from diversity in higher education. Justice Powell, who cast the deciding vote in Bakke, observed that “nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” This notion applies with even greater force to the challenges our nation faces today. And in 2003, in the Michigan case, the Court roundly embraced diversity in higher education, emphasizing the many educational advantages of having people of different racial backgrounds on campus and in the classroom.

America is better and stronger when the pathways to educational opportunity are visibly open to everyone. We cannot and should not waiver from this important path to educational opportunity -- as the Supreme Court has previously explained, nothing less than the future of the nation depends upon it.

Find the entirety of our Sunday conversation on affirmative action below the jump. We'll have more on today's events later today on the blog.