Lee Bollinger laments the ruling by America’s Supreme Court against affirmative action

Universities need to pursue diversity by other means, says Columbia’s president.

Editor's note:

This article was published in The Economist. 

Lee C. Bollinger
June 29, 2023

Twenty years ago this summer the Supreme Court of the United States ruled on a pivotal case in which I was named as a defendant. In Grutter v Bollinger the court confirmed by a 5-4 majority the view previously expressed by Justice Lewis Powell in Regents of the University of California v Bakke in 1978: that affirmative action in higher education is constitutional under the 14th Amendment, which guarantees “equal protection of the laws” to all. The court permitted American universities, including the University of Michigan, where I then served as president, to use race as one factor among many in a holistic consideration of each applicant. On June 29th the court changed course, in effect declaring affirmative action in higher education illegal.

I disagree with this decision for the simple reason that affirmative action has done a world of good. It has a clear record of fostering diversity in higher education. Decades of social-science research, as well as my own experience, confirm that diverse learning environments benefit all students by increasing cross-racial understanding, discouraging stereotypical thinking and creating a path to leadership that is visibly open to all.

It will take time to understand the full implications of the court’s ruling. It is important to note, however, that whereas it is the court’s role to declare what the law is, educational institutions must remain committed to the well-supported judgment that students benefit from a diverse learning environment that prepares them to function and lead in a diverse world. We have the expertise, and the right under the First Amendment to provide that to our students. Now universities must find new ways to exercise that right.

Although the court’s decision is regrettable, I reject the notion that the only direction is backwards and that universities must start from scratch to achieve meaningful diversity. I believe that goal is within reach. In fact, universities are much closer than many may think, provided they let go of outdated admissions policies and develop ways to give themselves greater freedom to identify talent.

University leaders should use this moment as an opportunity to rethink admissions and focus even more attention on understanding who their applicants are, and the extent to which these prospective students can be good teachers to each other, so that universities can graduate people who will be engaged, sensitive citizens.

We have been working towards this point for some time. Consider the ongoing reassessment of standardised test scores. When tests such as the SAT were introduced nearly a century ago, they were viewed as equalisers for students without elite pedigrees. Today, the tests have themselves become the very essence of reinforcing privilege.

Over the past two decades, higher-income applicants have quite literally been trained to do well on admissions tests. For the most ambitious and well-resourced applicants, gaming the admissions process via test-prep courses, enrichment camps and so on has become a project that, in some cases, can run the entire course of adolescence.

Like many of our peers, Columbia University made admissions tests for its undergraduate programmes optional during the covid-19 pandemic. Early data suggest that whether a student did or didn’t submit scores had little to no bearing on academic performance once they were in our classrooms. And so, even with the covid crisis behind us, Columbia’s undergraduate programmes no longer require standardised tests for admissions, although applicants can choose to submit them.

In accommodating the court’s decision, universities may also adopt innovative methods to obtain more diverse pools of applicants. Columbia’s School of General Studies, our undergraduate programme designed for non-traditional students, including veterans, artists and others who may have taken a break in their studies, has long been a model for that. General Studies, the only school of its kind in the Ivy League, recruits through broad outreach to community colleges, military-service members and others from diverse backgrounds. Many of those community colleges are minority-serving institutions.

General Studies students sit in the same classrooms as our traditional Columbia College and Engineering students, participate in our core curriculum and other required classes, and go on to graduate and professional schools, international study, fellowships and successful careers. Their real-world perspective transforms the conversation in and beyond the classroom. Establishing these kinds of pipelines for non-traditional undergraduates will be essential as we move forward.

What I am suggesting is not a reversal. Ever since the Bakke ruling in 1978, and certainly since Grutter, universities have engaged in a holistic admissions process that goes beyond any single metric, striving to enhance the student experience by assembling classes that are truly diverse.

To be sure, difficult decisions must still be taken. We need to consider the extent to which legacy and athletic slots favour groups historically over-represented on our campuses, and how certain types of financial aid are awarded. But this is the moment to find new ways to understand an applicant’s overall capacity to learn, lead and improve society. And those characteristics—which transcend test scores, or any other single data-point—look very different based on an individual’s background.

As I complete 50 years of university leadership, including 21 years as president of Columbia, I am sorry to see the Supreme Court end a process that has greatly benefited American society. I continue to believe that the country’s obligation to remediate past discrimination is far from complete. But the court has issued its ruling. Consistent with the rule of law, we must now recommit to preserving the benefits of diversity that have already been achieved so that America’s higher-education institutions remain open to students of all backgrounds.