It’s been an interesting and rocky spring for college diversity. Efforts to improve diversity through college admissions received an unexpected boost this week, when the US Supreme Court affirmed the right of the University of Texas to use race as a factor in some of its undergraduate admissions decisions. Since the Supreme Court had already heard this case before, this second hearing hinged on a pivotal question: was the way Texas used race designed to affect as few people as possible?
The answer came from the unlikely voice of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has never voted in favor of an affirmative action case in college admissions in his long career on the bench. Given this surprise ruling came as the result of a vote of support from an unlikely source, it’s easy to understand why champions of diversity are thrilled, in fact downright giddy, over this week’s decision.
The Fisher decision certainly gives new life to affirmative action, but Justice Kennedy’s opinion also included some warnings that too many analysts are overlooking. After granting the University of Texas the right to continue their admissions program, Justice Kennedy went on to advise the university to “use… data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.” Combined with other comments in the opinion that were thoughtfully picked up by the Chronicle’s Andy Thomason, the overall effect of Justice Kennedy’s opinion is less a genuine embrace of affirmative action, and more an acknowledgement that affirmative action serves an important, but what the Court hopes will be a short-lived, purpose. It is safe to say Justice Kennedy had a change of vote. Given his past concerns about affirmative action, and the halting tones of support in his opinion in Fisher, it is unclear that he has had a change of heart.
Beyond the actions of our legal system, several articles published this spring suggest diversity of opinion is having a tough time on college campuses. From articles about trigger warnings on campus (notices about class content that some may deem controversial) to job actions taken against professors who try to present all sides of an issue in classroom debates, authors across the political spectrum are concerned that more and more students want to hear less and less about opinions that disagree even modestly from their own. Whether it’s the result of coddling or simple lack of exposure to dissenting opinions in the past, student backlash to the presentation of ideas that cause them to question their core values seems to be at an all-time high, as is the expectation that it is the job of the college administration to shield students from opinions the students might find offensive.
No one can say with any true authority how the Founding Fathers would view affirmative action, but it is clear from their writings and their conduct that the discussion of difficult subjects and the willingness to find common ground are cornerstones of the founding and successes of our country and our society. As the Supreme Court tries valiantly to grapple with key elements of college access, those with access to a college education seem less and less interested in using those opportunities to engage in genuine discourse. The poor role models of Congress and Jerry Springer may have led them to take this posture, but it is one that is contrary to the purpose of higher learning, and to the betterment of our world.