This month, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases that pose the starkest threats ever to affirmative action in higher education. Central to those cases, involving admissions programs at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina, will be the value of campus diversity, which is the sole justification for affirmative action that the court has endorsed.
The notion that racially diverse student bodies improve campus intellectual life has been roundly attacked by both liberals and conservatives. But the Roberts court should not be quick to dismiss diversity’s value and dismantle affirmative action. Because we have evidence that diversity works.
Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. placed diversity at the center of affirmative action debates in 1978, when he provided the critical fifth vote upholding the constitutionality of some race-conscious admissions policies. Unlike the other four justices who supported race-conscious policies as a way of redressing racial injustice, Powell alone favored permitting admissions officers to consider applicants’ race for the purpose of attaining a diverse student body. Diversity, Powell wrote, improved “the atmosphere of speculation, experiment and creation” that is “so essential to the quality of higher education,” and he contended: “The 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.”
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