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Diversity and Democracy: The Unfinished Work

Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.
—W.E.B. DuBois

The nation reached an important crossroads on the journey towards a full multiracial democracy when the Supreme Court issued its decisions in the two lawsuits challenging the University of Michigan's race-conscious admissions policies. Legal scholars have called these cases among the most important in the court's history. Record-setting numbers of "friend of the court" briefs were filed—by universities, colleges, students, business leaders, military and political officials, and many others. There was an outpouring of leadership support for affirmative action as an essential strategy for overcoming deep-rooted inequalities.

In a nearly unprecedented expression of consensus, virtually the entire higher education community had urged the Court to recognize that racial diversity on campus is a compelling national interest. We applaud the Court's explicit recognition that diversity is indeed a compelling educational and civic value—essential to excellence as well as equity.

The Michigan decision came as the United States approaches the fifty-year anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, which determined that de jure racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. The historic juxtaposition of these two events—and the reality of continuing de facto segregation in schools and communities across the nation—should give pause to every American. The United States is far from finished with the long march toward integration and the achievement of equal opportunity for all.

Higher education has an important role to play in this unfinished work of racial inclusion and civic commitment, as the outpouring of national support for Michigan's policies attests. Success at expanding educational opportunity is key to addressing the racial and economic inequities that are so harmful to our society. The civic benefits of campus diversity go far beyond admissions decisions, important as these are. Great gains come when students from different backgrounds achieve together the interracial understanding and mutual respect that are indispensable in a diverse democracy. We now know, from experience and a growing body of research, that engaging diversity on campus deepens students' individual learning and reaps rich dividends—in both knowledge and values—for democracy.

In the wake of the Michigan decisions, colleges and universities will need to ensure that their admissions policies are narrowly tailored as the court has decided. But this will not mean a return to the de facto campus segregation of four decades ago. Nor can we be satisfied with limited access for students of color. Indeed, there can be no turning back from our larger responsibilities to educate students from all our communities, especially those that historically have remained on the margins.

In this spirit, we take this opportunity to embrace an expanded role for higher education in the nation's ongoing quest to achieve equal opportunity.

First, we must work in partnership with primary and secondary educators to improve dramatically the quality of educational outcomes for poor children and children of color.

The deep inequities in access to schools of high quality represent a fundamental fault line that blocks opportunity and disfigures our democracy. Too many of our nation's children—and a disproportionate number of poor students and children of color—leave school ill-prepared for any of life's challenges. During the 1990s, these gaps in K-12 educational achievement between disadvantaged groups and the most fortunate grew even wider. We can and must work together to close this gap so that all students graduate from high school fully prepared for college success, work, and citizenship.

Second, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that all who enroll in college, whatever their background, experience a rigorous, horizon-expanding, and intellectually challenging education.

We have a long way to go before we achieve full equity in educational opportunities across racial/ethnic lines, as persistence, grading, and graduation data reveal. All of us can learn from the leadership of pacesetting educational programs that are finding ways to close the achievement gap at all levels of education.

Third, every student should learn about the struggles for full inclusion in our democracy that have been a crucial part of the nation's history.

Such study will help all students gain the intercultural and civic knowledge and capacities that are needed in a diverse democracy, and a deep knowledge of the continuing struggles—in this nation and the world—to achieve equity and justice for all.

The Michigan cases, for all their importance, only point us to these larger tasks that still remain.

We, the undersigned, rededicate ourselves to work with all means available to make knowledge a resource—both educational and civic—for achieving a racially inclusive democracy.

Association of American Colleges and Universities
ACT
American Association for Higher Education
American Association of Colleges of Nursing
American Association of Community Colleges
American Association of University Professors
American College Personnel Association
American Conference of Academic Deans
American Council on Education
Association of Academic Health Centers
Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities
Association of Research Libraries
Campus Compact
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University
The College Board
College & University Professional Association for Human Resources
Council for Advancement and Support of Education
Council for Christian Colleges & Universities
Council for Higher Education Accreditation
Council for Opportunity in Education
Education Trust
Educational Testing Service
National Association for College Admission Counseling
National Association of College and University Business Officers
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators
National Association of Student Personnel Administrators
National Council of University Research Administrators
University Continuing Education Association

 

June 24, 2003

 

See News Release on Statement on "Diversity and Democracy: The Unfinished Work."

See more information on Amicus Curiae Briefs on Behalf of the University of Michigan, with a link to AAC&U's briefs.