Liberal Education

From the Editor

A couple of years ago, General Motors told the U.S. Supreme Court that "the future of American business and, in some measure, of the American economy" depended upon the continued use of affirmative action to create a diverse student body at colleges and universities. "Diversity in academic institutions," GM explained, "is essential to teaching students the human relations and analytic skills they need to thrive and lead in the work environments of the twenty-first century."

Of course, the higher education community itself agrees with GM on this. And so too do the companies and state governments and professional associations and trade unions and former military leaders who filed the unprecedented number of friend-of-the-court briefs in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases. Indeed, by the time the cases had wended their way through the court, it seemed that leaders from nearly every sector of American society had gone on the record in support of diversity in higher education. For its part, the Supreme Court ended by reaffirming the principle that diversity is a compelling national interest. And so, by now, everyone knows that, when it comes to education, equity and excellence go hand in hand.

Well, okay, maybe not everyone. But there is a broad and growing consensus on this point. Polls consistently find the general public to be supportive of diversity. Several years ago, for instance, when the Ford Foundation undertook the first-ever national poll on diversity in higher education, we learned that, by a better than three-to-one margin, Americans believe that diversity programs raise rather than lower academic standards.

In truth, "diversity" actually refers to an array of issues and approaches within the academy. And while there is general agreement on its importance, the concept of diversity is not always sharply or consistently defined. So what exactly is the role of diversity in fulfilling the academy's educational and civic mission? And where is the diversity agenda heading, anyway? With these questions in mind, and with an eye to the future, the Featured Topic section examines the present state of diversity in higher education.

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