Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. Their decision essentially puts the onus back on the appeals court in Texas to determine the consideration of race as criteria in the university admissions process.
Although the high court’s ruling will have no effect on the admissions process at Salem State University, which does not use race as a factor and is, in fact, blind to gender, religion, national origin and need, among other factors that define diversity, it does bring to the fore important questions about the role of diversity on our nation’s college campuses.
We have come a long way since the 1960s, when—except for America’s historically black colleges and universities —a person of color was a rare occurrence in the nation’s institutions of higher education. Fifty years later, minorities represent 20 percent of the nation’s college students. We’ve come a long way, but it’s not long enough.
In the last five decades the United States Supreme Court has grappled with emotionally charged cases concerning the consideration—or non-consideration—of race, ethnicity, gender and other criteria as factors in the admission process. The pivotal 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke eliminated the use of strict quotas based on race. However, Justice Lewis Powell, writing for the court, concluded that schools had a compelling interest in a diverse student body.
Since then, there has been a steady evolution of the role race plays in affirmative action, with the tide now turning in a direction that calls “diversity rationale” into question. We see schools de-emphasizing their diversity efforts and eliminating effective programs for budget or other reasons. This is a troubling trend for many of us in academia who value a richness of individuals in our educational institutions for the positive effect it has on teaching and learning and the development of broadminded and accepting young people. We must not allow complacency to dim our efforts and cause us to lose important advances made in the last several decades. We must continue to expand our outreach in ways that will help us create a more varied campus mosaic. We need to broaden our definition of diversity beyond race to the areas such as ethnicity, economic standing, and intellectual and political thought.
We must remain vigilant and steadfast in our efforts. At Salem State, which already enrolls the highest percentage of students of color among its comparable sister institutions in the commonwealth, we know that the compelling interest that Justice Powell spoke of remains, and there is still work before us. We need to continue our efforts to recruit a strong cadre of faculty and upper-level administrators who are equally diverse and seek new ways to expand access to the quality education we offer. Our community can only be the stronger for it.
Patricia Maguire Meservey is president of Salem State University.