To quote Columbia’s student affairs website, “diversity is one of the things that make Columbia vibrant, dynamic and exciting.” I think most Columbia students would agree with this statement, and I know I certainly do. The experiences I’ve had with people of different ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds at Columbia have been some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had during college.
From hearing a Contemporary Civilizations classmate relate his experiences in the South Korean army to Plato’s “Republic,” to listening to my suitemate tell story after story about her experiences in one of Minnesota’s lower-income high schools, I can safely say my experiences inside and outside of the classroom have been enriched, varied, and altered thanks to the extensive diversity of Columbia’s student body.
At many universities and colleges today, some sort of affirmative action policy in the college admissions process fosters such diversity. This is especially true of state schools. The Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger (yes, our Bollinger!), which dealt with the University of Michigan’s law school admissions policy, established that United States Constitution “does not prohibit the Law School’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” To summarize, this means state schools can use race as a plus factor in admissions in order to create diversity.
But this policy may be changing.
Adam Liptak of the New York Times reported on Oct. 15 that the plaintiff in Fisher v. University of Texas Austin, Abigail Fisher, a Caucasian student and Texas resident, applied to and was rejected from the University of Texas. She proceeded to sue UT Austin in Federal District Court in Austin and lost, but a month ago her lawyers filed a petition seeking a Supreme Court review, and it is likely that the justices will agree to hear her case. Fisher’s lawsuit could very well mean the end of affirmative action—at least as we know it today. This risk to affirmative action exists for two reasons. First, the Grutter case was decided in 2003, and since then the Supreme Court has become more conservative and likely to rule against affirmative action as it now stands. Second, the legal principle that is under siege via the Fisher lawsuit is whether “diversity” is of such a compelling state interest that it can override any concerns of “race” that are intertwined with diversity. Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court may very well rule that diversity isn’t sufficiently important, and that would be regrettable. Sorting through the tea leaves, we learn that Roberts sees little to no constitutional protection for diversity. In a different case in 2007, Roberts wrote, “Racial balancing is not transformed from ‘patently unconstitutional’ to a compelling state interest simply by relabeling it ‘racial diversity.’”
But Fisher’s suit could also mean the beginning of a new era of affirmative action. Thus far in college admissions, addressing racial diversity, racial advantage, and racial injustice directly through affirmative action has created backlash on both sides of this policy debate. There is a possibility that the policy could morph to use financial means as a factor in college admissions instead of skin color. This would provide diversity, socioeconomically and experientially, without the backlash against both “color-awareness” and “color-blindness.”
Although affirmative action currently exists constitutionally for public universities and colleges today but not for private schools like Columbia, we have a stake in this debate. Whatever precedent American public colleges set will most likely eventually be followed or considered by private schools. While Columbia students may not right now have a direct link to Abigail Fisher’s Supreme Court case, we do have an indirect bond to its outcome.
We need to remember how much we get out of diversity at our college—in the classroom, on Low Steps, in our dorm lounges, and through daily random occurrences. We need to decide if we want to continue to foster such a multifaceted environment directly or leave it up to chance.
In my opinion, we need to remember how diverse experiences and diverse people enrich our college reality and continue some form of affirmative action. The question then becomes, should this be done through financial or racial means, color-aware or color-blind?
Jessica Geiger is a Columbia College sophomore. She is an associate copy editor for Spectator. State of the Student runs alternate Thursdays.