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Columbia Spectator Staff

With the Supreme Court set to reconsider the landmark Bollinger affirmative action cases, the man himself spoke regarding the possibility of a ban on affirmative action. "It would be a tragedy for all of higher education and I think for society generally," he stated. Bollinger is right, but he doesn't go nearly far enough. A conservative overturn of Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger would be a national tragedy, but we must not let concern over that potential catastrophe blind us to the weakness of the polices and precedents currently in place. Preserving the status quo is not enough. Affirmative action needs to be dramatically expanded, beyond even its original civil-rights era promise. Unfortunately, existing precedents already prevent Columbia from doing so. To me, the philosophical argument for affirmative action is simple and obvious. Imagine a world with perfect equality of opportunity: a world where individuals truly are judged by the content of their character, where society does not stereotype certain interests for certain types of people, where economic status is not correlated with any social category. If one believes that gender and race have no genetic effect on academic ability or ambition (something long ago proven to be true), then one must accept that in this hypothetical world, each demographic would apply to university in numbers exactly proportional to their population and with exactly equal average achievements. But this world, though closer to our own than ever before, is still a distant fantasy. Somewhere between conception and application, some groups are pulled back and some are pushed forward. Affirmative action is a simple way to correct inequalities of opportunity and to prevent their effects from becoming cemented in the job market. Note that my argument does not mention redressing past wrongs or correcting specific imbalances. This was certainly the primary argument for early affirmative action, but it has become a liability to the cause today. If affirmative action exists only to fix a unique, present-day disproportion in educational attainment, then an endpoint for the program is implied. A line in Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger majority opinion typifies this logic: "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." But affirmative action is about much more than redressing past and current wrongs—it's about preventing future injustice. By ensuring equal educational attainment (for all groups, not just those historically disadvantaged), affirmative action can help prevent any one demographic from becoming an institutionalized underclass. Current affirmative action precedents do not allow universities to achieve this goal. Universities were barred from setting racial quotas in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), though race could still be considered a "plus" in admissions decisions. The Bollinger cases, while affirming that diversity in the classroom was a "compelling interest," rejected a formulaic, point-based system of racial preference in favor of race as a factor in a larger, vaguer "individual consideration." Acceptable affirmative action admissions had to be "holistic" and have "no policy, either de jure or de facto, of automatic acceptance or rejection based on any single 'soft' variable." The Bollinger cases thus muddied the water significantly and made affirmative action policies almost impossible to implement at schools with mechanistic admissions systems. Overturning Bakke and Gratz, permitting a simple quota-based system, would be a step in the right direction. Sadly, this does not seem to be in the offing. But even a return to civil-rights era practice is not sufficient. To begin with, all groups must be protected. A national university like Columbia should seek to mirror the makeup of the country in its student body. A demographic profile of the entering Columbia College class should read like a demographic profile of 18-year-old Americans (with a percentage set aside for international students and reflecting international demographics). To accept anything less is to tacitly endorse a structural advantage or disadvantage in society. We come closer to proportionality than one might think, but there's still significant room for improvement. Student Affairs' class of 2015 profile indicates that non-white Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites are underrepresented while Asians (even discounting international students) are overrepresented. There are other disproportions, but these are the most extreme. However, it may be difficult for Columbia to fix this without risking a lawsuit under the Grutter v. Bollinger precedent. Can a proportional student body be created without using race as the deciding factor? How would one prove what was or wasn't the deciding factor in a holistic admissions process? It may be that the quota system, forbidden 34 years ago, is the only way to resolve these issues. Someday, I'd love to see Columbia's incoming class profile match exactly with the society from which it was drawn. I'd love to see an incoming class made perfectly proportional to college-age America in race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Unfortunately, even if the Bollinger cases are left untouched, this is a result I am unlikely to see for quite some time. Alex Collazo is a Columbia College junior majoring in creative writing and economics-philosophy. He is the treasurer of CIRCA and a former Spectator head copy editor. I'm Just Saying runs alternate Tuesdays.

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