Updated July 31 at 10:05 p.m.
University President Lee Bollinger, a leading legal advocate of affirmative action, said Columbia will continue to implement affirmative action despite new Trump administration guidance to schools nationwide to employ race-neutral admissions standards.
Though the Trump administration's stance is not law, educational institutions could still face investigations or lawsuits by the Justice Department and could subsequently lose access to federal funding from the Department of Education.
On Monday, 16 universities, including Columbia and the rest of the Ivy League institutions, filed a joint amicus brief in defense of Harvard’s race-conscious admissions process, which has come under recent scrutiny following a lawsuit that claims Harvard’s admissions office discriminates against Asian-American applicants. The brief expresses a continued support for race-conscious admissions policies, arguing that diversity is central to advancing the educational missions of universities.
Bollinger himself has also defended affirmative action on a national level before, arguing in favor of the policy in the landmark Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, which ruled that affirmative action is constitutional as long as race is considered as one factor among many in the admissions process.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Spectator on July 17, slightly edited for content and clarity.
Spectator: Given the recent push from the Trump administration for schools to strongly encourage the use of race-neutral methods, will Columbia’s admissions office in any way change how it conducts its admissions processes?
Bollinger: I do not expect any changes in the admissions office at the College or any place else. That is, the University has been committed to building a diverse student body, including racial and ethnic diversity, for several decades, and Columbia is part of a higher education effort to make sure that there is fairness and greater educational value in the composition of the student body. So this the longstanding commitment that is rooted in a philosophy of education and in the roles of universities in this society. So, I think the recent statements by the administration will not have a broad effect at this point in time. If they are followed by more concrete actions to discourage affirmative action, and if it is followed by litigation, that may be a different story. Not at Columbia, I think, because we will defend this to the end. But many universities can become skittish about being involved in litigation.
Spectator: Do you see it as your role, or as Columbia’s role, to be a national voice in favor of affirmative action in this political moment?
Bollinger: I have always felt this way and acted on that. I mean I’ve done all kinds of things including participating in litigation, as you know. So I think it’s certainly a role that I have taken on and I will continue to do so. And I think it’s a role for Columbia.
Spectator: Trump has said that for those schools or universities who may keep their current admissions policies intact, they could face [Department of Justice] investigations or lawsuits, or could lose federal funding. Are you worried about that in any way?
Bollinger: Yes, I’m worried. Worried not in the sense of facing an investigation but worried because I think our policies are completely consistent with the Constitution and the law generally, so I have full confidence in that. That’s the most important thing. I am concerned about how this could discourage universities from doing what they are legally entitled to do, and educationally entitled to do. As I said, one of the things I’ve learned over my lifetime is that many people, especially people that don’t understand the law, don’t understand Constitutional law, can become excessively conservative when faced with potential government action, or private action, or litigation against them. And so you can create an environment that is intimidating, that is discouraging, and that can have negative consequences in itself. So I am concerned about that.
Spectator: In what ways do you think that other universities might be discouraged by just this pressure of litigation or this threat of loss of federal funding? What might this lead to on a national scale if not at Columbia?
Bollinger: Well people may just say that they will no longer take race or ethnicity into account, and as factors in admissions. And if they do that then there will be a change in the composition of student bodies and that would be terrible. [...] It would be bad because universities have decided for very sound reasons that this is the best way to educate young people, this is the best context in which to do that. And that has real meaning, it has real value. We have thought about this over many decades and believe in it deeply as an educational policy and philosophy, and as a social philosophy. That is in this society in which we live it is what is needed, what is just. If universities change their actions and their policies, then they are sacrificing that deep educational value and are jeopardizing their role in society. So it’s not an abstract matter, it’s very very real and very serious. It would be as if the government said, ‘We think these books that are being read and assigned in classes in universities are immoral or seditious or leading to bad thoughts, and we’re going to ban these 5 books from being used in high schools or colleges.’ And you could say, ‘Well it’s just 5 books.’ But everybody knows that that cuts to the core of the autonomy of educational institutions, especially universities, to decide what they think is consistent with the highest educational mission.
Spectator: The example that is definitely at the forefront of many of our minds would be the case against Harvard regarding reverse-discrimination against Asians and Asian-Americans, which right now seems to be headed for the Supreme Court. So I was wondering, do you think that this case could set some sort of new legal precedent for affirmative action?
Bollinger: I can’t speak about the facts of the Harvard case because I just have not obviously reviewed the depositions and the testimony and so on, so I can’t speak about the actual case. Harvard, it must be said, denies strenuously that they have any quota for Asian-Americans. And frankly I’d be shocked to find out that they did, so I do not want to comment on the specific litigation, but just note that that’s their position. And that is the position I believe universities should follow, there is no quota or cap on any group by virtue of race. I would be very very very surprised if that turns out to be the case.
I think that the litigation against Harvard is part of a broader effort over the past three decades by certain groups in society to attack and undermine affirmative action generally. The mission in the case as I see it, of the plaintiffs, is not only to raise the matter of admissions offices and Asian-American applicants and students, but is part of this broader effort to undermine affirmative action. If the courts follow a basic principle of legal jurisprudence, or jurisprudence, that you must follow precedent, then there is nothing to be worried about because the case that I led, Grutter v. Bollinger, established a clear, decisive precedent that, under the 14th Amendment, this is constitutional to take race and ethnicity into account for educational purposes.
If you take what's happening as part of a broader effort by some groups in society to undermine affirmative action, I mean, to challenge it as a matter of law, if the courts follow the principle of precedent, they will not win. There is always the risk that the Supreme Court may say, ‘We are not going to follow precedent, we're going to create new precedent, and that new precedent is that this is now unconstitutional to do this.’ I think that would be tragic, as I've said on many many occasions, but one has to recognize that as a possibility. Therefore, I think we all have to work as hard as we can to make the case to the courts, and to the broader public, that this is both consistent with the Constitution and the law and is part of what we want as a society to be.