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Robert B. Sloan Jr.

The Groves of Academe

Salt, Light,and Affirmative Action

Once again, a major public university finds itself the backdrop for a serious policy debate about the role of race in higher education—and in the broader society—within the United States. The recent rulings of the Supreme Court on the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies have refocused national attention on racial preferences and their role in American life.

In the cacophony of contending voices I tend to resonate most clearly with those of other college and university presidents. One worthy contribution to the debate was a New York Times op-ed piece by Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, in which he discussed a "reasonable definition of merit" that does not reduce college admissions to the assessment of a single metric such as the SAT (January 14, 2003). Botstein rightly points to a tacit hypocrisy that has long plagued higher education: universities "have for too long maintained a lie about how subjective and imprecise the assessment of merit actually is." He is surely on point to maintain that the sum total of a person's promise as a college student—or potential as an employee, for that matter—cannot be captured by a simple numerical measure.

Accepting that access to higher education for all segments of society is just and necessary for the public good, how then shall students be evaluated? And why does this debate matter not only to large public universities but also to private faith-based institutions?

Universities should work to ensure that their programs are utilized by minority students because a "critical mass" of underrepresented minorities is necessary to secure the numerous benefits of a diverse student body. Such was the conclusion of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in her opinion in the Grutter case. In Grutter, the Court ruled that the University of Michigan Law School could use race as a "plus" factor in admissions, provided that the admissions program retains sufficient flexibility "to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual" ...

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