The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What opponents of affirmative action get wrong

Universities seek diversity because it produces a better educational experience.

Demonstrators against Harvard University’s admission process hold signs and American flags while gathering during a protest at Copley Square in Boston on Oct. 14. (Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg News)
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The critics of racial diversity in college admissions are back at it again.

Only two years ago, diversity’s opponents lost a long-running lawsuit against the University of Texas. This past summer, they received a boost from the Trump administration, which rescinded Obama-era admissions guidance on how to consider race in a manner consistent with the law. Now they are accusing Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans in the name of diversity, taking their case to a Boston federal court.

Whether their arguments have any legal merit, they seem to be good at grabbing headlines.

But lost in all the legal and political hubbub is a sound understanding of how and why colleges and universities came to value diversity in the first place — especially racial diversity. This lack of attention to history fuels needless suspicion and derision of policies aimed at creating a richer student experience and a better-educated population.

A common, long-standing belief is that the “diversity rationale” was injected into higher education by the 1978 Bakke Supreme Court decision, which outlawed racial quotas but laid out a novel constitutional justification for taking race into account. Nowadays, diversity’s harshest opponents seem to suggest that concern for racial diversity was never more than a weak-kneed concession to misguided campus militants, who were searching for a way to admit underqualified African American and Latinx students to elite colleges.

Neither account, especially the latter one, gets the history right. American institutions of higher education began to value racial diversity far earlier than Bakke — and for reasons that were not nearly so discreditable or conspiratorial.

A key figure was Wilbur J. Bender, Harvard’s dean of admissions during the Eisenhower years. Bender brought a socially inclusive sensibility to his admissions work, partly as a result of his own background. He was a native of Elkhart, Ind., a Navy veteran and a Mennonite. This son of Midwestern farmers may not have been cut from the same cloth as the typical Harvard man, but he was no wild-eyed radical, either.

In 1961, Bender was freshly retired, and he took the occasion to lay out his views on admissions in an essay that first appeared in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin. In it, Bender suggested that a “top-one-percent-policy” that sought to admit “only students of the very highest academic ability” could well lead to a “warping and narrowing experience” for all students at Harvard. It would be far more valuable if admissions officers began with a pool of applicants drawn from a “somewhat broader range of academic ability” — he gestured toward the top 5 percent — and from there created a class with people comprising a “variety of personalities, talents, backgrounds, and career goals.”

Bender concluded his essay with a passage that made a powerful case for the educational value of “diversity”:

In other words, my prejudice is for a Harvard College with a certain range and mixture and diversity in its student body — a college with some snobs and some Scandinavian farm boys who skate beautifully and some bright Bronx pre-meds, with some students who care passionately if unwisely (but who knows?) about editing the Crimson or beating Yale, or who have an ambition to run a business and make a million, or to get elected to public office....Won’t even our top-one percent be better men and better scholars for being part of such a college?

Bender’s ideas did not remain confined to Harvard, and the concern for diversity soon spread to other top schools.

As the mobilization of the civil rights movement intensified in the early-1960s, interest in racial diversity in higher education grew with it.

Among the earliest educators to highlight the educational value of racial diversity was Kenneth B. Clark, the City College psychologist whose research had been cited by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Ed. Only months after the March on Washington in 1963, Clark spoke at Oakland’s Mills College, where he indicated his general support for devising programs that were designed to “compensate for past discriminations” against African Americans, thereby articulating one rationale that would be given for affirmative action. But he also gave voice to a second rationale — one that mirrored Bender's broader thoughts on diversity — arguing that important educational benefits would flow from the racial diversity that would come from integrating America's best colleges and universities.

“America has the most valuable resource in the variety of its people,” he said. But segregation was squandering this advantage. The “hothouse isolation” experienced by students at “top quality” but “segregated” schools simply did not serve them well in a rapidly internationalizing world. It did not prepare them for “effective functioning with individuals who are different, who look different, who have different backgrounds.”

Clark was correct that the most prestigious institutions in the country were racially segregated. In 1967, four years after he had spoken in Oakland, African Americans remained severely underrepresented, constituting only 1.8 percent of all students in a sample of 11 private universities that included Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, Tufts, Duke and Emory.

But a critical intellectual shift had taken place by 1967. Bender’s ideas about the educational value of diversity — and Clark’s belief that race was a desirable form of diversity — had become commonplace at selective institutions.

The new consensus was nowhere more clearly reflected than in the University of Pennsylvania’s 47-page McGill Report, which set forth a comprehensive set of recommendations concerning undergraduate admissions. Its authors rejected a policy that would “permit the acceptance of only those applicants who appear destined to become the intellectual leaders of the country.” Instead, they embraced the conviction that the “diversity of student background is a positive educational value and should be actively pursued, even at the expense of other desirable attributes.” Furthermore, they made it clear throughout the report that the racial background of an applicant — like low income or rural residence — could be regarded as a valuable form of diversity that would “strengthen the over-all educational experience of the total student body.”

The suspicions and misgivings that consume the critics of affirmative action thus seem regrettably misplaced. The concern for diversity was not contrived in the late 1970s as an end-run around the Constitution. Bakke did not introduce the diversity rationale so much as give it heightened importance and legal legitimacy. Nor was diversity a mandate forced upon higher education by militants and outsiders in the late 1960s, as American campuses and cities were rocked by rebellions and riots.

Instead, a clear-eyed look at the historical record tells us that leaders in higher education began to value diversity — and then especially racial diversity — over the course of several years in the early 1960s. With dramatic protests in Greensboro, Birmingham, D.C. and Selma as a critical backdrop, they sought to find a proper role for their institutions in a rapidly changing society that was striving to break free from segregation and its legacy. What educators following in the footsteps of Bender and Clark came to believe was that the experience they were providing to their students would be woefully deficient if test scores and class rank were the only admissions criteria that mattered — and if a school were racially segregated.

These educators understood that the world is a big place full of people who are different from one another, and going to a school with a diverse study body is one of the best ways to prepare for it.

That common-sense lesson from American history is still worth remembering today, even if it remains lost on today’s critics of diversity.