• December 22, 2014

'Fisher' Is Not the Point

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Tim Foley for The Chronicle

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Tim Foley for The Chronicle

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision today in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case in which a white student challenged an affirmative-action admissions policy, does little to resolve the heated debates about when and how race can be a factor in making college admissions decisions. The justices' opinion sends the case back to the lower court to determine whether the university met the standard of strict scrutiny in its use of race to achieve diversity.

With the decision, colleges will no doubt continue to seek answers to the elusive question of what they need to show to justify using race in their admissions policies. Some pundits will argue, as they did in the period leading up to the decision, that the time has come to replace race-based admissions with class-based admissions.

But discussions focused on avoiding race as a way to achieve legality are misguided. Our nation's diversity—an incontrovertible fact that we have long cherished—has become a dividing line just when we need to embrace it most. By the end of this decade, the majority of young Americans will be people of color who will make up a growing proportion of our future talent pool. The pipeline to higher education will include increasingly fewer white students and more Latino and African-American students who, in many cases, will come from communities with high poverty and low educational attainment.

Allowing questions like those raised by Fisher to frame the public dialogue closes down crucial conversations about one of the most pressing issues of our time. We shouldn't be too preoccupied with debating what admissions officers are legally allowed to do with race. Instead, we should be talking about how institutions of higher education can identify, equip, admit, and eventually graduate all students with the potential to succeed, rather than simply rewarding those who have been prepped for college from birth.

In other words, Fisher is not the point. The Fisher admissions frame—how much race is too much race—is far too narrow and legalistic to set the terms of a campaign to make good on higher education's promise to serve as an engine of mobility, leadership, knowledge generation, and public problem solving. A dialogue shaped by these Fisher-focused questions would be a missed opportunity to come together around much bigger questions about how to revitalize our metropolitan regions, our economy, and our politics.

Our nation's prosperity depends upon bridging racial divides, which requires developing leaders who can engage in collective action to solve problems. Higher-education institutions have a historically rooted public mandate to prepare the nation's leadership to deal with society's most important concerns. To close the gap between rhetoric and reality about the American dream, we must build on the foundation established by forward-looking colleges and universities that have begun to redefine the role of admissions from gatekeeper to bridge-builder.

This work is already under way. A recent study by the Center for Institutional and Social Change here at Columbia Law School shows that admissions officers at the University of North Carolina, Williams College, and Bates College are strengthening their networks within underserved schools, reaching out to potential future students of different races and backgrounds. Advisers help students navigate the college admissions and financial-aid process and work with others to foster a greater college-going culture within the schools.

These kinds of innovations are most likely to have impact when they are perceived as part of an institution's mission. Syracuse University has undertaken a series of long-term projects aimed at revitalizing its city and surrounding metropolis, in collaboration with community-based partners. A major component of Syracuse's "anchor institution" strategy involves a collaboration with Say Yes to Education Inc., the Syracuse City School District, the City of Syracuse, and a group of local corporate, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations.

Say Yes and Syracuse University engage diverse faculty members, students, teachers, parents, and advocates in a citywide effort to increase high-school and college graduation rates that includes academic and social support, intergroup dialogue, teacher and leadership development, and research on what works to close achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students. The effort culminates in tuition scholarships for students admitted to Syracuse University as well as other colleges that have committed to revitalizing society through education.

If these innovations take hold more broadly, they could help usher in a crucial shift in mind-set about admissions, one that connects the process to long-term partnerships with high schools and junior high schools, communities, and government and is aimed at collectively pursuing the goal of higher-education access and success for all.

A goal of colleges should be to enable people from all races and backgrounds to enter, succeed, thrive, and become productive citizens and leaders. But this goal cannot be achieved without taking race into account because of its enduring importance. Full participation can only be achieved by explicitly addressing race as part of a broader inquiry about who does and does not fully participate, why, and what should be done about it.

It's only by answering those questions that we can move beyond Fisher and fulfill education's important role in building a future equal to our aspirations.

Susan P. Sturm is a professor of law and social responsibility and the founding director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School.

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