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A Vision for Diversity in the Post-Fisher World

Institutional Culture Risk Management and Compliance

A Vision for Diversity in the Post-Fisher World

attainment of diversity on college and university campuses

The Supreme Court’s determination in the landmark affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas (2013), has sweeping implications for the attainment of diversity on college and university campuses. In our new book, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward (Jossey-Bass, 2015), we address the court’s expansive strictures on race-sensitive programs and, in light of these limitations, provide concrete recommendations for practice.

Beginning with the Bakke v. University of California case in 1978, the Supreme Court has rejected remedial forms of affirmative action to address the long historical legacy of segregation and exclusion in higher education admissions. A single legal justification for diversity that represents “a compelling state interest” remains—the educational benefits of diversity. Yet ironically, the diversity rationale mostly applies to the educational gains of majority students on predominantly white campuses.

The impact of diversity on the student’s educational experience occurs through four major channels: structural or compositional diversity in terms of the demographics of a college or university’s student body; curricular diversity, including classroom experiences, course content, and co-curricular diversity experiences; interactional diversity, involving interactions with diverse peers and cross-racial groups; and campus racial climate, which involves the normative culture and climate at an institution.

In the post-Fisher world, two new conditions pertain to university admissions processes governing the means that universities and colleges can use to attain greater racial/ethnic diversity. First, a much more stringent standard for consideration of race as one factor among many in a holistic, individualized admissions process has been established. Any race-sensitive admissions criteria designed to enhance campus diversity cannot be considered unless all “workable” race-neutral measures have been exhausted. Among such measures that have withstood the test of race-neutral practices are state-based percent plans such as those in California, Texas, and Florida that guarantee admission to public universities for students who graduate in the top tier of their respective high school classes. Second, a reviewing court rather than the university is the ultimate arbiter of whether or not an institution’s use of race is necessary to attain the educational benefits of diversity.

Although in the Bakke decision Justice Powell had underscored deference to the university in its academic judgments including the selection of a student body, in Fisher Justice Kennedy wrote that in reviewing the methods to attain diversity, “[T]he university receives no deference.” Citing the 2003 high court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, Kennedy emphasized that the courts, not university administrators, “determine that the means chosen to accomplish the government’s purpose are ‘specifically and narrowly framed to accomplish that purpose.’”

What constitutes a “race-neutral” practice is still a gray area. In addition to the continued existence of state percent plans, an array of actionable practices and strategies at both the university and departmental levels has, to date, withstood legal scrutiny. These include: 

  • Expanded outreach programs to underrepresented, first-generation, and low-socioeconomic-status students
  • Scholarships based on socioeconomic or first-generation status
  • Collaborative initiatives with K-12 partners
  • Partnerships with minority-serving institutions, such as programs designed to increase the participation of women and minorities in STEM
  • Cohort programs that orient small groups of students to social, emotional, and academic challenges
  • Learning communities designed to improve academic outcomes
  • Specific disciplinary recruitment programs, often funded by private sources or grants
  • Student internships 

All these avenues can be tied to strengthening the quality of academic programs as well as enhancing the access of diverse students to these programs.

A clear outcome of the Fisher case is that recruitment and admissions strategies need to be tailored to specific campus mission, identity, and diversity goals. In other words, as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor emphasized in the Grutter decision, “[C]ontext matters when reviewing race-based governmental action under the Equal Protection Clause.” An unforeseen benefit of the Fisher decision may be the onus it places on colleges and universities to clearly articulate the institutional commitment to diversity in mission, vision, and strategic planning documents. Diversity can no longer be expressed as a side interest or peripheral consideration as the institution seeks to sustain or enhance campus diversity. Goals that link diversity with preparation of students for citizenship in a diverse democracy and global society will strengthen the rationale for campus diversity. Further, as departments consider their student recruitment and outreach strategies, the alignment of school/college and departmental diversity goals with university mission and strategic planning is particularly important.

In interviews for our book, The Department Chair as Transformative Leader (Stylus, 2015), we found that most department heads or chairs did not emphasize their role in student recruitment and appear to have relied primarily on the institution’s overall admissions efforts to provide a diverse student body. By contrast, a sociology chair at a public southwestern university stressed the specific steps taken by her department to increase graduate student diversity through alignment with need-based financial resources provided by the university:  

A very important aspect for the graduate student recruitment is that the university developed an emphasis on recruiting diversity, and we have . . . competitive fellowships . . . [that] have really helped us to recruit students. They’re one of the primary sources of financial support for these students, so that has been invaluable . . . and we have supportive administrators, a supportive dean and department heads who emphasize diversity and the importance of it. And so the development of these norms and the access to resources are the crucial components.

Since resource constraints are an important factor affecting the ability of institutions to attract diverse students from lower-income backgrounds, the expansion of need-based aid and the creation of competitive fellowships based on need and academic merit become increasingly important.

As empirical studies on the educational benefits of diversity demonstrate, attaining the educational benefits of diversity cannot be taken for granted just because a campus has diverse representation in its student body. In fact, integrating departmental curricula, co-curricular and service learning practices, inclusive classroom approaches, and mentoring experiences for diverse students are all dimensions that need integration within a holistic and integrated campus ecosystem for diversity. Academic departments play an important role in overcoming stereotypes relating to student ability, fostering an inclusive climate, sponsoring research and service-learning opportunities for students, creating role models of excellence through a diverse faculty, and advancing classroom pedagogies that are responsive to differing student needs. 

Edna B. Chun, D.M., and Alvin Evans are award-winning authors, each with more than two decades of experience in higher education. Edna Chun is chief learning officer and Alvin Evans is higher education practice leader for HigherEd Talent, a national HR and diversity consulting firm.


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