How Not to Respond to Threats to Diversity

Colleges should consider the response to a century-old Supreme Court decision and be sure they have a plan to welcome all students, regardless of what today's courts say about affirmative action, writes John Frederick Bell.

July 23, 2018

Diversity-oriented admissions may soon become a thing of the past -- again. Renewed rumors of affirmative action’s demise, prompted by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s resignation, revoked admissions guidance and a high-profile discrimination lawsuit against Harvard University, coincide with the 110th anniversary of Berea College v. Kentucky, the first case in which the U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue of race and college admissions.

The difference between now and 1908 is that in the Jim Crow era, a college could come under legal scrutiny for admitting students of color at all. Back then, Berea, the South’s first integrated college, contested a Kentucky law banning integration in private colleges. Berea’s case reached the Supreme Court in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, which infamously upheld “separate but equal” facilities for African-Americans. Knowing their audience, Berea leaders suspected (correctly) that they would lose and started making contingency plans. Today, with the fate of race-conscious admissions hanging in the balance, college and university leaders find themselves at a similar crossroads.

Berea’s history offers a clear example of how not to proceed. In the face of defeat, the college curbed its historic commitment to racial justice. Founded by abolitionists, Berea had begun admitting African-Americans after the Civil War. Forty years later, roughly 16 percent of the student body was black, down from a high of 67 percent during Reconstruction. When state law forced Berea to become either a white college or a black one, college leaders chose the former. While its case moved through the courts, the college paid for African-American students to transfer to black colleges and universities. Predictably, Kentucky courts ruled against Berea, and the college appealed. Yet before its case even arrived at the Supreme Court, the college announced plans to found a black industrial institute near Louisville.

If Berea wanted to honor its historic commitment to African-Americans, an alumni-authored pamphlet argued, “it should have been given to the colored people.” Instead, the college conceded the logic of segregation by proactively raising funds for a separate trade school, of lesser academic caliber and 100 miles away. Black alumni were appalled that “after taking away from us our own school, the white people are making us help them build another.” Some set about actively undermining fund-raising efforts for the institute, convinced that their alma mater’s leaders secretly favored segregation and were only appealing for show.

Subsequent actions by the administration further eroded alumni confidence. When the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky’s segregation law in 1908, Berea’s president claimed the verdict “does not, however, greatly affect us at this time.” Downplaying the college’s abolitionist creed as “too far ahead of the times,” the president doubled down on educating a new constituency, white Appalachians. Antiracist ideals were soon written out of the Berea’s constitution. The names of black graduates were even expunged from the rolls of the alumni association.

I have to believe colleges and universities today would not behave so cruelly. (Berea has long since made amends. It was quick to readmit black students after desegregation and now requires every student to take an African-American studies course). Still, were a court to prohibit race-conscious admissions practices, some contemporary institutions might be tempted to uphold the spirit of the decision as well as the letter, if only for convenience’s sake.

Matriculating a diverse student body without some form of affirmative action would require more resources and forethought than before. Admissions officers would need to work more closely with minority-serving school districts to communicate expectations of applicants and position them for success relative to their white and Asian-American counterparts. Standardized test scores, shown to disadvantage African-American and Hispanic students, would need to be devalued if not eliminated, as some leading universities have begun to do. Leadership and community service criteria would also need to be recalibrated to encompass part-time employment and childcare, obligations many students must assume in lieu of extracurricular activities.

Conscientious colleges and universities would also solicit input from current students and alumni from underrepresented backgrounds. Their participation would be crucial, not only for developing new recruitment strategies but especially to building trust with minority constituencies galled by the myopic rhetoric of “colorblindness.” The sudden imposition of race neutrality would likely subject current students of color to new attacks on the legitimacy of their admission. Any strength they once found in numbers would diminish were their communities to become further underrepresented on campus. Including them in strategic planning would honor their membership in their institutions.

Outreach and admissions reforms would affirm that a college’s devotion to diversity was more than fair-weather fidelity. Berea ran afoul of history by yielding prematurely to its adversaries and alienating its alumni of color. Now as then, pluralism is a challenging proposition for college campuses. Post-Ferguson, Mo., protests have highlighted the racism students of color continue to face, 60 years after the Supreme Court reversed its ruling in Berea College v. Kentucky and banned segregated education. Of late, colleges and universities have scrambled to implement initiatives to improve campus climate. The most honest of these recognize that inclusivity requires collective commitment and that the work is never done.

If the Supreme Court rescinds race-conscious admissions, college and universities will have a decision to make: grow complacent on diversity or get creative to preserve it. Their actions will be closely watched, not least by the eye of history.

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John Frederick Bell is a postdoctoral fellow at Boston University, where he studies the history of race, education and social reform in the United States.


John Frederick Bell

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