High and Long-Term Stakes

What may be hanging in the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Fisher is the ability of colleges to ensure a racially diverse student body and, just as critically, to build a diverse faculty, argue Peter McDonough and Lorelle L. Espinosa.

December 9, 2015

Today the U.S. Supreme Court again hears oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. It is a case about one institution’s limited use of race in its rather unique admissions process, but what may be hanging in the balance is the ability of colleges and universities across America to ensure a racially diverse student body and, just as critically, build a diverse faculty.

Many people were surprised to see the Supreme Court take up Fisher once more, after ruling in 2013 that lower courts needed to apply “strict scrutiny” and not give colleges deference in reviews of challenges to the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. Whatever the reason for revisiting the case now, the justices will be hearing it against the backdrop of racial tensions in our society and recent protests, demands and discussions at the University of Missouri and other colleges and universities nationwide. This timing underscores higher education institutions’ need for engaged, thoughtful and diverse perspectives that will shape the learning of our students, who, in turn, will shape our nation’s future.

What ought not to be open for debate is the societal value of allowing colleges and universities to construct diverse, inclusive campus environments. As the American Council on Education’s amicus brief recalls, the court has repeatedly recognized the educational value of a diverse student body. While the benefits are paramount in structured settings like college and university campuses, long-term gains for our society and workforce are just as powerful. In today’s diverse world, and in the world that lies ahead of us, the ability to understand and engage with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives is a necessary skill and a national imperative.

The range of amicus briefs filed in the Supreme Court in Fisher I and II and in the court’s prior consideration of race in admissions reflects this reality. As briefs filed from Fortune 500 businesses, state and federal elected officials, and military leaders argue, higher education’s commitment to ensuring diverse perspectives and engagement across differences is supported by those who work together in corporate boardrooms, scientific laboratories, doctor’s offices and on the battlefield.

Further, and importantly, the outcome of Fisher II won’t just impact student diversity on our nation’s campuses. It could also crimp the pipeline from undergraduate to advanced study for students of color who aspire to the professoriate -- just the opposite of what is needed at a moment when faculty diversity is among the many concerns intensely expressed by students in recent weeks.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s professors, and diversity across America’s professoriate is crucial. After all, who instructs and inspires entering freshmen and transfer students after they arrive on our nation’s campuses? Who advises, coaches, mentors, encourages, challenges, cajoles, counsels and comforts them? A diverse faculty enriches experiences, fosters empathy, cultivates and shares talents and perspectives, and offers unscripted opportunities to open minds and inform thinking.

Some people argue that the consideration of race in admissions is a policy ready for retirement. In fact, in 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted that “race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time,” and the court expected that in 2028 “the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary” to further an institution’s interests in having an educational environment that benefits from a diverse student body. If the court upholds the consideration of race in 2016, Justice O’Connor’s optimistic time horizon may not be so far off: many of 2028’s college freshmen are kindergartners today. They will emerge from a pool of potential college students that will be the most racially diverse in our history.

Yet to truly ready their campuses for the class of 2028 and the educational benefits that a diverse student and faculty body provides, colleges and universities must have the necessary tools at their disposal today. The consideration of race remains such a vital tool and -- as the research of ACE and others has shown -- this consideration is at its best when used in conjunction with the consideration of other student characteristics, such as family income, academic preparation and life experience.

The bottom line is that colleges and universities require the freedom not only to say but also to act on the tenet that racial diversity matters -- to their students, their faculty and the future of this country.


Peter McDonough is vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education. Lorelle L. Espinosa is assistant vice president of ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy. ACE represents more than 1,600 college and university presidents and related associations.

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