March 8, 2004

Lehman Speaks on Admissions Policies

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Standing before an audience of almost 300 people, President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 announced that Cornell is doing “relatively well” with regards to diversity as he presented his first lecture at the University regarding affirmative action last Friday. The lecture, entitled “From Bakke to Grutter: Lessons Learned,” was sponsored by the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs.

Saying that “Cornell is not a raceless society; we do not pretend that race doesn’t exist,” Lehman discussed the history and status of affirmative action in higher education both nationally and at Cornell. During the lecture, Lehman drew on his experience as dean of the University of Michigan Law School during the high-profile Supreme Court case of Grutter v. Bollinger that in June 2003 upheld the use of affirmative action in the law school’s admission policy.

Lehman began the lecture by discussing the 1978 Supreme Court case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the landmark case that established that race could be one of the factors considered in university admissions decisions while outlawing the use of quotas in affirmative action programs. After the Bakke decision, the Michigan Law School policy explained the pedagogic benefit of learning in an integrated environment and considered this interest on a case by case basis, the president said.

Continuing with the history of affirmative action, Lehman then spoke about the case of Hopwood v. University of Texas, which reached the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit in 1996 and was the first successful legal challenge to racial preferences in admissions since Bakke by arguing for complete colorblindness.

Lehman related both of these cases back to affirmative action as it currently exists, saying that — despite its advantages — one must recognize that affirmative action compromises important values of colorblindness.

In speaking of Cornell’s affirmative action policies, Lehman said that “I believe we can do more to enhance the diversity of our applicant pool … Cornell can be a new beacon of hope, illuminating the path to success [for young people].”

Lehman concluded his remarks saying that Grutter was a defeat in that we do not yet live in a society where diversity happens by accident, but must still be forced through planning.

“American society today is not a colorblind society, it is not a society that any child born, regardless of race, has an equal opportunity,” he said.

The audience, composed of graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, alumni and other members of the Cornell community, reacted favorably to Lehman’s remarks.

“I wish more students were here to hear about how affirmative action is applied in higher education. I think it is highly misunderstood and I completely agree with his vision of how we want to live in a world where policies that promote integration are extraneous, but I know we are far away from it right now,” said Esther Tang ’04, senior class council co-president .

Christine Hum ’04 agreed, saying, “I thought it was so fantastic … This just makes me so much more proud to be a Cornellian.”

Lehman’s talk was a part of the ongoing CIPA Distinguished Faculty Program Graduate Student Preliminary Research Symposium entitled “Law, Norms and Society” that will continue through next week.

Archived article by Erica Temel