May 2, 2005

Lehman '77 Addresses Affirmative Action Controversy

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As part of the Cornell Mosaic conference last weekend, keynote speaker President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 spoke Saturday night about the importance of racial diversity and integration on campus. Lehman, as the former dean of the University of Michigan Law School, was a named defendant in the Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger, where the school’s affirmative action admissions policy was in contention. The Supreme Court ruled in Michigan’s favor in the summer of 2003 as Lehman was transitioning to the presidency of Cornell.

Lehman spoke at length about his experiences as a defendant in the case, which lasted the majority of his term as dean at the law school, sounding his thoughts on how to advance racial justice.

“Integration today does not mean assimilation. Rather, it means a recognition of the value of a pluralistic society in which ideals are shared at the same time that different identities are values. They involve a recognition of the fact that integration does not describe the static demographic mix but rather involves a dynamic process of dialogue. This is a powerful and, to my mind, vital contribution to our society’s understanding of diversity and I want to endorse it wholeheartedly,” he began in his speech.

In particular Lehman defended the rationale behind the admissions policy of the Michigan law school. The committee that crafted the policy did not intend to answer questions of the larger social discussion on racial justice, he said.

“[We] know that classes with meaningful amounts of racial diversity are almost always going to have a broader, more interesting, more challenging range of perspectives presented than classes without such diversity,” Lehman said while explaining the admissions policy of the University of Michigan law school. “The goal was to recognize as one value among many the pedagogic benefits of having within each class a critical mass of qualified minority students, a group large enough to enable each member to feel comfortable speaking in class as an individual, rather than as a spokespoken for his or her race.”

Lehman briefly explained the admissions decision process at the law school: the admissions office was to consider only the candidates who were fully academically qualified for admission, regardless of any racial identity or other factors. However, because the school had space for only 350 students and had too many fully qualified applicants, within the group of fully qualified, the admissions officers were told to make more complex judgments. Factors such as legacy, Michigan residency, and political internships were considered at this point in the decision-making process, despite knowing that “statistically, such experiences were less frequently found among minority students.” Finally, racial diversity became a “plus factor” that would eventually lead to “collective competence” in the class.

“We would prefer not to rely on racial categories in our admissions process. If there were another path to diversity, we would take it,” Lehman said. “Maybe someday there will be. Maybe someday white children and black children will really grow up together in the same neighborhoods, on the same blocks, in the same schools, but that day is not yet here, and pretending that it has arrived will not make it so.”

Lehman concluded his speech with his hope for the future of affirmative action policies: that eventually they will no longer be necessary to encourage racial integration.

“Notwithstanding the tremendous progress our society has made over the past half century, we are not yet to the point where racial integration happens by accident. The long term goal is not to be a society where affirmative action is lawful; it is to be a society where affirmative action is unnecessary,” Lehman said.

Dwight Bush ’79, trustee, introduced Lehman.

“Jeffrey, you are the personification of what our founders … meant when they talked about creating a university where any person can have an education in any study,” Bush said. “We are distinctive at Cornell because we have a president who not only talks the talk but who walks the walk.”

Upon being asked what the conclusions of his speech meant for the Cornell campus, Lehman was optimistic.

“I hope to reinforce the same community spirit that I sense here everyday … the best that I see at Cornell every day that I walk on campus,” Lehman said to the Sun.

Elizabeth D. Moore ’75, trustee and chair of the Minority Alumni Initiatives Implementation Committee, attended Lehman’s speech.

“It’s been a phenomenal success. We have had terrific speakers … who have spoken about the importance of diversity and the importance of inclusion. … The comments I’m getting from the alumni is that they have absolutely enjoyed meeting current students,” Moore said.