Former President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 lectured on the past and future of affirmative action in higher education yesterday in Martha van Rensselaer. The talk centered on Lehman’s personal insights on the Supreme Court case, Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), in which he was a named defendant.
Lehman was a law student at the University of Michigan in 1978 when the Supreme Court ruled in Bakke v. California that the state had a “compelling interest” in fostering a healthy learning environment in its public schools and that it could use affirmative action to further that interest.
“The question of whether affirmative action was constitutional was a national question and a question I was drawn to,” Lehman recalled. He emphasized the complexity of the Bakke decision, which included six distinct opinions filed by the justices.
In 1991, Lee Bollinger, then dean of Michigan Law School, asked Lehman to join a committee that would, for the first time, outline an official admissions policy for the school that was consistent with the Bakke decision. In drafting the policy, Lehman noted the committee’s desire to answer the question, “how many minority students make a class diverse?”
They decided that the student body needed a “critical mass” of minorities large enough to extend beyond “token representation” and make diversity a challenging and educationally useful tool.
When in 1997 students rejected for admission by the undergraduate college and law school at the University of Michigan filed law suits against the respective institutions, Lehman noted, “it was very obvious right away that we had our work cut out for us.” Lehman was intricately involved with Grutter v. Bollinger, the case against the law school.
When the court ruled 5-4 in favor of Michigan in the Grutter case, it “stated clearly and unequivocally, ‘you were right all along,'” Lehman said. “It said a critical mass, our favorite term, is not a quota, it is a good idea, it breaks down stereotypes” and facilitates understanding. The court sided with the plaintiff in the suit against the undergraduate college because its admissions policy more explicitly and mechanically favored minority candidates.
More important in the court’s decision, Lehman stressed, were its comments on the role of affirmative action in American society. The court argued that since law school represented the path to leadership in America, it is imperative that that path remain open to qualified and talented candidates of all races.
“The most important legacy of the Grutter case,” Lehman explained, was that it “reaffirmed that the goal is not to have affirmative action be lawful, but the goal is to have affirmative action be not necessary.”
As Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion, “The court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” Lehman acknowledged that affirmative action is not as uniformly embraced as he might hope.
“Not everybody in America trusts universities to be sincere,” he said. He spoke of the difference between simply creating a diverse community and actually getting it to function in such away that allows it to achieve its goals.
Those goals, according to Lehman, fall primarily into two key categories. First, he argued, “students need to learn how to see the world through another person’s eyes.”
Lehman called this phenomenon “perspective enlargement.” The second category Lehman called “role reversal,” which involves non-minority students interacting with a number of minority students that would allow them to partake in the experience of being surrounded by individuals unlike themselves.
A university’s realizing these benefits, according to Lehman, requires more than the administration’s promoting a culture that facilitates “meaningful integration.”
Perhaps more importantly, Lehman stressed, students must also embrace and “individualize the commitment to move back and forth between the spaces that are safe and the spaces that force us to grow and challenge us.”
Lehman thought that a small but growing number of students are reaping the benefits from living in a diverse campus community and that the University could further improve the situation “by providing regular and repeated nudging to encourage students to move in the direction of a regular ebb and flow” between “safe” and “challenging” interactions.
Yet many Cornell students feel that despite the University’s efforts to create a diverse student body through the admissions process, the actual integration of student life needs significant improvement. Others lament the alleged dearth of ideological diversity among the faculty.
“It seems like the focus at Cornell is to enhance racial diversity when the emphasis should be placed on ideas, thoughts and ideological diversity. Diversity in the classroom is more valuable in what’s expressed than in the skin colors represented,” said Brett Greenberg ’08.
“This year I’m really hoping to have our diversity committee be extremely active in addressing the issues President Lehman talked about in having meaningful integration on the campus and I’m really excited about it,” said Lisa Staiano-Coico, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology.
While Lehman acknowledged the proportionate lack of conservative faculty at Cornell and thought it “important for students to be exposed to a broad range of ideological perspectives while they are students on campus,” he argued that the “critical mass” of conservative views had been reached. This critical mass, Lehman told The Sun, is more important and efficient than any quota that would align the proportion of conservative faculty with the number of conservatives in society.
Overall, Lehman remained optimistic and looked forward to the changing attitudes that could nurture more integrated diversity.
“It’s a shame if any individual goes through four years here and misses the opportunity to get to know what’s going on at the Johnson Museum,” Lehman told the Sun. “And it would be a shame to go through four years here and miss the experience of perspective enlargement and role reversal.”
Archived article by Joshua Goldman
Sun Staff Writer