In the wake of last Wednesday’s oral arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas U.S. Supreme Court case, the University is capitalizing on the potentially precedent-setting court decision to talk about the importance of affirmative action at public universities.
On Thursday, the National Center for Institutional Diversity hosted a symposium in the Rogel Ballroom at the Michigan Union to discuss the case, which involves Abigail Fisher, a white student, who was denied admission to the University of Texas, which uses race as a factor in admissions.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Fisher, it could overturn the decision of Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case involving the University of Michigan Law School that affirmed the legality of affirmative action policies at public universities.
The event featured various speakers, including Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University; Uma Jayakumar, a University of San Francisco professor; Katherine Phillips, a Columbia University Business School professor; and Gary Orfield, a University of California, Los Angeles professor and co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.
Cantor, a former University provost and dean who played a key role in the 2003 case, defended affirmative action, claiming that diversity is beneficial to everyone.
“Diversity means better science, more innovation and healthier communities,” Cantor said. “In higher education, it’s not something extra on the plate. Diversity is the plate.”
Cantor added that despite arguments that race-based admissions policies neglect talented students, they are crucial in providing diverse perspectives and they foster better-informed collective work when solving public problems.
“If we’re to ensure prosperity in social justice, our efforts to maintain and strengthen the fabric of society must continue and must succeed,” Cantor said.
Jayakumar said during her presentation that high numeric diversity increases interactions across races, which reaps significant educational benefits. Low minority representation, however, allows racist attitudes to persist.
“This is a call to action,” Jayakumar said. “We need to continue to think about the triage in doing affirmative action … We haven’t found anything more effective than affirmative action. We should continue to look at that, but we should also look at ourselves and how we perpetuate everyday racism.”
Each speaker asserted that without affirmative action policies, the diversity of public universities will significantly decrease, creating social stigmas and isolation for minority students.
“A consequence, of course, of isolation and exclusion is stereotyping gone rampant which can and does limit and kill educational opportunity for all those that get swept into its indiscriminate net,” Cantor said.
Since the use of affirmative action at the University was abolished in 2006, minority enrollment has begun to decline. In fall 2005, minorities made up 24.2 percent of total students, according to a report from the University Office of the Registrar. By fall 2011, minorities represented 19.6 percent of University students.
Phillips said her research has shown that diverse groups outperform homogeneous ones, but perceived effectiveness in diverse groups is inversely related to performance. Because of this, she urged that the public become comfortable with promoting diversity in the learning process.
She added that affirmative action leads to diversity not only within universities, but also in the workplace.
“Race still matters,” Phillips said. “It matters to people with high socioeconomic standing and it matters to people with low socioeconomic standing, and until we recognize that, we’re going to go backwards. If this Fisher case comes out in favor of Fisher, turning back the times, we are going to see greater segregation not only at the elementary schools and the high schools where we see it now but at the college level.”
Orfield, who helped write an amicus brief for Fisher with 444 signatures from 172 educational institutions and research centers in support of affirmative action, said potentially overruling Grutter would have vast consequences.
“(Universities) are at risk of losing the capacity to select their students in a way that produces a diverse student body,” Orfield said. “It’s a radical thing to think that our court may actually be taking that away from them, superimposing the judgment of the court on the autonomy of all of our education institutions.”
Rebecca Silverblatt, a University of Texas alum who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in higher education at the University of Michigan, said the symposium hit home for her.
“For me, this is important in an all-encompassing way … it’s much broader than just one court decision,” Silverblatt said. “It affects business, it affects higher education, it affects secondary education, it affects social issues. There’s just so much to it and this event is doing a good job at (bringing) together all of those perspectives.”