President Bollinger's Take on the Supreme Court's Fisher Decision

September 09, 2016
Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger teaching.

Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger teaching.

When in June the Supreme Court issued a long-awaited ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas that upheld affirmative action in college admissions, the decision was widely hailed as a decisive victory recognizing the value of diversity in higher education. For Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, who has been a highly visible public advocate for admission policies that recognize historically rooted inequality in American society, the decision provided an unexpectedly welcome result.

Writing in The New York Times two days after the ruling, Bollinger explained that the decision in Fisher “is a profound relief, and a cause for celebration among those of us in higher education who have long insisted that affirmative action is vital to our schools’ missions and to society as a whole. The ruling means we can continue to assemble diverse student bodies and it has validated college administrators’ judgment about the qualities needed to achieve educational goals.”

To understand the source of that relief, one must consider that Bollinger has been at the center of the public and legal debate over affirmative action for nearly two decades. In 1997, when he was president of the University of Michigan, the admissions policies of the university and its law school were separately challenged in court as unconstitutional. Confronted with a decision about the costs and benefits of defending the school’s race-conscious admissions policies by aggressively litigating these cases, Bollinger took the view that doing so was essential to the educational mission of a great research university.

Those two cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, were decided by the Supreme Court in 2003, not long after Bollinger became Columbia’s president, and they would provide the framework for the latest round of legal challenges to affirmative action waged in Fisher. Specifically, in the Grutter case, the Supreme Court authorized the heads of colleges and universities to decide that the racial diversity of a student body enhanced the educational mission of their institutions and that race could therefore be considered among the many factors at play in making admissions decisions. Abigail Fisher, a white woman from Sugarland, Texas, decided to challenge the status quo established by Grutter after she was denied admission to the University of Texas in 2008.

Fisher’s lawsuit was based on a set of facts specific to the unusual admissions policies of the University of Texas. The university employs a hybrid arrangement that admits all in-state students graduating in the top 10 percent of their respective high school classes and also considers race as one of several factors in filling out the rest of its incoming freshman class.

President Bollinger repeatedly advanced the argument over recent years, in regular press interviews, public speeches and columns in publications from The New Yorker and The Washington Post to Slate and the Harvard Law Review, that the claims made by Fisher failed to justify a reversal of Grutter or a turning away from the nation’s commitment to racial integration first embraced in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Months before the decisive Fisher ruling, he wrote in Time magazine: “It has always seemed self-evidently wrong to me to abandon affirmative action when the goal of an integrated society is so clearly unrealized. To reverse affirmative action in higher education now, as the Fisher case threatens to do, is to pull a thread that could unravel the progress that has allowed so many sectors of our society to become more genuinely inclusive and reflective of a diverse nation.”

Given his long engagement with this controversial legal and political issue, it is no surprise that Bollinger remains vigilant even in the aftermath of the triumph signified by the Fisher decision.

“It’s worth remembering the limits of today’s affirmative action landscape, even after Fisher,” Bollinger wrote in the Times. “The court’s landmark 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke outlawed quotas, but permitted the consideration of race to achieve a diverse student body; in doing so, it stifled deeper conversations in courtrooms and classrooms about why we need affirmative action and what it can achieve. And by severing the connection between affirmative action and our past, the court forfeited the opportunity to inform America’s conversation about racial discrimination with the awareness that comes only from understanding history.”

That is a task, he said, “that universities are uniquely well suited to perform in our society.”

—By Columbia News Staff