President Bollinger Weighs In on Affirmative Action Cases

As a key figure in the landmark 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, Columbia's president comments on the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 29.

June 29, 2023

On June 29, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases. Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger, a key figure in the landmark 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, has commented widely about the Harvard and UNC cases and the road ahead.

His book with Professor Geoffrey Stone, A Legacy of Discrimination: The Essential Constitutionality of Affirmative Action, was published in early 2023.

This article will be updated as more news clips become available. It also includes selections of past commentary on the issue from President Bollinger.

Lee Bollinger laments the ruling by America’s Supreme Court against affirmative action

The Economist

By Lee C. Bollinger

June 29, 2023

"Educational institutions must remain committed to the well-supported judgment that students benefit from a diverse learning environment that prepares them to function and lead in a diverse world. We have the expertise, and the right under the First Amendment to provide that to our students. Now universities must find new ways to exercise that right."

Supreme Court reverses decades of precedent by ending affirmative action

NPR, All Things Considered

By Nina Totenberg

June 29, 2023

"It feels like the country has been on a course of choosing between a continuation of the great era of civil rights and another view of - we've done this long enough, and we need a whole new approach in this society. It's now the second choice."

Lee Bollinger: Affirmative action decision is a ‘tragedy’ in the fight against racial discrimination

MSNBC, Andrea Mitchell Reports

June 29, 2023

“This is a very serious change. And from my point of view, a tragedy in the efforts of this country and of higher education to try to deal with racial discrimination,” says Bollinger. “We know that you indicated from the California experience and the Michigan experience that there is a very significant decline in diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and I'm, you know, sorry to say that I think that will be the immediate consequence.”


Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, laments loss of trust in academia

The Washington Post

By Nick Anderson

"'The opinion is a thorough rejection of the decision in Grutter,' Bollinger said. 'Even though the court doesn’t overrule Grutter explicitly, I think it does so implicitly. … It’s saying to American universities, "We no longer trust you to handle race and ethnicity in ways that are consistent with the Constitution, even though we set up this system with you. … Now we’re saying, we don’t trust you to do it anymore."'

Bollinger’s last day as Columbia president is Friday.

Bollinger said the effects of the ruling on diversity for campuses across the United States 'will be tragic — very, very serious.'

He said universities will comply with the ruling even as they scramble to figure out how to mitigate what they believe will be a sharp drop in enrollment for underrepresented Black and Latino students.

The impacts will reverberate beyond campuses, he predicted, to newsrooms, corporations and other entities that strive for racial diversity.

'This is now a declaration that the civil rights era is over,' Bollinger said. 'And that’s a profound American issue, not just higher education.'”

Supreme Court rejects race-based affirmative action in college admissions

The Washington Post

By Robert Barnes

“It’s saying to American universities, ‘We no longer trust you to handle race and ethnicity in ways that are consistent with the Constitution, even though we set up this system with you,’” said Lee Bollinger, the outgoing president of Columbia University, who was a party to the 2003 ruling when he was president of the University of Michigan. The effects, he said, “will be tragic — very, very serious.”

Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action in College Admissions

The Wall Street Journal

By Jess Bravin

June 29, 2023

"Lee Bollinger, Columbia University's president, expects five years of chaos before higher education fully adjusts to the new legal landscape, as committees and task forces—already in place at many schools—explore ways to employ income levels, socioeconomic factors and other race-neutral factors to maintain diversity.

Although long expected, the decision still was a shock to academia. 'Nobody really believes it's going to happen, even though all the evidence is right in front of you,' Bollinger said this month."

Elite Colleges Lose Diversity ‘Shortcut’ After Harvard's Defeat


By Francesca Maglione

June 29, 2023

"Racial-preference supporters like Lee Bollinger, a former president of Columbia University and the University of Michigan, say targeting socioeconomic status is a poor workaround.

'Most people in any category of the socioeconomic spectrum are White,' he said. 'So you really can't achieve diversity through these other means.'"

Key voices in the decades-long debate over affirmative action


By Joseph Ax, Sharon Bernstein and Gabriella Borter

June 29, 2023

"Two decades ago, as University of Michigan president, Lee Bollinger helped secure the legality of affirmative action in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which essentially upheld the use of race-conscious admissions and has withstood court challenges until now.

'Society's got this complicated history – great and tragic – and that comes up in course after course after course in life,' Bollinger, 77 said in a recent interview. 'And if you're not in any way exposed to that, from different experiences of that history and that present, you know, you're not an educated person.'

Affirmative action's value extends to virtually every sector of American society because it offers minority students opportunities they would otherwise be denied, said Bollinger, who will retire as president of Columbia University on June 30.

His old school, the University of Michigan, has seen its Black student population drop by nearly half since Michigan voters outlawed affirmative action in 2006, despite efforts to find other methods of improving diversity. Universities in California and other states that have passed bans have reported similar shifts.

'If that's spread across the whole country, it would be a reshaping of American higher education,' Bollinger said."

College Presidents Are All Over the Map About the End of Race in Admissions

The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Zachary Schermele

June 29, 2023

“'My principal feeling is one of sadness,' Lee C. Bollinger, the outgoing president of Columbia University, told The Chronicle on Thursday.

While serving as president of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Bollinger was at the center of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which two decades ago allowed colleges to consider race as a factor in the admissions process because, as the court ruled, it served a compelling interest.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote the majority opinion in Thursday’s decision, didn’t explicitly say whether that precedent had been nixed, but Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion that Grutter was, “'or all intents and purposes, overruled.'

Bollinger agreed.

'I think Thomas is right,' he said. 'And I think that’s tragic.'"

Supreme Court overturns Bollinger’s landmark case on affirmative action

Columbia Daily Spectator 

By Isabella Ramirez and Esha Karam

June 29, 2023

"Legal experts, including Bollinger, anticipated for months that the court’s 6-3 conservative supermajority—responsible for reversing Roe v. Wade—would upend the basis for affirmative action set forth in Grutter v. Bollinger. As the University of Michigan’s then-president, Bollinger served as the named defendant in the 2003 landmark case, which upheld race-conscious admissions but expected a 25-year expiry date on the policy."

‘Something profound is at stake’: Bollinger reacts to Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling

Columbia Daily Spectator 

By Isabella Ramirez and Esha Karam

June 29, 2023

“This is a very, very consequential decision of the highest court in the land that has an underlying philosophy that is at odds with how the country has developed over the past 60 years,” Bollinger said. “And we are in really new territory in how to address what is really a terrible past and ongoing present.”

Lee Bollinger’s Last-Ditch Case to Save Affirmative Action


By S. Mitra Kalita

April 11, 2023

“You cannot assume that the world will get better and better. It requires constant effort to make the case.”

What if the Supreme Court Ends Affirmative Action?

The New Yorker

By KalaLea , Meher Bhatia and Britta Greene

March 17, 2023

"Universities said we cannot continue to have student bodies that are all white and all male. We must take steps to rectify this and do our part, which is a limited part of the whole national effort to try to overcome the legacy of invidious discrimination, especially against African Americans."

The End of Affirmative Action Would Be a Disaster 

The Atlantic

By Lee C. Bollinger and Geoffrey R. Stone

October 31, 2022

"Affirmative action must continue, potentially for generations to come—because the invidious discrimination experienced by Black Americans over a three-century span has not been undone."

Podcast: Diversity on Trial—Affirmative Action’s Michigan Test 


By Matthew S. Schwartz

November 15, 2022

This episode explores the 2003 cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, with special guest Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger. 

US Schools Still Have a Racial Segregation Problem

Financial Times

By Patti Waldmeir

November 14, 2022

“'It’s a shocking state of affairs,' says Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University and named party in seminal 2003 affirmative action cases involving the University of Michigan, of which he was then president. After the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown vs Board of Education, which held that state-sanctioned segregation of US public schools was unconstitutional, 'you had two decades of very serious work to try to correct for centuries of severe discrimination,' he told me over the phone. 'But since then you’ve had a number of decades of slipping back.'” 

Interview: 'The End of Affirmative Action Would Be a Disaster'

PBS Amanpour & Co

November 4, 2022

Michel Martin interviews Lee Bollinger of Columbia University and Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago.

The Latest Attack on Affirmative Action Heads to the Supreme Court

Afro News

By Maya Pottiger

November 1, 2022

"There is 'definitely reason for concern,' says Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University. Bollinger was president of the University of Michigan in 2003 during the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court decision, which said colleges could consider race in a limited way as a factor for admissions. That case was the first time affirmative action was called a constitutional right. 

In addition to several justices indicating 'skepticism or opposition to affirmative action in higher education,' Bollinger says, 'there’s the recent decision in Dobbs overruling Roe vs. Wade, which indicates a willingness to discard prior precedents, and Grutter is really the landmark decision in this area.'”

"One of Bollinger’s worries is that the fear of overruling Grutter is 'mitigated by an assumption that there are easy, other ways to do this, and the answer is there’s not. And we have proof of that. And we shouldn’t take this lightly.'

A misconception is that the 14th Amendment — which says states can’t make or enforce laws that limit the rights of citizens — only applies to state action, or public universities, Bollinger says. But the Equal Protection Clause means that, whatever the Supreme Court decides, anything in the context of public universities will apply to private universities.

'If we say it’s unconstitutional to consider race in higher education, that is a strong, potent message about our values, generally, and will lead to very significant backwards movement on the goal of Brown,' Bollinger says. 'We would enter an era in which we would really fall back on the effort to achieve the ideals of Brown in the civil rights movement.'

'The result,' Bollinger says, 'is a very substantial fall in the admissions of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans.'”

Bollinger Defended Affirmative Action to SCOTUS Nearly Two Decades Ago. Today, His Precedent Is at Risk.

Columbia Spectator

By Isabella Ramirez and Irie Sentner

November 1, 2022

"As the cases stand before a majority-conservative court in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, Bollinger told Spectator prior to Monday’s oral arguments that he is 'worried about the outcome.'”

"'You can’t look at the past several months … and [not] feel that there seems to be already a fiction, let’s say, of some suspicion toward affirmative action,' Bollinger said."

"'Every university is thinking about this and anticipating an overruling of Grutter or a significant modification,' Bollinger said. 'We are as well at Columbia.'"

“'We know what the effects will be. They will be very serious in terms of innovation in universities. It will apply both to the public and the private,' Bollinger said. 'But it will also affect, as a cultural norm, how institutions and people live all across the society, and that will introduce an era in which we will really fail to continue on the course that Brown v. Board of Education … set us on.'”

Don't Worry, Children of Privilege. Supreme Court Won't End Affirmative Action for You

Sacramento Bee

By Editorial Board

November 1, 2022

"If barred from considering race in admissions decisions, Bollinger told reporters last week, diversity at Columbia and elsewhere would be set back dramatically: 'I would expect it to have a significant impact.'"

One Ivy League President's Outspoken Defense of Affirmative Action

The Washington Post

By Nick Anderson

October 31, 2022

"If Columbia is not allowed to consider race, Bollinger said in a conference call last week with reporters, the presence of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students on the Ivy League campus could be diminished. 'I would expect it to have a significant impact,' Bollinger said.

The effect of a ban would be felt broadly across the country, he said. 'That would be tragic.'

Too often, Bollinger said, skeptics of affirmative action believe that there are 'easy,' race-neutral ways to achieve racial diversity. 'The answer is there are not,' he said.

Higher education leaders are bracing for a ruling next year that could upend their efforts to enroll racially diverse classes. 'Every university is thinking about this,' Bollinger said. 'I have no doubt about it.'

Bollinger plans to step down as Columbia president next summer. He is co-authoring, with Geoffrey R. Stone, a book on affirmative action due out early next year. He argues that promoting campus diversity should not be the only argument for affirmative action in higher education. 'We think the racial justice rationale should be recognized and embraced,' he said."

The Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Showdown Over College Admissions 


By Bianca Quilantan

October 31, 2022

"On what the court could do, Bollinger said: 'My hope is that the majority of the court will continue the decision of Grutter because that is the landmark case. … It was really the Grutter case that commanded a majority of the Supreme Court [and] set the precedent that’s followed in the Fisher case.'"

“'I’m very worried,' Bollinger said, mentioning the high court’s decision to overturn major precedent in Roe v. Wade over the summer. 'There seems to be already a vision, let’s say, of some suspicion toward affirmative action.'”

The effect of a ban would be felt broadly across the country, he said. “That would be tragic.”

Too often, Bollinger said, skeptics of affirmative action believe that there are “easy,” race-neutral ways to achieve racial diversity. “The answer is there are not,” he said.

“'The upshot would be a tragic return to a world in which there was really not racial integration as we have thrived as a country to achieve,' Bollinger said. 'And since Brown, I think we’ve ebbed and flowed in the country’s intentions of this.'”

"Overturning Grutter would introduce an era in which we will really fail to continue on the course with Brown v. Board of Education.”

From Bakke to Fisher, Evolution of Affirmative Action Cases 

Associated Press

By Jessica Gresko 

October 30, 2022

Bollinger told reporters recently that he is “worried about the outcome” of the current cases.

Supreme Court Weighs Affirmative Action Case, But Most College Admissions Won't Be Affected 

USA Today

By Chris Quintana

October 30, 2022

"Bollinger said he appreciated O’Connor’s decision overall [that within 25 years affirmative action would no longer be needed], but disagreed that the need for considering race in admissions would wind down within a quarter of a century."

"Should the court reverse the decision, he said, it would impact the ability of underrepresented students to secure access in more selective colleges. It will take generations, not merely 25 years, he said, to provide the same opportunities to students of color that many white students already have."

“'It would put us into a new era in which we would fall back on society’s efforts to address issues of racial injustice that are part of our history,' Bollinger said."

Colleges Brace Themselves for SCOTUS Loss on Race-Conscious Admissions 


By Bianca Quilantan

October 28, 2022

“'There is no workable alternative to achieving the kind of diversity we have today and that we’ve had for decades,' said Bollinger."

"'Overturning Grutter will be a set back for not just higher education,' he said, 'but for all sectors.'"

“It would put us into a new era in which we would fall back on society’s efforts to address issues of racial injustice that are part of our history—and tragically so—and continuing to this day.”