President Bollinger Weighs In on Affirmative Action Cases Being Argued Before the Supreme Court

As a key player in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger landmark decision, Columbia's president comments on what is at stake in these latest cases.

Editor's note:

This article was originally published on October 31, 2022. It was updated on April 11, 2023. 

April 11, 2023

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments in two cases brought forward by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The first case contends that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The second case alleges that UNC unconstitutionally favors Black and Latino students over others in its admissions process, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause, which prohibits selective denial of rights on the basis of race.

Students for Fair Admissions, which says it represents about 20,000 students, has asked the high court to overturn its ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 landmark decision that held colleges can consider race and use holistic reviews as long as their affirmative action programs are narrowly tailored.

As an expert on affirmative action and the key player in that 2003 decision when he was president of the University of Michigan, Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger has been commenting about the arguments and what is at risk. He has also written an "Ideas" column in The Atlantic with Geoffrey R. Stone, who is his co-author on the forthcoming A Legacy of Discrimination: The Essential Constitutionality of Affirmative Action.

This article will be updated as more news clips become available.

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.”