Affirmative Action and Academic Freedom
This guest blog post comes courtesy of Joseph McShane, S.J., the president of Fordham University:
In August, Fordham University—along with Boston College, DePaul, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Marquette, Notre Dame, and San Francisco—filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in the case of Abigail Fisher versus the University of Texas at Austin. Broadly speaking, at issue is whether affirmative action policies are constitutionally acceptable in the context of university admissions.
Ms. Fisher, and another young woman who has since dropped out of the case, applied to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 and were denied admission. Both women are Caucasian. They filed suit, alleging that the university discriminated against them on the basis of their race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
At the time Ms. Fisher applied, the University of Texas at Austin accepted all students who graduated in the top 10 percent of every Texas high school under the University’s Top Ten Per-cent plan. Ms. Fisher fell short of the top 10 percent in 2008, and was considered among the pool of applicants whose attributes (grades, talents, leadership qualities, family circumstances, and race) were weighed more holistically. Unfortunately, Ms. Fisher was not accepted into the Uni-versity of Texas at Austin, hence the suit.
Fordham—and its sister schools—filed a brief supporting the University of Texas at Austin because we believe a holistic method that includes race-based criteria is the best path to a diverse student body.
Diversity matters, and the way a University achieves a diverse student body matters, as well. At Fordham we take part in New York state’s Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), under which we admit approximately 125 economically disadvantaged students a year, and provide them with the support and resources to help them succeed in college. Though HEOP has a higher percentage of racial minorities than Fordham’s general student population, the program does not by itself achieve sufficient diversity, neither in absolute numbers nor in minority representation University wide.
We find, moreover, that one consequence of using economic metrics to increase diversity is that it can lead to conflating “poor” and “minority” in the minds of the very students HEOP is at-tempting to help. In seeking racial diversity across all income levels, we hope to dismantle pernicious stereotypes of race and class for all of our students. The ability to consider race as one factor in admission helps Fordham achieve that goal.
Fordham seeks to prepare its graduates for leadership in an increasingly multicultural and multi-national society. Toward that end, we try to develop in our students an understanding of, and reverence for, cultures and ways of life other than their own. We believe that such an understanding and reverence cannot be achieved absent a truly multiracial, multicultural student body.
At least as important as diversity is the issue of academic freedom raised by Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Our amicus brief, prepared by Susan Buckley, of the firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel, cites many First Amendment precedents in a robust defense of academic freedom (you can read the entire text of the brief here), but I’d like to share just one that I believe is at the intellectual and moral heart of the issue. In 1957, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a concurring opinion in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, in which he quoted a statement from scholars at the University of Cape Town. The statement referred to “the four essential freedoms of a university,” and enumerated them as “…to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach; what may be taught; how it shall be taught; and who may be admitted to study.”
Whom we admit for study, and how we do so, are central to the university’s existence. Fordham’s mission since its founding has been, in part, to serve the immigrant church. That mission has served its graduates, the City of New York, and the world at large astonishingly well. In an increasingly globalized culture in which we find ourselves, there is no substitute for racial diversity among the student body, and no excuse for its lack.
Moreover, as with many constitutional issues, in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin we are presented with an unwarranted intrusion upon academic freedom of the kind that puts the whole enterprise at risk.
My counterparts at our sister schools can attest that it is a rare day in which some organization, or government official, or parent, or journalist, or donor, or student does not object to some aspect of pedagogy or administration in the academy. It seems there is a critic—sometimes an influential one—for every area of content, for every tenure decision, and for every admission policy.
If the Supreme Court were to rule in Ms. Fisher’s favor and prohibit universities from looking to an applicant’s race as one factor in the admissions process, how long before we are compelled to mute unpopular points of view, or before we begin to use political litmus tests to determine who should and should not be allowed to teach at a university? Such a turn of events would be the end of our Jesuit identity: a disaster for our students, for Catholic higher education, and for the society we serve.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., is the 32nd president of Fordham University. He is a University of Chicago-trained historian, and the former president of The University of Scranton.