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The Business Case for Diversity And Its Role in the Academy

By Dr. David J. Siegel

When we think about the diversity movement of the last 50 years or so, a few defining moments come immediately to mind. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech are among the strongest images. But countless other people, events and gestures have marked important milestones on the road to racial justice in this country. Wouldn’t it be something if history were to record another addition to this vaunted list: the Fortune 500?

At first thought, the Fortune 500 might seem an unlikely addition to such a distinguished pantheon of activists, agitators and civil rights pioneers. But when we consider the role played by key multinational corporations that backed the University of Michigan in its fight to continue using race as a factor in admissions, it appears that their own brand of activism might well have been a catalyst of untold proportions.

The first amicus brief was submitted by a coalition of 20 leading corporations on Oct. 16, 2000. By the time Michigan’s case, Grutter v. Bollinger, went to the Supreme Court in early 2003, 65 Fortune 500 companies had filed amicus briefs supporting the use of race as a factor in admissions. Ultimately, their persuasive case for diversity may have helped make the difference, both at the Supreme Court and in the wider court of public opinion. One wonders how differently things might have gone for the University of Michigan (and the rest of higher education) if industry hadn’t gone to the mat for affirmative action.  Without its powerful endorsement, the outcome might have been decidedly less genial to our diversity efforts. 

There is certainly more work to be done in collaboration with the private sector on the diversity front. But as colleges and universities join forces with an ever-expanding array of partners to work together on diversity-related issues, there is always the risk that we will become too sensitized to the needs and preferences of external stakeholders rather than the dictates of our own educational priorities. As this movement toward the practical value of diversity gathers steam, we should be careful to preserve a space in the discourse where the moral imperative of diversity — not just the strategic imperative —  still has its say.

The business case for diversity has already superseded traditional civil rights and social justice arguments as the great animating force behind the modern diversity movement. It has become the “lingua franca” of organizations of all kinds, and not just in the precincts of business. Much of the fire and moral ammunition that ignited the civil rights movement seems to have been snuffed right out of public discourse on the matter. 
Economic arguments alone should not dictate the value of diversity. Diversity must be about more than its contribution to the bottom line. As educators and as citizens, we should not miss the opportunity to cultivate humanity, compassion and a more sympathetic imagination in a new generation of young Americans who will most assuredly grow up with the firmly entrenched notion that diversity matters because it’s good for business, good for national security or good for the other practical purposes detailed in so many amicus briefs.

The business case is quite compelling and even elegant in its own way, but we who care about the diversity agenda for other than profit-motivated reasons should be wary of what this rationale will do to our capacity for idealism. Will there be room — and appetite — for pursuing diversity because it is still the right thing to do? 

— Dr. Siegel is associate professor in the department of educational leadership at East Carolina University.

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