Educating a diverse student population is critical for the state and nation at large to maintain global competitiveness and develop future leaders, says Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler in a new report advising state college leaders on how legally to justify diversity programs.
The report, titled “Strengthening Diversity in Maryland Colleges and Universities: A Legal Roadmap,” offers Maryland’s institutions of higher education legal guidance on creating new affirmative action programs that increase minority enrollment and graduation rates. Citing landmark cases, Gansler’s report offers some clarity about how universities can continue to balance student populations to include a racial cross-section of qualified students.
“The case law on what can and what can’t be done to advance diversity is still not fully developed and is not always easy to understand,” said Gansler. “We know that education is the path to opportunity. We cannot let the fear of legal challenges impede our ability to provide educational opportunity and economic opportunity for so many of our citizens.”
The report notes recent decisions such as the 2003 landmark case, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan’s consideration of race as part of a narrowly tailored program designed to foster educational diversity by holding that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions.”
The Court recognized that universities occupy a “special niche” in the country’s constitutional traditions because of the “important purpose of public education and the expansive freedoms of speech associated with the university environment.”
In the past, some perceived the courts as sending mixed signals about affirmative action efforts as an important educational goal. In Maryland, the 1994 federal court of appeals decision in Podberesky v. Kirwan harshly rejected a University of Maryland College Park scholarship program for African-American students on equal protection grounds and, in the process, limited efforts by Maryland institutions to promote diversity on their campuses.
However, the Maryland General Assembly in 2008 affirmed the need for diversity in higher education with the enactment of legislation requiring every public higher education institution in the state to have a cultural diversity plan. Before this, higher education institutions were not required to develop or maintain a diversity plan, although many universities have such plans. Under the 2008 legislation, each cultural diversity plan must include an implementation strategy and timeline for meeting the goals within the plan.
To make a case for “compelling state interest” for diversity to address the Supreme Court, these are a few of the justifications that the report offers for working toward campus diversity:
*Our nation is becoming more diverse each day.
*Americans will need to become increasingly culturally competent in their communities and workplace.
*The nation will need to meet the needs of a multicultural public.
*Business and military leaders demand culturally literate employees.
*Exposure to different cultures promotes improved understanding.
*Diversity within the classroom promotes a robust exchange of ideas.
*Greater racial diversity is associated with enhanced critical thinking ability.
*Compositional diversity, interactional diversity, and diversity-related initiatives work interactively to improve educational outcomes.
*Having a roommate of a different race encourages emotional contact, not just the exchange of ideas.
The report also recommends that the cultural diversity plan should be mission-driven and educationally focused. In addition, the plan calls for the issue of “critical mass” as emphasized by the Supreme Court to be neither a number nor an amorphous concept but something that occurs when there are sufficient numbers to foster the robust exchange of ideas.
“With this report, the Attorney General’s Office provides valuable guidance to our campuses as they continue and expand their efforts to support diversity among the student body, as well as among administration, faculty, and staff,” said University System Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan. “The fact of the matter is diversity in higher education – within the student body as well as within the faculty and staff – is crucial. Not just for higher education, or for the state of Maryland, but, quite literally, for the future prosperity of our nation.”
In addition to student admissions and recruitment, the report also addresses financial aid, student support programs, and faculty and staff employment. To read the report in its entirety, visit http://www.oag.state.md.us/Reports/OAG_Diversity_Paper.pdf
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com