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Freedom of Inquiry Requires Diversity

Freedom of Inquiry Requires Diversity
By Dr. Mac A. Stewart

One of the last political stories of 2002 was the fall of Mississippian Trent Lott from his role as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, a result of ill-chosen comments at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration. Many lessons can be drawn from this incident, but one I value highly is this: In the continuing struggle for civil rights, it is not enough to criticize our opponents. Sometimes the more important task is to applaud those who stand up publicly for what is right.

Let me, therefore, use this opportunity to raise up two individuals for statements that deserve a wider audience — Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, for her comments in a recent article in the Washington Post; and the Honorable Lewis F. Powell, former associate justice of the Supreme Court, for his controlling opinion in the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978).

Writing in the Washington Post article (Dec. 15, 2002), Coleman, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the University of Michigan’s affirmative action case, says without exaggeration, “This is a moment of great significance in our nation’s history. We stand at the threshold of a decision that will profoundly affect America’s higher education system and race relations in general.”

In his decision on Bakke, Justice Powell made his point with Solomonic wisdom and a force that has not been surpassed by the rhetoric of intervening years: “The fourth goal asserted by petitioner (the University) is the attainment of a diverse student body. This clearly is a constitutionally permissible goal for an institution of higher education. Academic freedom, though not a specifically enumerated constitutional right, long has been viewed as a special concern of the First Amendment. The freedom of a university to make its own judgments as to education includes the selection of a student body. Thus, in arguing that its university must be accorded the right to select those students who will contribute most to the ‘robust exchange of ideas,’ petitioner involves a countervailing constitutional interest, that of the First Amendment.”

Coleman develops this same point: “More than 50 years of changes in higher education have taught us that the more diverse the academic environment, the more vigorous its discussions. Our parents’ generation learned this from the GI Bill in the 1940s and ’50s, when thousands of young men became the first in their families to go to college, and a fresh breeze blew through our campuses.” Here, Coleman reminds us that American universities were once the playgrounds of the well-to-do, and that the experience of history supports the view that widening the diversity of the dialogue will generally improve the quality of the ideas that emerge from it. We need the “robust exchange of ideas” that diversity promotes.

The statements by Coleman and Powell recall significant passages in John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay “On Liberty,” the most important analysis in modern thought of the issues involved in freedom of inquiry. Here, Mill argues that, “only through diversity of opinion is there … a chance of fair play to all sides of the truth. … The interests of truth require a diversity of opinions.”

The discovery and promulgation of truth is the essential reason that universities exist, and freedom of inquiry is the necessary condition of these tasks. Diversity of opinion, of character and of culture are essential preconditions of the exercise of that freedom.

I commend Coleman and the University of Michigan for carrying forward the dialogue on this crucial issue, and I hope that the members of the current Supreme Court will endorse the wisdom of Justice Powell’s opinion. These positive ideas and actions merit frequent reinforcement, since we have built so much upon them that is good.

— Dr. Mac A. Stewart is vice provost for minority affairs at The Ohio State University.

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