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Affirming diversity

According to Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag, race still matters—and should matter—in the college admissions process. But with proceedings for Fisher v. University of Texas underway this month, the Supreme Court’s ruling may forbid public universities from taking this stance. While the ramifications of this decision for Duke and other selective private universities remain uncertain, it is vital that we, as stakeholders in the University, reflect carefully on what these policies do for our school.

When the Court first agreed to hear the Fisher case, we wrote an editorial in March broadly supporting affirmative action policies. In line with our previous opinion, we argue here that it is equally—if not more—important to appreciate the justifications for these programs as it is to understand how they are implemented. While a number of different rationales yield affirmative action of some sort, what the actual policy looks like in concrete terms depends heavily on the rationale used to justify it.

There are at least three common justifications for affirmative action policies: reparations, structural inequality and diversity. The first two are similar in that they target the “justice” or “fairness” of admission, but remain conceptually distinct. Affirmative action based on a reparations approach is equivalent to saying that certain groups have been wronged in the past, and therefore ought to be repaid today. The structural inequality scheme, on the other hand, targets currently disadvantaged groups, regardless of whether their handicaps are the product of historical oppression. We believe that, while these justifications have merit, they are not sufficient to warrant race-based affirmative action.

But we agree with Guttentag and Duke generally that the diversity justification—which is at the core of Fisher’s precedent case, Grutter v. Bollinger—is sufficient for race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Diversity is at the heart of Duke: the wide range of academic offerings, the broad set of student groups and initiatives and, most importantly, the distinct views that students, faculty and staff bring to the University through their varied backgrounds. Guttentag was very clear that Duke does not condone a “checkbox diversity” approach to admitting students. Nevertheless, Duke’s holistic admissions standards would, he believes, be adversely affected if the University were not permitted to take race into consideration. A person’s race is no less part of them than their gender, their nationality or their home state—all of which are taken into account during admissions, and all of which play an important role in the formal and informal education Duke provides.

While we fully support Duke’s admissions policies with respect to race, it remains to be seen how, and to what degree, the Fisher decision will affect Duke and other private universities. Guttentag indicated that, since Duke receives federal funding, it would likely have to comply with at least some of the new restrictions that may be implemented. This, in turn, depends crucially on the Court’s majority decision. Thus, while no one can predict how Duke will ultimately be affected, we support Guttentag’s belief that, if the Court rules in Fisher’s favor, Duke’s matriculating classes will be different—probably for the worse.


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