From Diverse Campuses to Integrated Campuses (2008)

From Diverse Campuses to Integrated Campuses:

How Can We Tell If We Are “Walking the Walk”?


Jeffrey S. Lehman[1]


The Supreme Court’s decision in Grutter v. Bollinger[2] affirmed the authority of universities to employ admissions policies that provide a broadly diverse community of qualified applicants with access to their campuses.  In a thoughtful majority opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Court held that it does not automatically violate the Equal Protection Clause if public universities deliberately work to create communities that include pedagogically meaningful numbers of students from a broad array of racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and ideological backgrounds.

I was a named defendant in the litigation, since I was the dean of the University of Michigan Law School at the time.  And people who are friendly to our position sometimes pose questions like the following:

“Why was that so difficult?” 

“Why was it only a 5-4 victory, rather than a 9-0 decision?”

“Why were people so angry with you for promoting such an obviously worthwhile goal?”

I have been thinking about questions like these for many years, and I believe the answer is clear.  Whenever we employ affirmative action, we are using a very dangerous tool.  Think, if you will, of a very sharp knife.  Or a caustic chemical.  Or perhaps a technology like recombinant genetics.  Think of any tool that could, in the wrong hands, cause enormous harm to innocent people.

The tool here is the category of race.  Through affirmative action, we are using race to do more than just describe the world we see around us.  We are giving race performative significance.  We are looking at individual applicants, classifying them according to race, and then using the result of that classification process as a factor in how we allocate valuable opportunities.

America’s history tells us that this is a very sharp knife indeed.  For almost four hundred years, we have seen racial categories used to construct systems for the subordination of individuals who were assigned to disfavored groups. And it is important to remember that across those four centuries the people who were using the knife invariably believed they were doing so in order to promote an important social end.

The Constitutional jurisprudence of the Equal Protection Clause and the legislation of the civil rights era have given us an approach to the use of race as a category by large and powerful institutions.  Our society does not ban the knife.  It does not outlaw the technology.  It does not say that such institutions must always act in a rigidly colorblind fashion.

Instead, our legal system has chosen to rely on the concept of a rebuttable presumption.  It declares this kind of classification to be “suspect.” Recognizing that racial classifications can do enormous harm in the wrong hands, it holds their use up to “strict scrutiny.”  Our system declares their use to be presumptively illegitimate, permissible only if the institution that wishes to use them can show that its actions are “narrowly tailored” to promote a “compelling interest.”

In the Grutter lawsuit we were able to clear that hurdle.  Justice O’Connor’s opinion affirmed that our society has a compelling interest in creating university campuses that are meaningfully integrated.  That interest is compelling because an integrated campus promotes certain learning outcomes.  And it is compelling because the legitimacy of our democracy depends upon the existence of open, visible paths to leadership for people of all races who are talented and qualified. 

Justice O’Connor’s opinion also affirmed that the law school’s admissions policy was narrowly tailored to promote that interest.  Because we were being careful with the knife, we would be allowed to keep using it.

So why was it so difficult?  Why didn’t all nine Justices agree with Justice O’Connor? And why, in 2006, did the voters of Michigan adopt Proposition 2, a ballot initiative saying that they would prefer university admissions to be rigidly colorblind?

I believe a significant part of the answer has to do with trust.  Not everyone trusts universities with sharp knives.  Not everyone believes that universities are sincere.  One need look no further than Justice Scalia’s vituperative dissent in Grutter, in which he refers to “universities that talk the talk of multiculturalism and racial diversity in the courts but walk the walk of tribalism and racial segregation on their campuses.”  The charge is hypocrisy; or, more gently, an incapacity to follow through on our commitments.

If we want the larger political community to trust universities with the dangerous category of race, it is crucially important that they see follow-through from the universities that are still permitted to employ affirmative action.  Universities must show that they are committed to reaping the benefits that justified the use of affirmative action in the first place.

How can a university “walk the walk”?  Once the admissions process has produced a diverse community, how can it ensure that the community functions well?  How can it ensure that campus diversity leads to a flourishing, integrated learning environment that is characterized by curiosity, civility, and a shared commitment to understand and appreciate the complex truths that define our world?

The first step is to take seriously the project of self-evaluation. 

Today’s debates discussions about whether universities follow through on their declared commitments to diversity are predictable and superficial.  Critics point to lunch tables in the cafeteria and say, “You’re balkanized, you’re segregated.”  Defenders point to classrooms and say, “We’re integrated.”  We can do better than that.

I would begin by being very precise about what pedagogic benefits we hope to obtain through integrated campus communities.  To be fair, there is no consensus on what those benefits should be.  So an evaluation project must begin with a willingness to make choices, to declare precisely what goals a given institution has in its collective mind.

For purposes of discussion, I will focus my attention on two potential benefits of integrated campuses that are, it seems to me, worth fighting for. 

First is the intellectual benefit of perspective enlargement.  Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin say, “Students need to learn how to put themselves in other people’s shoes.”  Others might say that students need to see the world through other people’s eyes.  In speaking to students, I often invoke Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” the ability to entertain two opposing ideas “without irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  These are all different approaches to transforming ourselves, intellectually, imaginatively, and emotionally.  Sometimes we transform ourselves by crossing a boundary, from one side to another.  Sometimes we transform ourselves by levitating, so that we can see both sides of the boundary at the same time.

The point here is that, on our way to becoming better at imagining multiple perspectives, it is enormously helpful to build a base of experience by listening to others describe how they actually see a situation.  It is helpful to listen through the voice of literature.  It is also helpful to listen to a live person, someone you know and trust, who is sharing the same experience with you and who is prepared to engage in sustained conversation that goes beyond a quick exchange.

The second benefit I would emphasize is, in some ways, a special case of the first.  It is the particular experience of role reversal associated with one’s identity as a member of a minority group or as a member of the majority. Because of residential segregation, very few of our white students have had a chance before college to experience what it feels like to be, racially, in the minority.  Our minority students are, of course, much more likely to have experienced both contexts in which they were members of the predominant group and contexts in which they were not.  But most of them had secondary school experiences that were mostly one way or the other – either they grew up as part of a relatively small minority in an overwhelmingly white environment or they grew up in an environment that was heavily “majority minority.”

How can we tell if, overall, students on our campuses are getting the benefits of perspective enlargement and role reversal?

I believe that there is no better place to start than in the much-mooted campus cafeteria.  Does the existence within a cafeteria of significant numbers of racially homogeneous lunch tables mean that the project of integration is a failure?  Does the existence of dormitories or fraternities that are majority-minority mean the same thing?

Not necessarily.

These phenomena certainly prove that universities are not raceless communities.  They are not colorblind.  But that should be no surprise; everyone notices race.  Those who observe the cafeterias notice race, and the students who are being observed notice race as well.

Moreover, race remains more than just something to be noticed, like hair color.  Race continues to have substantial social meaning.  It is sufficiently important that being in an integrated environment carries with the kind of opportunities for perspective enlargement and role reversal that I described above. 

But the very circumstances that create those opportunities also mean that an individual who wants to capture them must accept a certain degree of effort, of stress, of social risk.  It is entirely understandable that people might want, at times, to opt for lower-stress environments.  Our students do not need to be always distributed randomly in order to benefit from an integrated campus.

What, then, might be a fair measure of success, short of round-the-clock random distribution?  Here, I would return to a concept that figured significantly in the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy, the concept of “meaningful integration.”  I would like to suggest that on a meaningfully integrated campus, most students are having a meaningful experience of perspective enlargement and role reversal.

As I envision it, a meaningfully integrated campus is characterized by behavior at the level of the individual, and a culture at the level of the university.  The individual experiences a daily ebb and flow between people like oneself and people who are different.  The individual makes a commitment to move back and forth every day between the spaces that are safe and the spaces that nurture growth and challenge.  The university in turn makes a commitment to value and support that kind of movement back and forth by its members.  The university expressly endorses the importance of being meaningfully integrated – in action and not just in demographics.

If that is what it means to be meaningfully integrated, at the level of behavior and at the level of culture, how will we know it when we see it?  The question is much more difficult than it might sound.

Imagine a community of 100 students, all of whom are either orange or green.  Suppose 80 are orange and 20 are green.  And suppose that no matter when you looked at the community you saw the same thing:  75 orange students huddled together in Place A, 15 green students huddled together in Place C, and one “actively integrated pod” (Place B) with 5 orange and 5 green students.  Such a community might be diagrammed as follows:















I would submit that you do not yet have enough information to say whether the overall community is meaningfully integrated.

To be sure, if it were the same 5 orange students and the same 5 green students in Place B, every hour of every day, then one could readily conclude that the community is failing to be meaningfully integrated. For 90% of the students would not be experiencing the benefits of integration.

But one might reach a very different conclusion if one knew that, over the course of the day, there were a constant rotation of students in and out of Place B.  For example, suppose that, within any given 16-hour day each of the 20 green students is spending 4 hours in the integrated sector.  And suppose that 60 of the 80 orange students are each spending 1 hour and 20 minutes in the integrated sector.  Such a community might be diagrammed as follows:







20   (55







It would not be difficult to conclude that each of those 80 students are experiencing a meaningful ebb and flow in their lives.  Only 20% of the students (all orange) are getting no integrated experience at all.  One might well decide that this community is meaningfully integrated in the sense that we have been using the term.

This stylized example suggests that the evaluation project should be structured with the following points in mind.

First, it is important to know what phenomena are significant.  One should not feel any particular sense of alarm if, when one looks at into a lunchroom, one sees a table at which all of the students are black.  What one needs to look for are integration pods – venues where mixed-race groups are interacting.  Even a relatively small number of such venues might be enough to sustain a meaningfully integrated community.

More precisely, one needs to be looking at flows, not snapshots.  An evaluation should be structured to monitor the movements within with an individual’s daily life.  It should be longitudinal rather than cross-sectional.

It would probably also be useful to recognize two different kinds of integration pods, which offer two different kinds of benefits. Pods that include meaningful numbers of students from different races are where one might expect to find perspective enlargement.  If there are meaningful numbers of students from each race, we are more likely to find multiple perspectives expressed within each race, so that students from other races acquire more nuanced understandings of the extent to which race does and does not shape perspective.  These kinds of integration pods might be contrasted with “role reversal pods,” where a handful of white students mix with a larger number of minority students.  Such pods do a special kind of educational work, one that holds distinctive value for a university.

Next, it is important to show care when evaluating data about situations where individuals spend different proportions of their time inside and outside the integrated sector.  A helpful analogy may be found in the social science literature concerning the dynamics of poverty spells.  The seminal article on the topic was written two decades ago by Mary Jo Bane and David Ellwood.[3]

Bane and Ellwood considered the question, “Is the poverty problem primarily one of people cycling quickly in and out, or is it primarily one of people staying stuck in poverty for a long time?”  One might paraphrase their argument by reference to the following stylized example.  Suppose that, over the course of a nine-year span, each of nine different people (a … i) is poor for exactly one year, with poverty striking a different person every year. Suppose also that a tenth person (j) is in poverty throughout the entire nine-year span.  A diagram might look like this:
















)      j













Within the overall group of ten people, only one of ten (person j) is poor for a long spell.  Thus, one might say that the incidence of long-term poverty is 10%.  On the other hand, in any given year, or indeed at any given point in time, two people would be poor: person j and one of the other nine. Looking from this perspective, one might say that the incidence of long-term poverty is 50% (at any given moment, 50% of those whoa re poor are in the midst of a long-term spell). Is long-term poverty half the problem or a tenth of the problem?  It depends on whether you are interested in “poor now” or “ever poor.”

Consider once more the context of racial integration. Suppose one were to take a series of snapshots of a role reversal integration pod. Suppose that in every snapshot one found 8 black students and 2 white students.  And, upon closer inspection, suppose one found that one of the 2 white students was always the same. 

It might be tempting to focus on the student who was always there and say, “This integration pod isn’t having much of an impact; the same white student is here all the time.”  But if the point is to evaluate the prevalence of a role reversal experience within the community over time, the lesson of the poverty spells example is that one must not look at individual snapshots.  One must look at the entire population over time. The question is not “there now,” but rather “ever there.”

There is a common point to both the cafeteria example and the role reversal example.  The point is that, to evaluate how one is doing, one must resist the psychological temptation to fixate on indicators of failure.  One must not fixate on homogeneous lunchroom tables or on the white student who seems to be in the role reversal pod every day. Rather, one must try to see the entire picture, over time.

Thus, to understand how well a university is pursuing integration, there is no substitute for serious empirical investigation.  I do not know of any university that is taking up such investigation.  I hope one does soon.  And I hope that it reports its results to the larger community.

And after conducting the investigation, what then? It depends, of course, on what the investigators reveal.  But I feel comfortable speculating that, on most American campuses today, a rigorous investigation will reveal a story of mixed success.  It will likely find a small but growing number of students who are fully reaping the benefits of living in an integrated environment.  It will likely find a small and shrinking number of students who spend four years in a diverse campus and derive almost no benefit from having done so.  Finally, it will likely find a large, heterogeneous middle group that seems to be getting some benefit, but perhaps not as much as we might wish.

What should an academic leader do if presented with findings like those?

One response might be to do nothing, especially if it appears that things are getting steadily better.  And there are certainly reasons to think that things are getting better.  My own impressionistic sense of America’s campuses is that students today are living significantly more integrated lives than they did 20 years ago.  The emergence of hip-hop as a central feature of youth culture has changed the terms of engagement of students across racial boundaries.  So has the rapid emergence of strong Latino and Asian presences within our community, catalyzing a shift in our self-understanding from a biracial model to a multiracial model. 

So, if things are getting better, inaction might be tempting.  After all, the category of race is a very sharp knife, and the larger society counsels faculty and administrator to wield it with caution.  In addition, we know that students have somewhat ambivalent feelings about whether they want to follow faculty leadership or rebel against it.

And yet, as tempting as inaction might be, I think that faculty and administrative leaders can safely do at least a little more. In my experience, as long as they are not too heavy handed, faculty members can have an impact on the culture of a campus.  They can gently but effectively nudge their students in the direction of a daily ebb and flow.  And they can nurture the integration pods the see on campus.

As president of Cornell, I was struck by the extraordinary alliance between Muslim students and Jewish students on campus.  Year in and year out, I saw remarkable efforts at joint programming, so that students from each group might come to appreciate the perspectives of the other.  One year the students collaborated to design and make a mosaic.  In other years the end of Ramaddan featured an Iftar banquet that drew hundreds and hundreds of students into a comparative discussion of the role of fasting in different religions.  In still another year Iranian Muslim students and Sephardi Jewish students staged a joint evening of culture, food, and comedy.

These were important integration pods.  They emerged from student ideas.  But when I spoke with the student leaders who brought them about, they impressed on me how critical they felt it was that faculty members endorsed them. Not so much through public pronouncements.  But by showing up themselves and participating.  I don’t think these students were just saying it to make me feel that faculty are important.  I think they were sincere.

In summary, it is important for many reasons that students at universities that practice affirmative action in admissions actually reap the benefits of those practices.  Campuses should be not merely diverse but also integrated. To prepare themselves for life in an integrated world, they should take advantage of the opportunities for perspective enlargement and role reversal.  It is unrealistic to expect them to do so all the time; it is a worthy aspiration that they will experience a daily ebb and flow between the comfortable and the challenging.

Universities should evaluate how successful they are in this regard.  They should do the work of evaluating the prevalence of integration pods on campus, and the extent to which they touch the lives of a broad cross-section of our students.  And they should nurture them as best they can.

If a university does all these things, then it will have used the sharp knife of integration to carve a work of great importance. It will be walking the walk of integration in a way that even Justice Scalia should admire.


[1] Former President, Cornell University. This paper was prepared for presentation at a symposium entitled, “Diversity and Excellence in American Higher Education:  The Road Ahead,” at Cornell University, July 30, 2005.

[2] 539 U.S. 306 (2003).

[3] Mary Jo Bane and David T. Ellwood, “Slipping Into and Out of Poverty:  The Dynamics of Spells,” Journal of Human Resources (vol. 21, n. 1), pp. 1-23 (1986).