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  • The Search for a Critical Mass of Minority Students:Affirmative Action and Diversity at Highly Selective Universities and Colleges
  • Gregory M. Anderson (bio), Eleanor JB Daugherty (bio), and Darlene M. Corrigan (bio)


The primary objective of this article is to focus more attention on what constitutes a critical mass in higher education from the perspective of "disadvantaged" students and their experiences (racial segregation, economic hardship, familial responsibilities, deficient or under-funded public schools, etc.) as important considerations when identifying the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body. The paper also considers how postsecondary institutions have increasingly served as the critical site for contestation of race-sensitive policies by providing a legal analysis of the influence of the1978 Supreme Court decision in the Regents of University of California v. Bakke [hereinafter Bakke] and the shift that occurred in the application of affirmative action from redressing and ameliorating racial discrimination and societal inequality to defending diversity as a compelling state interest. We assert that Justice Powell's bridge decision in Bakke provided a prolonged debate on the meaning and application of affirmative action policies that was pursued in the Hopwood v. State of Texas [hereinafter Hopwood], Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher v. Lee Bollinger et al. [hereinafter Gratz], and Barbara Grutter v. Lee Bollinger et al. [hereinafter Grutter].

Moving from a broad legal analysis of affirmative action, we then focus on the student developmental aspects of diversity in higher education and the extent to which universities and colleges can transform themselves by promoting interaction among students from different backgrounds that potentially generate positive learning and democratic outcomes. In particular, we question whether current levels of minority participation at highly selective public and private institutions are sufficient to ensure the kinds of transformative aims and outcomes envisaged by proponents of diversity.

In making the above claim, we analyze admissions data from the influential pro-affirmative action book, The Shape of the River, by former college presidents, William Bowen and Derek Bok, to showcase that racial discrimination continues to severely limit the scope and breadth of opportunity for "disadvantaged" students seeking access to highly selective institutions. Essentially, we argue that prevailing notions of diversity used to legally defend affirmative action have contributed to the prestige and statusof highly selective institutions at the expense of effectively enhancing quality educational opportunity, primarily — albeit in no way exclusively — for African American and Hispanic students disproportionately impacted by high levels of poverty, residential segregation and negligent public school systems.1 We conclude by challenging selective higher education institutions to seize the moment in the aftermath of the 2003 Supreme Court decision and creatively develop and implement admissions policies that go far beyond generating the small numbers that currently pass for a critical mass of minority students.

Higher Education, the Courts and the Preservation of Affirmative Action

At the heart of the fierce debates over affirmative action and diversity in selective higher education institutions is a tension between the so-called color-blind principles of meritocracy and the commitment to enhancing equality of opportunity. For some social scientists, such as Seymour Martin Lipset, this tension is best expressed as a war between core American values; individualism and self-reliant achievement on the one side, and egalitarianism on the other (Lipset, 1993). The tension in American values frames four of the most important court cases in the history of affirmative action and higher education in the United States: Bakke, Hopwood, Grutter, and Gratz.

In Bakke, the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of affirmative action admission policies in public higher education institutions for the first time. Specifically, the United States Supreme Court was asked to determine the constitutionality of the quota system used by University of California at Davis ("UC Davis") in their medical school's admissions policy. UC Davis set aside 16 of 100 seats in their annual incoming class for minority students. The plaintiff filed suit after he was denied admission to the medical school, despite higher performance than the minority students admitted. Justice Powell, writing for the divided Court, held that race is a permissible consideration in determining admissions policies for the purposes of creating a diverse student body, but in this specific...


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