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A Prominent Story about How "Diversity" Entered College Admissions is Wrong

Welcome back to Making History, a newsletter about how historians (or at least one historian) take the raw materials of the archives and turn them into the smooth narratives we otherwise take for granted. I’m Charles Petersen, a historian at Cornell University, a contributor to the New York Review of Books, and a senior editor at n+1 magazine. You may know me from my first post, “How I Discovered Stanford's Jewish Quota,” which led the university to issue a 75-page report and a public apologycovered widely in the national press.

In this entry, the first in a new series, I dive into the deep history behind the Harvard case currently before the Supreme Court. In the standard account, retailed repeatedly before the justices last October, “diversity” goes back to the Ivy League Jewish quotas of the 1920s. In this post, rather than uncovering a previously unknown episode in that story, I suggest some of the ways the already well-documented history of the Jewish quota can lead us astray. I then begin to outline a different story about where the idea of “diversity,” and the larger American approach to college admissions — not to mention “merit-based” assessment in business and elsewhere — actually comes from.

The entire academic industrial complex looks warily to the Supreme Court like some kind of malevolent god. The judgment has been coming for a long time. “Twenty-five years from now,” Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the landmark Grutter decision back in 2003, “we expect that … the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” In 2014, a group calling itself Students for Fair Admissions, led by the conservative legal entrepreneur David Blum, filed a suit against Harvard to move that timeline up a decade.

In the initial district court briefs, Blum's group claimed that the use of “diversity” in undergraduate admissions was not a means for racial inclusion; diversity was, rather, a cloak for racial exclusion. Asian-American students are the alleged victims, their numbers having greatly increased at institutions like Caltech that claim to ignore race in admissions, while their numbers at Harvard have dramatically fallen. Harvard won the case at trial in 2019, a decision sustained by the First Circuit in 2020. In January 2022, the Supreme Court announced it would take the case on appeal (along with a related case at the University of North Carolina).

At hearings in October, it was not hard to divine the meaning of the judicial entrails. “Race for some highly qualified applicants can be the determinative factor” in admissions, Harvard's lawyer admitted, “just as being an oboe player” can be. “We did not fight a Civil War about oboe players,” Justice John Roberts, dark lord of moderation, retorted. “We did fight a Civil War to eliminate racial discrimination.”

Since only seven years ago in Fisher II (2016) the court affirmed the use of diversity in admissions in the strongest terms, the final decision in Students for Fair Admissions will clearly depend less on any new evidence than on the changing composition of the court. But if gerontocratic retirement decisions and undemocratic elections will determine the legal fate of diversity in college admissions, the conclusions of historians may yet prove crucial in the justices’ public reasoning.

Of the 505 paragraphs in the original Students for Fair Admissions complaint, more than 100 address the history of race in admissions.

 Harvard asked the trial judge to exclude this material from evidence; the judge refused, arguing that the use of race in admissions decisions was “especially sensitive” given past racial exclusion. As with so much of the politics of race in the United States, the ironies are rich: racial exclusion in the past may yet again prove to be the grounds for eliminating a program of racial integration in the present.

History is also one of the primary reasons Blum and his allies selected Harvard as a target. “Diversity” first emerged as a legal justification for the use of race in admissions as a result of Justice Lewis Powell's majority opinion in Bakke (1978), and Powell explicitly pointed to Harvard's admissions policy, the “Harvard Plan,” as his archetype. In an addendum to a 1977 amici brief, Harvard claimed that the university first began considering individual background rather than academic potential in selection decisions in order to admit a more “diverse” group of white students, such as “a farm boy from Idaho.” (As an Idaho native, I’ve always loved this particular detail.) Later, Harvard’s litigators claimed, the university had simply “expanded the concept of diversity” so that farm boys from Idaho were joined by “blacks and Chicanos and other minority students.”

Read entire article at Substack