This week the first affirmative action case in a decade came before the Supreme Court. The justices heard oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, and though no opinions will be issued until well into 2013, the consequences of this case will impact public and private institutions of higher education across the country.
Bowdoin, along with 37 peer schools, submitted an amicus curiae brief supporting the University of Texas that underscores the importance of cultivating diversity on American college campuses. This brief emphasizes that diversity is a crucial element of the academic, residential and social climates of liberal arts institutions. Bowdoin and its peer schools argue that their interest in difference is not discrimination; an overabundance of qualified candidates vie for spots at the nation’s top schools and, the brief states, “it is educationally beneficial for the institution and its student body to have members from far-flung states and myriad backgrounds...to be national institutions, to draw students from (and prepare future leaders for) the whole nation.”
The draw of an institution such as Bowdoin comes in no small measure from the unique learning environment that is created when students from different backgrounds and with different experiences and viewpoints are brought together. Sustaining and expanding diversity is an ongoing project, and it is difficult to imagine how an institution might avoid taking race into account and still play host to students of varied backgrounds. As the brief notes, in the same way that “it is hard to attract a violinist to a school that has no orchestra, it is hard to attract students of color to Middlebury, Colgate, and other rural campuses in highly un-diverse regions without a critical mass of fellow students.” Just as Bowdoin deploys its need-blind admissions policy to shape the College’s socioeconomic diversity, affirmative action allows Bowdoin to ensure students of disparate racial and ethnic backgrounds are represented on campus.
In this uncertain economic time, colleges and universities are facing difficult decisions that raise questions about the practicality of need-blind policies and the influence of financial considerations in admissions. Wesleyan University announced that it will abandon its need-blind policy this year in light of financial strains. Though Bowdoin has been need-blind for over a decade, the policy does not apply to international applicants, transfer students, or to the waitlist. And it is far from a guarantee; only six institutions of higher learning in the U.S. claim to be both need-blind and full-need for all applicants. Many colleges, including Bowdoin, cannot afford to meet that goal. This year’s endowment returns, though lower than projected, nevertheless point to the long-term financial stability of the College and hopefully mean that Bowdoin will remain need-blind for the foreseeable future.
We applaud Bowdoin’s commitment to its need-blind policy and the dedication to socioeconomic diversity that informs it. Decisions made in the next few years—both by Supreme Court Justices and College administrators—will determine much about how Bowdoin selects its students. Student diversity is a distinguishing feature of the offer the College and the education it provides. We can’t afford to take diversity for granted when the future of the policies that facilitate it are less than certain.
The editorial represents the majority view of The Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is composed of Claire Aasen, Erica Berry, Linda Kinstler, and Eliza Novick-Smith.