Diversity for the Sake of the Common Good

BY: Morgan Kirkland

“Any society depends on citizens who are concerned about others and the common good.”

These are the opening words of the recently published Harvard report on college admissions.[1] The premise is idealistic in its rhetoric instead of a guide to be implemented and followed. Yet, even though the report is arguably utopian, it is nonetheless rooted in a pragmatic assessment of today’s society—a society that is shaped in part by institutes of higher learning and the criteria they establish for admissions.[2]

The report is aptly titled, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions was created by Making Caring Common.” It is a project led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in conjunction with hundreds of stakeholders throughout the field of secondary and higher education.[3] The report sets out three broad objectives for college admissions offices that seek a more effective application assessment process.[4]

Traditionally, public and private universities across the country have evaluated applicants on academic achievement, performance of standardized tests, community engagement and various “soft factors” such as diversity of race, ethnicity and thought and community service.[5] The report’s three recommendations are reflective of the traditional process. Project leaders separated the recommendations into three categories, (1) community engagement and service (2) ethical engagement and contributions others across race, culture and class and (3) achievement and the leveling of the playing field for economically diverse students.[6] Although, the report promulgates its concerns about each of these criteria, its recurring focus on diversity as method to promote a better society resonates most deeply, especially in light of recent Supreme Court cases that have addressed affirmative action.

In 2003, the Supreme Court held that the creation of a diverse student body was a compelling government interest that could survive strict scrutiny.[7] However, subsequent Supreme Court decisions regarding the use of race to achieve diversity have demonstrated how difficult it is for schools to create affirmative action programs capable of surviving strict scrutiny. In 2007, for example, the Court held that the sole use of race as a factor to achieve racial diversity in public secondary schools in Seattle and Louisville was unconstitutional.[8] In Parents Involved, the plurality found that the means used by the Seattle and Louisville school districts were not narrowly tailored for the purposes of strict scrutiny.[9] In doing so, the Court bypassed the remaining strict scrutiny prong that requires the it to determine whether diversity, or, what Chief Justice Roberts referred to as “intangible socialization benefits,” was a compelling government interest for which race could be used as a factor.[10] Justice Scalia’s recent comments during oral arguments in the pending appeal of Fisher v. The University of Texas suggests that at least some Justices remain unconvinced that the creation of diverse student bodies is a compelling government interest.[11] The Harvard report suggests that this is the time for the Court to protect diversity initiatives, not limit or ban them.

Even a cursory glance of the report demonstrates how integral diversity initiatives are to the college admissions process. Of the three broad objectives, both the recommendation for community engagement and service and the recommendations for redefining achievement include goals that specifically address diversity.[12] One specific initiative explicitly challenges the misconception of “good” and “bad” colleges[13]—a distinction that was at the heart of Justice Scalia’s comment that African-American students are better served at “lesser-advanced” institutions.[14]

“Turning the Tide,” emphasizes authentic and meaningful experiences with diversity. At the heart of that classification is the underlying assumption that diversity initiatives at universities are flawed—that it is enough for students to check the box and for admissions officers to publish statistics about the composition of their student bodies. The Harvard report asks stakeholders to probe the question “how do you self-identify,” so that the inquiry is not who students are, but how the students’ tie to their community create a more engaged student body.

If the overarching goal is to inspire concern for others, our inquiries must not be superficial. Those who wish to turn the tide must convince skeptics that it is not diversity for diversity’s sake that we seek, but diversity for the sake of the common good.


[1] Making Caring Common Project, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others through College Admissions 8 Harvard Graduate School of Education.

[2]Id. (“Admissions processes inevitably send messages about what colleges value, messages that young people may interpret as signals of what society values as well.”)

[3]Id. at II – III.

[4] Id. at V.


[6] Id. at 2.

[7] Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, 328 (2003).

[8] Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. 551 U.S. 701 (2007).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 726.

[11] Ariane de Vogue. Maybe Black Students Don’t Belong at Elite Universities. CNN(Dec. 11, 2015 4:34 PM ET) http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/11/politics/supreme-court-antonin-scalia-african-americans-audio/.(Containing audio of Justice Scalia’s remarks that the University of Texas at Austin should enroll fewer black students.)

[12]Making Caring Common Project,supra, note 4.

[13] Making Caring Common Project, supra, note 1, at 19.

[14] de Vogue, supra, note 11.

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