Before Bakke: The Hidden History of the Diversity Rationale

Anthony S. Chen1Anthony S. Chen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Northwestern University, where he is also a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. The author of The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941–1972 (Princeton, 2009), he is interested in political sociology, historical sociology, and American political development, with a special emphasis on civil rights, social and economic policy, and business-government relations. & Lisa M. Stulberg2Lisa M. Stulberg is Associate Professor of Sociology of Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. The author of Race, Schools, and Hope: African Americans and School Choice after Brown (Teachers College Press, 2008) and the co-editor (with Sharon Lawner Weinberg) of Diversity in American Higher Education: Toward a More Comprehensive Approach (Routledge, 2011), she researches the politics of race and education as well as LGBTQ+ social change. Chen and Stulberg are completing a book on the history and development of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions.

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A part of the series, Affirmative Action at a Crossroads.

For all of the legal and political contention surrounding affirmative action, one facet of the discussion is characterized by a curious, if implicit, consensus that spans all manner of ideological and partisan divisions.

There is nearly universal agreement in scholarly and popular circles about when the diversity rationale first appeared and began to take root in the context of college admissions. A wide-ranging cast of actors is given credit for devising and propagating the basic idea that diversity is educationally beneficial, but there is little difference of opinion about the timing of its emergence.

The diversity rationale is believed to have been a creature of the troubled, fractured years that came after the achievement of formal, legal equality. This period is often portrayed as a time of vertiginous flux, when American cities were burning, personal identities were beginning to eclipse common dreams, trust in authority was collapsing under the weight of Vietnam and Watergate, globalization was eroding the economic dominance of the United States, and a New Right anchored in the suburbs and the Sunbelt was readying itself to seize center stage in American politics.

One widely held perspective traces the prominence of ideas about diversity to the failures of the New Left in the 1970s. The historian Mark Lilla argues in The Once and Future Liberal that activists in the civil-rights, feminist, and gay rights movements originally shared the same goals and hopes: namely, for “equality and dignity as citizens.” But he claims that something profoundly changed within liberalism starting in the 1970s, and the New Left began to splinter along lines of issue and identity. There was an “abdication” of the universal ideals that had motivated earlier generations of liberals, and the different movements that made up the New Left mutated into “identity liberalism.” Instead of developing a “fresh political vision of the country’s shared destiny,” this new liberalism became “mesmerized by symbols” such as “achieving superficial diversity in organizations.” As he asserts elsewhere, there is now a widespread and unconstructive “fixation on diversity in our schools.” Although he never argues the specific point, it is clearly implied in the development of his ideas: the value ascribed to diversity in education today is the product of a wayward “identity liberalism” that began to stray in the 1970s from its more universalistic roots.3Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics 7–8, 14, 66 (2017).

Law professor Peter H. Schuck points to a particular segment of the New Left as especially “central” in legitimating diversity in American culture. In Diversity in America, he maintains that “diversity values came to be elevated in our public discourse” in good measure through the “ideological influence” of the “black nationalist movement.” Schuck argues that a more “optimistic, unifying vision” of American identity—assimilationism of the “melting pot” variety—prevailed in the late-1960s, at which point “black separatism gained greater influence over the civil rights movement” amidst “urban riots and the Nixon administration’s accession to power.” The idea that racial and ethnic groups were each uniquely valuable fragments of a larger mosaic grew through the early 1970s and was amplified powerfully by the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and other major charitable institutions. By the 1970s, in Schuck’s analysis, “diversity values” had become sufficiently prominent to gain recognition in the U.S. Supreme Court, through cases such as Lau v. Nichols (1974) and Regents of California v. Bakke (1978).4Peter H. Schuck, Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance 46, 51–55 (2003).

A second set of narratives about the origins of diversity highlights the importance of university elites. According to sociologist John David Skrentny’s The Minority Rights Revolution, university leaders and their reaction to the tumultuous events of the late 1960s and early 1970s hold greater significance than any segment of the New Left. Skrentny argues that “fear of black violence was the original rationale for affirmative admissions” as urban riots and campus disorder swept the country in the mid- to late-1960s. But university administrators quickly began to “develop other rationales.” By the middle of the next decade, “university elites” had clearly thrown themselves behind the policy of affirmative action and began to apply their “zeal and creativity” to working up new “reasons why it was a good idea.” One such idea, which emerged in professional schools, was the notion that “diversity” was good for all students, not only Black students and other racial minorities.5John David Skrentny, The Minority Rights Revolution 166, 171–72 (2009).

In The Shape of the River, former Ivy League Presidents William G. Bowen and Derek Bok offer a less skeptical take on the role of university officials, whom they find adopted affirmative action for multiple reasons. Although a sense of moral responsibility for rectifying past injustices was chief among them, so was a desire to “enrich the education of all their students by including race as another element in assembling a diverse student body.” Nevertheless, Bowen and Bok find that the critical period came in the years that followed President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 commencement address at Howard University, where he laid out ideas that were subsequently taken as legitimation for the establishment of affirmative action in a range of American institutions.6William G. Bowen & Derek Bok, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions 6–7 (20th ann. ed. 2019) (orig. 1998).

A third collection of arguments about the rise of the diversity rationale does not necessarily deny the relevance of the New Left or university leaders but instead puts a special emphasis on the significance of the federal courts, and specifically Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.’s opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Goodwin Liu rightly observes that Bakke is the first case in which “educational diversity as an important state interest” receives “[j]udicial recognition.”7Goodwin Liu, Affirmative Action in Higher Education: The Diversity Rationale and the Compelling Interest Test, 33 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 381, 386 (1998). Cultural sociologist Ellen Berrey adds that Powell’s opinion served as a major source of legitimation for the diversity rationale.8Ellen Berrey, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice 27, 30, 38 (2015). But others go beyond these claims to ascribe still greater significance to the case. For instance, literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels argues that race and diversity “came to be firmly associated” as a result of Bakke.9Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Equality 3–4 (2016) (orig. 2006). In his survey of the 1970s, historian Thomas Borstelmann makes a similar argument, maintaining that the Court introduced a “new purpose” for affirmative action in Bakke. See Thomas Borstelmann, The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality 314 (2013). Marcia G. Synnott argues that the Harvard model was a flawed choice on Justice Powell’s part, and she seems to suggest that Harvard’s motivations were largely self-serving. See Marcia G. Synnott, The Evolving Diversity Rationale in University Admissions: From Regents v. Bakke to the University of Michigan Cases, 90 Cornell L. Rev. 463, 469–73 (2005).

Peter Schmidt’s assertions are even more boldly formulated. Yet they are typical in the outsized role they ascribe to Bakke. A long-time reporter and editor for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schmidt echoes Skrentny in insisting that the leaders of selective colleges “said little about the educational benefits” of diversity when they adopted affirmative action. In his view, “[s]elective colleges began lowering the bar for minority applicants back in the late 1960s to promote social justice and help keep the peace.” Affirmative action was a product of “black rage and white fear,” and it was initially adopted by university elites to “send black America a clear signal that the establishment it was rebelling against was in fact open to it.” According to Schmidt, what Justice Powell’s opinion in Bakke did was swap this rationale with a new one, “replacing a rationale grounded in history with one grounded in educational theory.” In a 2008 opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Schmidt puts the point even more polemically: “Thirty years ago this past week, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. condemned our nation’s selective colleges and universities to live a lie.” Schmidt goes on to argue that Justice Powell’s opinion “prompted these institutions to justify their use of racial preferences in admissions with a rationale most had never considered and still do not believe—a desire to offer a better education to all students.”10Peter Schmidt, Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action 67 (2007). Not surprisingly, Peter Wood has put the point bluntly as well. Along with Glenn Custred, Wood was one of the architects of California’s anti–affirmative-action Proposition 209 in 1996, and he argues in Diversity: The Invention of a Concept that Justice Powell’s opinion plucked the idea of diversity as educationally valuable from obscurity and elevated it to a position of legal and cultural prominence. See Peter Wood, Diversity: The Invention of a Concept 87, 99, 103 (2003).

There are only rare exceptions to the conventional wisdom about when the diversity rationale began to take root in American higher education. In The Chosen, his study of inclusion and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, sociologist Jerome Karabel notes that diversity had been educationally valued among the “Big Three” for decades, albeit in a qualified and variable manner. According to Karabel, Harvard especially “took pride in the diversity of its student body” as early as the turn of the twentieth century. This sensibility was manifest in President Charles W. Eliot’s welcome to new students in 1900. “The majority [of our students] are of moderate means,” Eliot said, “and it is this diversity of condition that makes the experience of meeting men here so valuable.” During the 1920s, concerns about diversity took a more restrictive turn under Harvard’s President A. Lawrence Lowell and admissions chair Henry Pennypacker, and schools like Harvard sought geographic diversity as a way of limiting the number of Jewish students. Harvard’s limits on Jewish enrollment were eased after the Second World War under President James Conant, although the emphasis on geographic diversity (and nonacademic qualities) initiated in Lowell’s time remained in place. Harvard was not alone in prizing student diversity during the postwar years. Although it continued to largely exclude African Americans, Princeton under the leadership of President Harold Willis Dodds was similarly interested in achieving a geographically and economically diverse class in the 1950s, and Karabel credits Dodds with transforming Princeton into “an increasingly diverse and open institution.” Karabel’s account makes it clear that it is profoundly ahistorical to think that the diversity rationale emerged ex cathedra from Justice Powell’s opinion.11Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton 13, 174, 196–97, 246–47 (2006). In her study of diversity at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Marcia G. Synnott notes that Harvard trustee Henry James (son of philosopher William James) was making the case in 1947 that Harvard needed “diversity of age, background, professional and geographical connection” in order to become a truly “national” institution. See Marcia G. Synnott, Student Diversity at the Big Three: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Since the 1920s 8–9 (2013).

This Essay builds on Karabel and draws on our original research in the primary sources to question the conventional wisdom about the origins of the diversity rationale.

We argue that the period critical to understanding the rise of the diversity rationale is not the late 1960s and 1970s but rather the early 1960s, when Americans were electing the first Catholic to the presidency, when violent reprisals were accompanying the integration of Ole Miss, when the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis were delivering speeches from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and when Congress was deciding whether to pass a bill that eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is the moment when many of the values that now receive pride of place in American higher education were first elevated to national prominence and became the subject of serious discussion at numerous institutions of higher education. This was the moment when college and university administrators, especially those based in the Ivy League, were beginning to fully embrace the conviction that diversity was educationally valuable. Wary of relying too heavily on standardized tests, they sought to preserve their discretion in assessing the academic merit of applicants and gauging the value that each applicant would add to the composition of the class as a whole, relying broadly upon an admissions apparatus that had been originally developed decades earlier to exclude Jewish applicants. Race was initially just one of many dimensions of diversity that were on the minds of college and university administrators, but the dramatic struggle over civil rights in 1963 gave race a new, decisive salience. By 1967, there was a critical mass of institutions that sought to secure the educational benefits of a diverse study body, and racial diversity ranked among the forms of diversity that they valued the most.

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If there was once a moment when a large number of Americans were untroubled by the notion that the United States was a White, Protestant nation, that number had shrunk substantially by the time President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961. The election of a Catholic president was only one of many signs that more and more Americans were increasingly reconciled and even open to the fact of religious, ethnic, and racial difference—domestically and globally. Many forces were responsible for the shift, including the activism of the civil-rights movement, Jewish groups like the American Jewish Congress, and industrial unions. But the theological and intellectual leadership of ecumenical or mainline Protestantism also played a critical role, as historian David Hollinger has compellingly written. In publications like Christian Century and speeches from the pulpit, ecumenical leaders encouraged their coreligionists to turn away from a Protestant-based conception of American nationalism, embrace human differences wherever they were found, and work toward the diminution of group-based inequality in the United States and around the world. It is true that the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians who formed the mainline National Council of Churches (NCC) hesitated to throw their weight fully and publicly behind the civil-rights movement until 1963, fearing the attacks of their evangelical rivals, but the “egalitarian impulses and the capacities for self-interrogation” cultivated by the leadership of ecumenical Protestants over the postwar years enabled their “community of faith” and many other Americans to “engage sympathetically” with a “panorama of ethnoracial, sexual, religious, and cultural varieties of humankind.”12For further discussion of national identity and religious difference in the postwar years, including the significance of Kennedy’s Catholicism in the 1960 election, see Kevin M. Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (2013) and Shaun A. Casey, The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960 (2009).

A sympathetic engagement with difference was increasingly reflected in many areas of American life in 1961. In the field of higher education, it found expression in the conviction that diversity was educationally beneficial. One of the earliest educational leaders to embrace the idea was Wilbur J. Bender, Harvard’s dean of admissions during the Eisenhower years. In his time as dean, Bender sought to compose a student body that achieved a studied balance between different groups, and he believed that Harvard had been doing well. It had been selecting the right proportions of public-school students, private-school students as well as future scientists, scholars, lawyers, businessmen, and politicians; in his estimation, this diversity was the foundation of Harvard’s greatness.13Karabel, The Chosen 249–55, 278.

Of course, not everyone shared Bender’s views. Some of Harvard’s scientists wanted to restructure the admissions process to revolve primarily around academic and intellectual qualities, and they eventually raised enough of a ruckus that Bender decided to retire.14Karabel, The Chosen 262–71.

But he did not go quietly. In the fall of 1961, Bender published an essay that first appeared in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin (HAB), and then eventually the Boston Globe and the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW). In it, he presented a detailed critique of the impulse to institute a “single-factor” admissions policy based strictly on academic criteria, which he called a “top-one-percent policy.” It was problematic in his view to select students on “apparent relative academic promise” alone. Not only was it difficult to predict intellectual distinction, pursuing such a policy would alienate the alumni, most of whose children presumably would not make the cut. At the same time, there were positive reasons to retain a system of holistic assessment in which the way that a particular applicant might add diversity to the incoming class was valued alongside their academic potential. Bender suggested that admitting within a “broader range of academic ability” would make Harvard a “wonderfully interesting and rewarding place,” and it would avoid creating the “warping and narrow experience” of institutions that selected students primarily on intellectual ability. Composing a class to include students with qualities other than pure smarts—looking for traits such as “[j]udgment,” “curiosity,” “independence,” “honesty,” “courage,” “sensitivity,” “generosity,” and “energy”—enhanced the “quality of a college, its atmosphere, its impact on students, and its contribution to society.” Bender wrapped up his essay in a passage that explicitly invoked the word “diversity” itself:

In other words, my prejudice is for a Harvard College with a certain range and mixture and diversity in its student body—a college with some snobs and some Scandinavian farm boys who skate beautifully and some bright Bronx pre-meds, with some students who care passionately if unwisely (but who knows?) about editing the Crimson or beating Yale, or who have an ambition to run a business and make a million, or to get elected to public office; a college in which not all the students have looked on school just as preparation for college, college as preparation for graduate school, and graduate school as preparation for they know not what. Won’t even our top-one percent be better men and better scholars for being part of such a college?15Wilbur J. Bender, Top-One-Percent-Policy, Harvard Alumni Bulletin (Sep. 30, 1961); Wilbur J. Bender, Is Too Much of ‘The Best’ Bad for Harvard?, Boston Globe (Oct. 8, 1981); Wilbur J. Bender, Intellectuals or Executives? Pre-Professionals or Young Businessmen?, Princeton Alumni Weekly (Feb. 16, 1962). This passage, it should be noted, is quoted elsewhere. See Lawrence Feinberg, Harvard: The Best, Not the Brightest, Wash. Post (Nov. 19, 1989); Morton Keller & Phyllis Keller, Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America’s University 295 (2001). We have discussed this quotation and the context that gave rise to it in an earlier, shorter piece. See Anthony S. Chen & Lisa M. Stulberg, What opponents of affirmative action get wrong, Wash. Post (Oct. 23, 2018).

Bender and Harvard may have been slightly ahead of other schools in the Ivy League, but they were hardly alone. Columbia’s director of admissions in the early 1960s similarly extolled the educational value of diversity. In an annual report to headmasters, principals, and counselors covered by the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, Henry S. Coleman expressed doubt about the wisdom of trying to convey a portrait of the current “freshman class” using “statistics,” which he regarded as “necessary but barely adequate indicators of the intellectual and human qualities of the 670 young men” now in the midst of their first year at Columbia. The numbers that gave him the most confidence were those that showed the “greater diversity of Columbia’s students.” Admitting applicants who would enhance Columbia’s diversity had recently become a priority for the school. “In last year’s report,” Coleman recalled, “I wrote that diversity was a quality we would be seeking more energetically, and I am pleased to inform you that our search has been moderately successful.” Coleman’s rationale for prioritizing diversity was based on his observations about the changing educational needs of American youth:

Young people, if I read the times correctly, seem to pay more attention to their peers than to authorities. They prefer to discuss things among themselves rather than seek the advice of elders, even professors. This means that learning can be maximized today by selecting classes of young men of such intelligence, direction, variety, and cooperativeness that they will learn from and teach each other.

Coleman took pains to note that the average board scores of the class had “not changed appreciably” from the previous year. The quality of the class remained high by conventional measures. But he also reported that Columbia had been experimenting with using different indicators of academic potential. The verbal score on the SAT was still a “fairly reliable indicator of a young man’s ability” to successfully complete a rigorous liberal arts education, but admitting students whose “background, environment, poor schooling, or foreign education may have hindered them in mastering verbal schools at the school level” meant looking for “other reliable indications of outstanding promise and potential.”16Henry S. Coleman, Columbia College: Report to Headmasters, Principals, and Counselors, 1961, Folder: Coleman, Henry S., Box 470, Columbia University Office of the President Central Files, Columbia University Archives, Columbia University; Terry Ferrer, College Boards Rated Too High, N.Y. Herald Tribune (Jan. 22, 1962); Charles H. Harrison, College Views Men Not as Statistics, The Record (Jan. 19, 1962). Coleman began emphasizing “diversity” when he took up his post in 1960. See Selecting College Freshman, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 1961).

When discussing the value of diversity, Coleman did not explicitly foreground race, but neither did he avoid the topic. In an article featured in Columbia’s alumni magazine, he explained that the admissions office was not looking for any single type of student. “We can’t, since at Columbia we believe that diversity is educationally essential” given the way that students learn from one another. Accordingly, Columbia sought “outdoor types who want to be archaeologists or geologists . . . and indoor types who prefer the odors of a chemistry lab or the brown-edged fragility of seventeenth century documents.” That was not all: “We seek gregarious fellows, musical fellows, athletic fellows, literary fellows, mathematically adept fellows. We seek daring leaders and thorough followers.” The best way to identify such a diversity of students was to refuse to let test scores dominate the selection process. Reading too much into test scores had the effect of suppressing diversity. To bolster his point, Coleman pointed to the example of a “Negro lad that Columbia admitted from a segregated school in the South.” This student was a straight-A student in high school, but scored in the low 500s on his boards. The admissions committee would appear to have spotted something in him, and he was admitted with a scholarship. Quickly, he began catching up to his classmates, and now he was doing fine. “He’s cheerful, is making friends, and had a B minus average in his freshman year. Not all of our gambles turn out well, but Columbia would be a duller place without them.”17Constance Jacobs, Admission to the College, 9 Columbia College Today 7, 7–10 (Fall 1961).

It was not just Ivy League universities that appeared to value diversity in their student body. The president of Amherst College sounded many of the same notes as Coleman. Calvin H. Plimpton said that Amherst sought out applicants of many different kinds, and not necessarily the best grades and test scores, as long as there was evidence they could “do the work.” As he explained, “students learn not only from teachers but from each other,” and having a varied student body would enhance their educational experience. (Plimpton did not himself use the word “diverse,” but the New York Times reporter did.) In language reminiscent of Bender’s, Plimpton spelled out what he had in mind. “This would mean a good mixture of city boys and country boys, rich boys and poor boys, bright boys and average boys, athletes and physically handicapped boys, Americans and foreigners, boys of all races, of all faiths and even no faith.” A piece in the Boston Globe observed that colleges had once been preoccupied with filling classrooms with bodies, but they now were more selective in their admissions—and they were competing with one another for “brains and diversity” in the hopes of achieving national stature.18President of Amherst Decries Rigidity in Admissions Policy, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 1962); Go West to Get in a College, Boston Globe (Dec. 25, 1961). For additional examples of how the word “diversity” was used in the context of admissions, see also Delay in College Admissions, Chicago Tribune (Mar. 27, 1962); Knocking at the Door, Boston Globe (Apr. 5, 1962).

Nor were selective institutions in the Northeast the only ones that sought out diversity. Some leaders at some of the most selective private schools in the South also clearly understood that a diverse class would be educationally valuable to all of their students, and they sought at times to bring their admissions policies in line with their convictions. For instance, in a 1962 report of the admissions committee, admissions officers at Duke University recommended the establishment of a policy that would enable them to reap the educational benefits of diversity: “We believe that a policy should be established to enable the admissions officers to seek out students from socioeconomic levels not presently very well-represented in the student bodies of the colleges. The sharp minds and determined spirits of such students should help leaven our mass of upper middle-class, suburban, well-to-do groups.”19Quoted in Excerpts from Past University Admissions Committee Reports and Minutes Relevant to Current Research in Admissions, Box 1, Admissions – Research Program (Experimental), 1967–1969, Douglas M. Knight Papers, University Archives, Duke University, 1.

While race was one of several dimensions of diversity that was regarded as educationally beneficial by selective institutions in the early 1960s, it received a new emphasis in 1963 as a result of rising national concern over civil rights—concern that was prompted by the mass mobilization of the civil-rights movement. At the beginning of 1963, civil-rights protests were largely local in nature. President Kennedy had barely mentioned the issue in his State of the Union Address, and stories about the topic had rarely made it above the fold in the newspaper. That changed with the epic showdown in Birmingham, where civil-rights activists succeeded in extracting major concessions from city elders and transforming the legislative agenda of the Kennedy administration. By summer, critical news on civil rights seemed to break practically every day. In a single, twenty-four-hour period in early June, President Kennedy denounced segregation and asked Congress to pass his civil-rights bill; the staunch segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace made good on a campaign promise to “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama; and NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was shot in the back and killed in the driveway of his own Mississippi home. By the end of the year, after a fall punctuated by the March on Washington and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, half of those Americans surveyed by the Gallup Poll believed that civil rights were the most important problem facing the country. Kennedy had been martyred, and his civil-rights bill was halfway through Congress.20David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference 264, 261 (1986); Aldon D. Morris, Birmingham Confrontation Reconsidered: An Analysis of the Dynamics and Tactics of Mobilization, 58 Am. Sociological Rev. 621 (1993); Tom Wicker, President in Plea, N.Y. Times (Jun. 12, 1963); Claude Sifton, Governor Leaves, N.Y. Times (Jun. 12, 1963); Claude Sifton, Whites Alarmed, N.Y. Times (Jun. 13, 1963); Paul Burstein, Discrimination, Jobs, and Politics: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity 61 (1961).

The intensification of national concern about civil rights was expressed in the context of higher education as a heightened interest in the racial background of college applicants, and the change was plainly evident in the way that the issue of college admissions was covered in the press. Through the early months of 1963, articles on college admissions rarely mentioned Black enrollment specifically or the racial identity of applicants and matriculants more generally. But coverage of these topics took off soon thereafter.

A Boston Globe article appearing in 1964 provides a good example. The subject of the article was the Cooperative Program for Educational Opportunity (CPEO), an organization that was established to increase the number underrepresented applicants to the Ivy League and Seven Sisters: “primarily Negroes, but also Puerto Ricans and every other type of deprived child, white or otherwise.” Yale’s dean of admissions, Arthur Howe Jr., noted that a sense of “social responsibility” was a big part of Yale’s motivation for participating in the CPEO. “We have done less than we think we should have,” he said. But he also pointed to “personal interest,” by which he seems to have meant the institutional interest of colleges and universities. “Each college,” he said, “feels that it will enrich itself in enrolling such students and that it will have the diversity that we all talk about in our catalogs.” What he was saying was not particularly clear, but it was clear enough. Yale was taking part in the CPEO in order to make good on the kind of education it implicitly promised in its promotional materials, an education enriched by a diverse collection of classmates.21Terry Ferrer, Colleges Seek Top Negroes, Boston Globe (Feb. 5, 1964).

A report by Roger Ricklefs in the Wall Street Journal similarly reflected what many admissions officials at selective institutions were saying and thinking about diversity in 1965. Ricklefs’s article was given the title “Diverse Campuses,” and one of the subtitles made it perfectly clear that race was a prime form of diversity: “Columbia Gives Negro Edge over White Applicant; Yale Will Recruit in Puerto Rico.” A quote from Columbia’s Coleman typified what many officials were hoping to achieve with their admissions policies: “We don’t want the well-rounded boy so much as the well-rounded student body.” Harvard’s director of admissions and Bender’s successor, Fred Glimp, went beyond Coleman to explain why a well-rounded student body mattered. “Diversity in the student body itself,” he said, “is as potent an educational factor as the faculty and facilities. You want a farm boy banging heads with a city boy.” Like other educational leaders at the time, Coleman and Glimp were convinced that diversity yielded educational benefits to every student, and institutions of higher education should strive to deliver them.22Roger Ricklefs, Diverse Campuses, More Colleges Seek Students with Unusual Backgrounds, Talents, Wall St. J. (Dec. 22, 1965).

This understanding and embrace of diversity—in which race and ethnicity figured prominently—was not restricted to university elites. In his reporting, Ricklefs found that students themselves valued diversity. One student at Yale was interviewed for the Yale Alumni Magazine, where he made his views perfectly clear. “In high school all my friends came from similar backgrounds, sarcastically called WASP (for white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant),” said a Yale student from suburban Chicago. “Here I am exposed to so many different people and opinions that I expect I’ll be jolted out of this comfortable mold of sameness. I expect the freshman year to be very broadening.” A student at Columbia from Wyoming said he appreciated the way that going to school there had broadened his social attitudes. “I had never been east of Nebraska. Everybody warned me to watch out for Jews and Italians at Columbia and I more or less accepted this. Now I just can’t see how anybody could ever have that attitude.”23Ricklefs, Diverse Campuses.

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If it is correct to believe that the critical period for the advent of the diversity rationale came before Bakke—indeed, if it is correct to think that it was the early 1960s rather than the late 1960s and 1970s that mattered the most—what is the broader significance of such a conclusion?

We suggest three takeaways from this revision of the historical narrative. 

The first concerns how Justice Powell’s opinion in Bakke is understood. There can be little doubt that his opinion is a watershed of sorts, but its significance seems overstated in some ways and misunderstood in others. The most audacious claims that are made about it are clearly inconsistent with the historical record. It did not replace a real rationale that emerged out of historical experience with a concocted one that nobody really believed. Nor did it elevate the wishful fantasies of one or two schools to a position of prominence that was wildly out of sync with the actual depth of interest in diversity. Justice Powell’s opinion was far from a clever act of legal prestidigitation. But other claims about it with a more reasonable basis would seem to merit a degree of revision as well. It did not create de novo the association between race and diversity. Nor did it confer intellectual legitimacy upon a rationale that otherwise lacked it.

Justice Powell’s opinion and Bakke more generally represent the moment when the high court first recognized the effort by educational institutions to secure the educational benefits of diversity as a compelling state interest. As such, it reflected values and policies that were already taking root in higher education. It followed a process of institutional change that had been underway for more than fifteen years, led by administrators such as Bender, Coleman, and Glimp. At the same time, Bakke served as a mechanism through which institutional changes that had begun at some schools were scrutinized and sifted, and the institutional changes that survived the process were disseminated more widely throughout American higher education. A particular subset of values and policies that originated out the field of higher education were hence legally and constitutionally legitimated in Bakke, and these values and policies then fed back into a wider swath of higher education. Bakke elevated the diversity rationale to a position of new significance, but it did not conjure it up outright.

The second takeaway concerns the connection between diversity and liberalism. In most versions of the conventional wisdom, diversity is construed as a departure from liberal ideals. In the bleakest accounts, it is comprehended as a betrayal of liberalism. These claims have resonated so powerfully in the public imagination partly because the initial advent of the diversity rationale has been anchored chronologically in the late-1960s and 1970s, when most narratives of liberal declension begin. Our findings suggest that diversity is a creature of a somewhat earlier period—one that is typically seen as a time of optimism and opportunity for liberalism. As such, what our findings suggest to us is that the growing commitment to diversity that was evident in the early 1960s is best understood not as a wholesale deviation from liberalism but rather a distinct expression of it.

A third and final takeaway concerns the reluctance that prevails in some quarters to grant educational institutions even a modicum of deference in identifying their educational commitments and formulating plans for attaining them. It is not hard to detect the skepticism with which the motives of college and university administrators are greeted in the conventional wisdom. University presidents and admissions officers are often said to have been creative or zealous in coming up with rationales for affirmative action, and it is implied in not so many words that their shift in emphasis from compensatory justice to diversity was insincere and disingenuous. One of the earliest and sharpest formulations of the point came from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and Harvard law student Laura Hanft in a 1979 article that appeared in the Cardozo Law Review. The authors write in it that the “raison d’être for race-specific affirmative-action programs has simply never been diversity for the sake of education.” Indeed, diversity recently has served as a “clever post facto justification for increasing the number of minority group students in the student body.”

Our research in the primary sources suggests that the concerns of skeptics may be overwrought. We find that a nontrivial number of admissions officers at selective institutions around the country embraced the educational value of diversity—including the educational value of racial diversity—more than a decade before Bakke. The courts were nowhere in sight, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not even law in many instances. The belief that institutions of higher education are not deserving of deference may ultimately be justified, but our findings strongly suggest that it should be rooted in actual evidence of malfeasance, rather than simply the ahistorical insinuation that the rhetoric of diversity was originally mobilized in order to provide educational institutions with a pretext for operating a legally and constitutionally dubious program of “racial preferences.”

Today, diversity is a dirty word to some Americans. This is most plainly evident in the rhetoric and policies of President Donald J. Trump. In December of 2017, his administration went so far as to forbid his Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using seven words in its work, and “diversity” was on this list (along with, among others, “science-based,” “transgender,” and “fetus”). Diversity is also on trial these days. In a case that has now reached the First Circuit Court of Appeals, Harvard is currently defending its admissions plan from Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who charge that it intentionally discriminated against Asian American applicants. In their original complaint, SFFA argues that the decisions of the Supreme Court holding that “there is a compelling government interest in using race as a factor in admissions decisions in pursuit of ‘diversity’ should be overruled.” The plaintiffs allege that the “Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in this area has been built on mistakes of fact and law,” and they appear to suggest that Bakke was wrongly decided, citing the precise passages from the Dershowitz and Hanft article (highlighted above) that characterize Harvard’s commitment to diversity as little more than a pretext. Even in scholarly circles, where less is immediately on the line when disagreements arise, “diversity” carries a tinge of illegitimacy that is unmistakably implicit in the conventional wisdom about when and why it first emerged.24Lena H. Sun & Juliet Eilperin, CDC Gets List of Forbidden Words: Fetus, Transgender, Diversity, Wash. Post (Dec. 15, 2017); Compl. at 115–16, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (D. Mass. Nov. 17, 2014) (No. 14 Civ. 14176).

Based on our research in the historical record, we argue that it is high time to revise the conventional wisdom. Arguments about affirmative action will go on, but we hope they will unfold on a sounder foundation of evidence and facts.

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Anthony S. Chen is Associate Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Northwestern University, where he is also a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. The author of The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941–1972 (Princeton, 2009), he is interested in political sociology, historical sociology, and American political development, with a special emphasis on civil rights, social and economic policy, and business-government relations.

Lisa M. Stulberg is Associate Professor of Sociology of Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. The author of Race, Schools, and Hope: African Americans and School Choice after Brown (Teachers College Press, 2008) and the co-editor (with Sharon Lawner Weinberg) of Diversity in American Higher Education: Toward a More Comprehensive Approach (Routledge, 2011), she researches the politics of race and education as well as LGBTQ+ social change.

Chen and Stulberg are completing a book on the history and development of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions.

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