UPDATED: Oct. 17, 2012, at 12:25 a.m.
For Philip Lee, a doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education, the idea that his views are important is a current that runs through his work. “I want to show people that student voice matters,” Lee said.
Lee and fellow doctoral student Matthew P. Shaw put that belief into practice in August by filing an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. Lee and Shaw, both former attorneys, argued that the race-conscious admissions policy of the University of Texas does not unfairly discriminate against white applicants.
The case deals with a suit filed by Abigail N. Fisher, a white woman, after she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. Fisher alleges that her rejection was a result of her race.
Lee and Shaw wrote the amicus brief on behalf of Harvard University Graduate School of Education Students for Diversity, of which they are co-chairs. Amicus briefs have also been filed by the University and by Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow, but Lee and Shaw say they make a key argument which differentiates their brief from the others.
They argue that the policies that took shape as the civil rights movement gained ground in the 1960s are fundamentally different from previous policies meant to exclude unwanted groups, such as Harvard’s policy of Jewish exclusion under University President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877.
“Admissions offices incorporated diversity as an aspect of educational excellence—something that improves the discussion in the classroom, something that improves educational outcomes,” Lee said. He said these values still hold true today. “The University of Texas admissions model is based on the inclusionary model of the sixties, not of the twenties. And I don’t think that point was addressed earlier.”
Lee said that these inclusionary practices need to stay in place. “In terms of minority enrollment, if we move to color-blind policies, I would say the effect would be devastating,” he said.
During an event at the Ed School on Monday, Law School professors Tomiko Brown-Nagin and Lani Guinier ’71, who also jointly submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the non-profit Advancement Project, discussed the historical context of the case.
Guinier discussed the long history of exclusionary practices and hostility towards minority students at the University of Texas, which honored its former professor William Stewart Simkins, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida, by using his name for a dormitory until 2010. “Racism is embedded in its landscape,” she said.
Guinier said that the holistic admissions policy used by the University of Texas seeks to address these past injustices toward blacks and other minorities. “[The University of Texas] can’t change the history, but it can do something about the present,” she said.
Guinier and Brown-Nagin said that the court case is just a small part of broader conversations that need to take place about race in universities in the 21st century.
Brown-Nagin said that while universities are focused on the students they admit, they ought to be asking themselves how they are preparing these students while they are enrolled to be future leaders.
“Affirmative action in higher education is really a long way away from equity in higher education,” she said.
—Staff writer Elizabeth S. Auritt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.