Law school deans: Why race matters in college admissions

  • Article by: MARTHA L. MINOW and ROBERT C. POST , Special to the Washington Post
  • Updated: October 8, 2012 - 1:11 PM

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on a case that would require colleges to disregard race. That would be a tragedy.

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Students walk through the Harvard Law School area on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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Why did we, friendly rivals as deans of great and sometimes competitive law schools, join forces to write a common brief to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Because we both believe that higher education should select the best possible students, because we both believe we can identify such students only if we are free to evaluate the individual experiences and qualifications of each applicant, and because we both believe that this requires us to understand applicants' own characterizations of their race or ethnicity.

We joined forces because the Supreme Court is to hear oral argument Wednesday in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case in which some urge the court to require institutions of higher education, such as ours, to disregard individualized considerations of race.

In our personal view, this would be a tragedy for legal education and for higher education generally.

Our reasoning is simple. We admit students to accomplish two goals: to get the best possible students and to assemble the best possible class. These goals require us to examine each applicant in detail.

We assess applicants according to many dimensions. We look for talent and intellectual quality. But we also look for character; for virtues such as curiosity, flexibility, judgment, drive, determination and a commitment to use the advantages of one's education to give back to society.

The Supreme Court has acknowledged that "universities, and in particular, law schools, represent the training ground for a large number of our Nation's leaders." The character of our students is relevant to the quality of our leaders. Character is most often revealed in the life circumstances of our applicants. We look to see how candidates have responded to the challenges they have faced.

Not infrequently these qualities have a racial dimension. While race may not matter for some applicants, for others it may be urgently salient. As deans, we do not prejudge this issue. Rather, our point is that race can be an important, if not essential, aspect of the life story of many applicants and that our ability to assess the individual character of these applicants would be crippled by a rule forbidding us from considering applicants' race.

While we agree that it is inconsistent with the dignity of persons to consider only race, we firmly believe that it is equally inconsistent with their dignity to refuse to hear what applicants have to tell us about the role that race has played in their lives.

As a practical matter, we do not understand how a rule forbidding all consideration of race could possibly be enforced. Essays and letters of recommendation are critical components of the application process at law schools. They allow us to evaluate intangible virtues such as courage, commitment and moral compass. In their personal statements, many applicants discuss how race has influenced their lives.

Writers of recommendations frequently mention race in explaining how an applicant has overcome challenges. Would those advocating race-blind admissions have us censor the statements of applicants and their recommenders? How could we carry out such a task, even if we were inclined to do so?

The holistic evaluation of applicants not only allows us to select the best possible candidates, it also enables us to assemble the best possible entering class. Our mission is to identify the entering class that will produce the best educational experience for our students. We need to select a class in which students have different perspectives, diverse aspirations and complementary strengths.

Law students learn not only from faculty and books but also from each other. No one who has graduated from a law school can seriously doubt that the hours of peer debate among students and within study groups contribute at least as much to students' education as does time in class. Race is sometimes an important and relevant factor in group discussions both inside and outside of the classroom.

Exposure to people with different backgrounds, ideas and views also helps to prepare students for the practice of law, the work of businesses and nonprofit organizations, and the challenges of public service. Our graduates will inevitably interact with increasingly diverse clients, managers and colleagues. Research amply demonstrates that diverse teams are better at solving a variety of problems when compared with homogeneous groups, even when such groups are rated higher on standard ability measures.

To select the best students and to assemble the best class, we must conduct holistic, individualized assessments of our applicants, including consideration of race where appropriate.

Anything less would be a disservice to our law schools and the legal profession.

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Martha L. Minow is the dean of Harvard Law School. Robert C. Post is the dean of Yale Law School.

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