In light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on Schuette v. Coalition, in which the Court upheld Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in admissions for public universities, the nation has been overcome with arguments from all sides of this issue. And while we have debated the necessity of affirmative action and the implicit biases of the dialogue surrounding this argument, we have not yet addressed the most unsettling aspect of the decision: Public universities are now forced to shape the demographic of their student bodies according to the desires of voters.
Initially, this may appear to be a victory for democracy, a direct implementation of “for the people, by the people.” But why should public universities be held to a standard similar to the one our government is held to (well, the standard to which we used to hold our government)? This decision puts too much power into the hands of individuals who 1. shouldn’t have overwhelming influence on how a university constructs its ideal student body especially since they 2. have proven throughout history that they are not opposed to using their voting power to oppress and exclude minorities.
The argument that voters should have heavy influence over how these universities construct their student body demographic because these universities are partly funded by taxpayer dollars is practically absurd. Voters do not decide who will be elected to serve in the leadership of these universities. Voters do not directly decide their salaries either. And voters certainly do not decide how enriching a university experience should be. If our funding of public universities doesn’t give us the right to make decisions on these equally important subjects, why should it justify deciding how a university’s ideal student body should look? Voters simply do not have insight into a university’s long-term goals for both itself and the student body, so giving them the right to decide only from the aspect of a student body’s demographic would deal a great blow to a university’s ability to carry out its initiatives. Maybe if voters decided to involve themselves in a university’s affairs in a more holistic manner, using their voting power to shape a student body would be quite legitimate. However, this one-sided involvement does nothing but complicate a university’s ability to function according to the values it upholds, and the goals it envisions. The court’s decision has created a hypocritical precedent between the voters’ influence and the autonomy of colleges and universities, and, in the process, has set a precedent that opens the door for more dangerous rulings—this time by the public.
Contrary to popular neo-liberal/conservative opinion, a post-racial American society simply does not exist, and giving voters the right to decide what ethnicities, races, or sexes should be included in—or excluded from—the demographic of a public university diminishes any hope of that society ever existing. Have we already forgotten that in 2004, Alabama voters blocked a referendum aiming to amend parts of the state constitution which called for separate schools for whites and blacks? Despite the fact that many individuals who advocate for merit-based admissions are coming from a good place and may not harbor ill-feelings towards minorities, we must not forget that there are individuals who would prefer that college demographics look less like a melting pot and more like the U.S. Senate circa 1992—inhabited by very few women, very few minorities, and instead the likes of Strom Thurmond.
But we as a society decided long ago to renounce that image of America in hopes of creating one that resembled a more perfect, more inclusive union. That is why it is imperative that institutions of higher learning appreciate diversity (as many of them do) and remain free to shape a student body according to their interests, without the inhibition of those who would prefer that higher education revert back to its exclusionary tendencies. A public university is not an extension of the government; we can aim to keep people out of office for whatever reason we choose, but we should not aim to use our power as citizens to keep students of color off college campuses.
Elizabeth Adetiba is a first-year in the College.