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The case for diversity in higher education

Tom Stritikus

College admissions is one of the most talked about aspects of higher education, and nothing animates those conversations more than the topic of race-conscious admissions.

In the coming days, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue its ruling on whether race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are legal. If SCOTUS rules against Harvard and UNC, the decision will represent a diversion from decades of precedent recognizing the educational value of diversity.

Multiple rulings have upheld the practice of using race as one factor in admissions decisions. Used at many highly competitive institutions, such practices allow a college to consider a student’s race and ethnicity as one factor in a holistic admissions process to create a diverse student body. The goal is to provide all students with the educational benefits of a campus, where classmates come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Because versions of race-conscious policies used at these two institutions are at play at other elite colleges, the ruling is likely to have an impact across higher education. And, because the media coverage of elite institutions is in inverse proportion to the total number of students they serve, the case is likely to draw a lot of buzz. Sensationalism aside, by enhancing student diversity and the educational experience, race-conscious admissions are an important part of creating a more just and equitable society.

At Fort Lewis College, this all looks a little different. Race is not considered in admissions decisions, and we admit every student we believe can be successful at FLC. We do, however, highly value diversity in our outreach to students, the campus culture we seek to create and the learning environment we foster.

At FLC, we believe that diversity encompasses the broad range of experiences, backgrounds and cultural, religious, racial and linguistic identities of our students, faculty and staff, which make for a successful learning environment.

Imagine how much richer an economics class discussion on rural economic development is when it draws from the diverse perspectives of students. At any given time, one of our faculty can build upon the experiences of a Navajo student from Tec Nos Pos, a son of a migrant farm worker from Montrose and a daughter of a longtime ranching family from Pagosa Springs. Just think how much the classroom is bolstered by having a wide range of experiences, perspectives and identities. Research indicates that diverse learning environments positively impact the intellectual learning environment.

I hope a majority of the justices will see through the noise and affirm nearly 50 years of precedent that says narrowly tailored race-conscious admissions policies are in the interest of society, do not result in the admission of unqualified students and, indeed, serve to benefit all students.

I am not a prognosticator, but a number of justices, led by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, asked questions indicating an understanding that all students need to be free to speak about the backgrounds and experiences that shaped them and led them to apply to an individual institution.

Regardless of how SCOTUS rules in these cases, one thing won’t change. FLC will continue to build a community-connected learning environment powered by our place that honors our role as a Native American serving institution. For us, the Southwest’s incredible diversity – and the diversity of our student body – make us great, and we will continue to foster a campus climate that creates a sense of well-being and belonging for all students.

Tom Stritikus is president of Fort Lewis College in Durango.