The Trump administration, according to recent reports, is preparing to redirect resources at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division away from disadvantaged groups such as African-Americans and Latinos in order to push against affirmative action initiatives. This would be a terrible mistake.
Roosevelt University, where I am president, was founded in 1945 in response to an effort by the Central YMCA College in Chicago to limit the admission of "undesirable" black and Jewish students at the school. And because the university has kept firm in the belief that all qualified students should be admitted, our student body has remained one of the most diverse in the Midwest. Our history from our very first days attests to the benefits of diversity within the college community.
I do not want to belabor the advantages of diversity in college life, except to make a basic point about the nature of American society — we are already incredibly diverse! And we are growing more so every year. Making sure educational institutions reflect that diversity is crucial to our collective future. For example, if students do not learn to be a part of a diverse group in college, they will be at a disadvantage when they join what is an increasingly diverse workforce. And on a larger scale, a healthy national polity cannot exist if we separate ourselves from those who are different from us.
In a society that has always valued individualism, it is understandable that many people resist the idea of policies to favor disadvantaged groups. Such policies appear to go against the principle of meritocracy in which you succeed or fail based solely on your own efforts. To accept this argument, though, one must choose to ignore our nation's long and troubled history with prejudice and racism. As President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965 during his efforts to protect the civil rights of African-Americans, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."
I know this is a complicated issue. While repeatedly affirming the value of diversity and the constitutionality of affirmative action, the Supreme Court has struggled to articulate a clear standard for how to implement affirmative action in a fair manner. This is understandable given how both sides in the debate claim that they are protecting core American values. How does one balance fairness to disadvantaged groups with fairness to individuals? I cannot say precisely where that line should be drawn, but I can say that it should be drawn in such a way that we protect and expand upon the gains made by disadvantaged groups in the last half century. There continues to be a significant gap between white and Asian students, and African-American and Latino students in both matriculation and graduation rates from colleges and universities. Given the historic nature of this gap, it would take willful blindness to claim that the difference did not reveal the continuing struggle in our society to free itself from its long history of racial discrimination.
As I write these words, I realize that, as a society, we will always disagree about issues such as affirmative action because they bring into conflict fundamental values in our society in a manner that cannot be easily resolved. Even if we cannot agree, though, I believe there is enormous value in discussing and debating these issues in a thoughtful manner. That is why Roosevelt University is holding its annual American Dream Reconsidered Conference on Sept. 11. Although the idea of the American Dream has long been central to the story of our history, the exact meaning of that dream has always been contested. How do you assure the possibility of upward mobility and financial success to everyone? How do you deal with barriers and roadblocks to the achievement of the American Dream? I do not think we will end the debate over affirmative action at the conference, but I know we will discuss it. And that is a good start.
Ali Malekzadeh is president of Roosevelt University.