Affirmative Action Ruling A Win For Policy's Advocates

Robert Siegel talks with Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. As president of the University of Michigan, Bollinger led the litigation in Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 Supreme Court case whose precedent permitting affirmative action admissions policies was upheld by Monday's ruling.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Lee Bollinger was the president of the University of Michigan who defended the affirmative action policies that were upheld in the Supreme Court's 2003 decision, Grutter v. Bollinger. He is now the president of Columbia University, and I asked him earlier if today's ruling is a win for affirmative action.

LEE BOLLINGER: Yes. You have to say that it's a win. It - the majority of the court over this period of time reaffirms Grutter, which reaffirms Bakke and Powell's opinion. So we now have several decades of Supreme Court decisions proving affirmative action in universities.

SIEGEL: Does this change anything for universities or for the concerns of universities?

BOLLINGER: The question really will have to play itself out. One of the things the court does here is it says universities really bear the burden of showing that their particular policies - their admissions policies and their educational purposes - meet the requirements of the Constitution, as judged by the courts, and that they have decided that this is necessary, their particular admissions programs, for achieving these educational benefits. The court doesn't say exactly what kind of proof will be required, so we'll have to see in future cases what that is.

SIEGEL: In the Grutter decision, then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor famously said that she foresaw a continued need for race-conscious plans for another 25 years. It was almost 10 years ago. Do you hear the clock ticking on affirmative action and race-conscious plans?

BOLLINGER: That was a very unusual thing for a justice or a court to say. That is, I don't know of any other Supreme Court decision where the court has said, this is constitutional to do this, but we give you a generation in which to do it. So it's a novel statement.

I think what really is at stake here is the larger issues of Brown v. Board of Education race in America, two centuries of slavery, one century of Jim Crow laws and the enormous efforts by the country to try to come to terms with that. What we really have to see is how this plays out in the society over the next 12 years or 13 years, but beyond that...

SIEGEL: Do you feel that there's only so much political support abroad in the nation for race-conscious programs and that there will be some, ultimately, some ruling against them, or do you think that they will continue in perpetuity?

BOLLINGER: What I do think will continue in perpetuity is the importance for our colleges and universities to build student bodies that are diverse in all kinds of ways, including race and ethnicity.

I mean, one of the things we found, I think, in American higher education that's almost like a central success is that we bring people together from all over, very different backgrounds, very different experiences, and, together, that makes a very, very electric mix of ideas and educational benefits. And we have the best higher education system in the world, and that's part of it. Now, how you have to go about getting that diversity may change over time.

SIEGEL: Lee Bollinger, one other question. The big cases here, going back to Bakke and the University of Michigan cases, in which you were the named defendant, and now this case are all about public universities. Do you believe that private universities stand immune to these rulings or would the very fact of dealings with the federal government include Columbia and all of the other famous private universities that signed the friend of the court brief in this case, would you all be subjected to the same restraints?

BOLLINGER: Well, we would be because the law as passed in the 1960s by Congress requires all private universities to comply with the equal protection clause. So our fate is hinged to the fate of public universities in the court decision.

SIEGEL: So you're either 1-1 or dodge the bullet or whatever one wants to say today.

(LAUGHTER)

BOLLINGER: I think it's a victory. Every time you have a precedent that adds to these policies of universities which have been so successful, every time you have a precedent that affirms that, that's a great victory.

SIEGEL: Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BOLLINGER: Thank you.

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