Bowdoin College and Diversity

Michael Toscano

When I arrived on this campus two years ago, I recommitted the College to building opportunity and access for all those who deserve to be at Bowdoin. Our goal has been to create a community at Bowdoin that represents our society and the world.

The decision of the United States Supreme Court this summer in the University of Michigan case is remarkably gratifying to colleges like Bowdoin because, in its decision, the Court acknowledged college and university assertions establishing as paramount the educational benefits of diversity. In clear and unmistakable language the Supreme Court acknowledged that diversity on college campuses remains a compelling state interest.”

Barry Mills, fourteenth president of Bowdoin College, reflecting on the ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, “Convocation Welcome,” September 3, 2003.

Many recent college graduates are unaware that “diversity” is a new concept. In 1978 it was ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that, according to the Equal Protection Clause, the use of racial quotas in admissions was unconstitutional. Colleges and universities were effectively barred from using affirmative action to redress past discrimination. Justice Lewis Powell, however, in delivering the opinion of the Court, provided advocates of affirmative action an alternative rationale. According to Powell, it would be entirely legitimate to use an admissions office to promote what he called “beneficial educational pluralism.” In other words, a university could pursue diversity if it was seen as beneficial to the overall intellectual environment. Thus, in the academy, achieving a plurality of races and ethnicities—and other qualities—was reconceived as a form of pedagogy. This pedagogy is what today is known as “diversity,” i.e. the state of learning from another person merely because he is “different.” In our ninth Preliminary of the Bowdoin Project, “‘Diversity’ Comes to Bowdoin,” we trace this conceptual change from the courts to Bowdoin College.      

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Since September 2011, NAS has been conducting an in-depth, ethnographic study of Bowdoin College in Maine. We asked, “what does Bowdoin teach?” and examined Bowdoin’s formal curriculum, its residential and student life policies, and its co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. We have dedicated a page on our website to the Bowdoin Project. The full report will be published there in April. In the meantime, we will continue posting a series of Preliminaries which will provide context for the report.

The Bowdoin Project >

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