Diversity: Obama's Higher Education Agenda, Part 5 of 8

Peter Wood

When Barack Obama first came to national attention with his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he sounded a post-racial theme of national unity:

There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.

His 2008 campaign built on this theme but in a complicated and paradoxical way. An appeal was built on the idea of transcending racial division by embracing a politician who self-consciously styled himself as “black.” The nation poised in dynamic equilibrium between the ideal that race shouldn’t matter and the reality that it mattered very much.

That equilibrium didn’t last long. Even during the campaign, Obama offered numerous hints that once in office he would be an orthodox supporter of the race-conscious policies that had become inseparable from the Democratic Party since the demise of the diehard segregationist wing of the party in the 1960s. Still, there was uncertainty as to just how “post-racial” the new president would try to be. In April 2009, for example, the Black Law Students Association at Columbia University held a day-long conference on “Thinking Outside the Race: Are We Ready?” The answer, announced by the keynote speaker John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was a resounding no. Payton declared, “We’re not a post-racial society.” The other speakers elaborated the idea that race still played a large and destructive role in American society and that race-based social and legal activism would remain a priority during the Obama administration.

The conference participants, one after another, singled out higher education as the domain where action to advance racial claims for social justice was most urgent. The key was to maintain affirmative action and racial preferences in college admissions against the rising tide of state ballot initiatives aimed at creating race-blind enforcement of civil rights.

The participants in the Columbia conference need not have worried. President Obama would soon make it clear that he was and would remain a solid supporter of “diversity” in higher education.


Beginning with “Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda” in early February I said I would post a series examining the eight major components of the president’s plans for higher education, and then try to put them together as a whole. In part one of the series, “Supersizing,” I reviewed the president’s dream of ushering in a gargantuan expansion of higher education. In part two, I looked at his proposed use of “Price Controls.” In part three, “College for All,” I traced his evolving theme of sending all American high school graduates to a least one year of formal postsecondary education. Part four, “Better Citizens,” divided into two posts, looked at some of the ways Obama has sought to use colleges to promote progressive values among students.

Obama’s commitment to diversity has come up in several of these earlier posts. Here I will take on the topic in its own right. There are at least four ways in which Obama has made the pursuit of diversity a prominent part of his higher education agenda:

Diversity in the Affordable Care Act

Diversity in the “New Civics”

Support for Texas in the Fisher Case

The DOE and DOJ’s advisory on Grutter

My goal here is not to critique these actions but to register them as part of a coherent whole: that Obama, without saying very much explicitly about diversity in higher education, has made the promotion of the diversity doctrine one of the guideposts of his public policy.

That doctrine is surely widely enough known that I can bypass a detailed discussion of it. The general idea is that racial and ethnic divisions as well as other divisions of society into groups that have a shared history of injustice and oppression need to be granted some degree of preferential access to public goods, such as the protection of the laws, admission to college, and the awarding of public contracts. Diversity is offered simultaneously as a principle of social cohesion (“Celebrate diversity!”) and a claim of inextinguishable and heritable grievance. Its advocates often speak of it as an ideal on the same level of cultural importance as freedom and equality.

The difficulty here is confining the discussion to the Obama administration’s “diversity” initiatives in higher education. As I showed in my book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (2003), diversity as an idea about the distribution of social goods arose in the context of higher education and still takes its main legal warrant from Supreme Court decisions about college admissions. But the concept has long since become a kind of universal solvent applied to all of American social life. I want to concentrate on Obama’s higher-education diversity policies, but we will need to consider some context first.


 When Obama was elected, he was greeted by many as bringing a “post-racial” view to the presidency. The label remained in circulation through 2009, but with increasing qualifications and doubts. These came both from those who argued that it was way too premature for the United States to pursue post-racial policies and from those who welcomed a post-racial America but were disappointed in Obama’s first year in office. Two events highlighted the degree to which Obama in 2009 seemed a lot more race conscious than he had been during his 2008 campaign. The first was his nomination on May 25 of Sonia Sotomayor to a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. In announcing the nomination, Obama praised her for possessing the “common touch of compassion,” and recalled remarks he had given in 2007 to Planned Parenthood:

[W]e need somebody who’s got the heart to recognize—the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges.

Obama’s “empathy” standard was soon connected to a remark that Sotomayor herself had made repeatedly over the years, proudly proclaiming herself especially qualified for judicial appointment because she is a “wise Latina.” The attention paid to this in the press made what had already seemed a carefully calculated exercise in diversity politics an explicit exhibition of the genre.

The other event that cut against the “post-racial” characterization of Obama was his off-the cuff remark at a press conference on health care on July 22, when he declared that the Cambridge, Massachusetts police had “acted stupidly” in arresting Professor Henry Louis Gates at his home. Obama knew little of the circumstances of the arrest and appeared to assume that it was racially motivated.

While neither of these developments bore directly on higher education, they proved unsettling to many in colleges and universities who had been making much of the post-racial theme.

On the other hand, the evidence of Obama’s willingness to play a more rugged form of racial politics was welcomed by some. It answered an anxiety that had been expressed not only by the Columbia Law School conferees but in published papers such as Jennifer Holladay and Catherine Smith’s  “A Cautionary Tale: The Obama Coalition, Anti-Subordination Principles and Proposition 8” in the Denver University Law Review (vol. 86) April 2009, which noted that in his November 4 speech in Chicago’s Grant Park claiming victory in the election, Obama failed to elaborate on the significance of race:

Obama’s omission came as no surprise to some—his campaign had been marked by what had been called “race neutrality”—as demonstrated by lines such as “There is not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” These types of statements sparked fear and dismay among many social justice advocates who view such statements as the hallmark of a colorblind racial justice philosophy.

But Holladay and Smith were already alert to what they saw as Obama’s deeper diversiphile commitments:

In this essay we debunk the notion that Barack Obama embraces a philosophy of colorblindness and suggest an alternative interpretation of his racial justice philosophy—one rooted not in colorblindness, but in anti-subordination principles that create space for a multi-faceted approach to dismantling oppression; one that not only counters racial discrimination, but also addresses injustice on the basis of ethnicity, ability, class, sexual orientation and other categories.

They were by and large right, though it has taken some time for the contours of his diversity policies to become more visible.

For instance, early in 2009 Obama created a new position in the Federal Communications Commission for a “chief diversity officer,” and filled it with a lawyer, Mark Lloyd, co-author of the 2007 report for the Center for American Progress, “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio.” Diversity, in this context, meant determination to put obstacles in the way of free political expression. Lloyd explained in a 2007 article, “Forget the Fairness Doctrine,” that his call for more local ownership (“localism”) of broadcast media, was meant to “create greater local diversity of programming.”

Diversity in the Affordable Care Act

President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), March 23, 2010, ushering in a blizzard of new regulations. Among these were some diversity provisions affecting medical education.

One such provision grants priority to medical school programs that have “a record of training individuals who are from underrepresented minority groups or from a rural or disadvantaged background.” As HealthCare.gov, an official government Web site, puts it:

Diversity and cultural competency. The Affordable Care Act expands initiatives to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the health care professions. It also strengthens cultural competency training for all health care providers.

The mandate, of course, has been generally welcomed by medical schools. Indeed the Association of American Medical Colleges wrote to the National Institutes of Health in February 2012 applauding the recommendations of the Working Group in Diversity in the Biomedical Research Workforce.

Other pro-diversity groups have argued that the tilt toward racial and ethnic preferences in health-care education should go still further. A report from the National Hispanic Health Foundation issued in June 2009, “Increasing Diversity in the Health Professions,” called for “new approaches” to “increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the health professions” by “expanding Title VII of the Public Health Service Act to facilitate recruiting and training health-care professionals from underrepresented minority populations.”

Section 5312 (p. 515) authorizes $338-million for advanced nursing-education grants, including “workforce diversity grants,” and section 5404 (p. 531) expanded workforce diversity grants “to be used for diploma and associate degree nurses to enter bridge or degree completion programs” and instructs HHS to “consider recommendations” from the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations.”

In any case, the Affordable Care Act uses “diversity” as a rubric under which members of favored minority groups get preferential access to federal funding for higher education.

Diversity in the “New Civics”

Back in January the White House held a formal event to launch a new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, which crowned the labors of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. I wrote about the report at the time in “Civics Lessons” and have been following it closely since. The Task Force appropriately took note of the decline in what contemporary students know about civics, but by way of repairing it proposed a breathtaking new definition of the subject. Civics is no longer to consist of learning the structure and function of American self-government, but rather college-level training on how to “transform” America. The 105-page report has virtually nothing to say about prosaic subjects such as voting but is thick with rhetoric on “inequality” and “multiculturalism.” The single most prominent concept is “diversity.” In shortest compass the new civics it conjures is diversity indoctrination. And it presents this indoctrination as indispensable to “informed, engaged citizenship.”

Fisher v. Texas

 On February 21, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, a challenge by a student, Abigail Fisher, who argues that she was unfairly denied admission to the University of Texas because of that institution’s racial preferences in admissions. The Fisher case has been working its way through the lower courts since 2008. U.S. District Court upheld the University in 2009, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, citing Justice O’Connor’s 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, agreed.

The story deserves a full telling in its own right, but what is relevant here is the position that the Obama administration took along the way. It took what the Wall Street Journal noted was the “unusual step” of intervening where it didn’t have to by filing its own brief when the case was before the Fifth Circuit. The Obama administration brief declared that the “university’s effort to promote diversity is a paramount government objective.” And it added, “The question is not whether an individual belongs to a racial group, but rather how an individual’s membership in any group may provide deeper understanding of the person’s record and experiences, as well as the contribution she can make to the school.”

This is about as far from “post-racial” as one might get. The University of Texas is in the position of defending racial preferences despite having an admission system since 1997 (a “top ten percent rule” that admits that proportion of students from every high school in the state) that achieves ethnic diversity without racial preferences. The University is in the awkward spot of claiming that overall diversity is not enough. It needs racial preferences in admissions on top of the top-ten-percent rule in order to achieve racial diversity in every single class.

At least in the lower court, the Obama administration finds that to be commendable public policy. It has not yet announced what it will do as the U.S. Supreme Court proceeds.

The university, incidentally, has just replaced its counsel for the case. It had been represented by the Texas Solicitor General, but it has just hired a prominent private attorney, Greg Garre, to take his place. Garre works at Latham and Watkins, which is the firm that defended the University of Michigan in Grutter and Gratz. He was the Solicitor General during the last years of the Bush’s administration.

The DOE and DOJ’s advisory on Grutter

On December 2, 2011, the Obama administration issued separate “guidances” for K-12 schools and for colleges and universities on how they should interpret Justice O’Connor’s opinion in the 2003 Grutter decision. The Bush administration had issued its own interpretation and the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down several subsequent decisions that reinforced the idea that Grutter should be read narrowly. Under those readings, O’Connor’s decision permitted racial preferences in college admissions, but only in circumstances in which (a) the state had found a “compelling interest” in achieving greater racial diversity, (b) the university had exhausted less intrusive (“race neutral”) means of achieving such diversity.

The new “joint guidances” issued simultaneously by the Departments of Justice and Education argue the opposite. They urge schools and colleges to press forward aggressively and confidently to implement racial preferences in admissions. O’Connor is re-read as saying not that the pursuit of diversity could be a compelling state interest, but that it is in fact such an interest (the matter is settled) and that the benefits to be achieved by pursuing it are of such high value that no delay can be brooked in pursuing them.

The advisories were issued at the point when the U.S. Supreme Court was weighing whether to hear the Fisher case and had already signaled (by demanding that Texas submit a brief) that it was taking the matter seriously. It could be that the joint advisories were as much a signal to the Court as they were a communication to the educational community—a signal that the Obama administration is prepared to make a major fight in defense of an expansive interpretation of the Grutter decision.

Obama’s position overall, however, seems likely to disappoint those such as my fellow Innovations blogger, Richard Kahlenberg, who argue that he should adopt an approach of preferences based on class rather than race. He may well favor class-based preferences too, but he shows no sign of retiring racial classification as way of deciding who gets favored in the competition for admission to selective academic programs.

A Means or an End?

What’s missing from all this is an overarching statement from President Obama on how he sees race in America and the pursuit of diversity as a government policy. Actions do speak louder than words and it seems plain that “diversity” is one of his deep concerns. But we don’t really know whether he favors it as a useful tool for advancing other policy goals or whether he regards it as an end in itself. That distinction runs like a chasm between the two camps of diversity advocates. Is “diversity” simply feel-good nostrum that can be sold to the public on the way to achieving a more strenuous division of Americans into identity groups each rooted in its own grievances? Or is “diversity” itself the goal? As in, a society in which “national” identity is permanently dissolved into ethnic identifications and affinity groups that have learned to accommodate each other?

From the beginning of his 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama has presented himself as an advocate for “transforming” America. The pursuit of “diversity” is part of that transformation, but the details are a little murky. This much we can say: his policies are post-post-racial.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on April 19, 2012. 

Image: President Obama and Justice Sotomayor (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)



Obama’s Higher-Ed Agenda (NAS) (Chronicle)

Supersizing: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 1 of 8 (NAS) (Chronicle)

Price Controls: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 2 of 8 (NAS) (Chronicle)

College for All: Obama’s Higher-Education Agenda, Part 3 of 8 (NAS) (Chronicle)

Better Citizens: Obama's Higher-Education Agenda, Part 4A of 8 (NAS) (Chronicle)

More Better Citizens: Obama's Higher-Education Agenda, Part 4B of 8 (NAS) (Chronicle)

Diversity: Obama's Higher-Education Agenda, Part 5 of 8 (NAS) (Chronicle)

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