Photo of a large university building. Photo by Prayitno, Flickr CC

The high-profile lawsuit filed against Harvard University has reignited debates about race, college, and inequality. The plaintiffs claim that admission practices at Harvard have led to discrimination against Asian-Americans, but their arguments reflect a long line of litigation that claims such practices have led to discrimination against whites. A key point that gets lost in this debate is the pursuit of diversity in college student bodies, which colleges highlight as essential to their students being able to compete in the globalizing, modern world. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Anthony Chen and Lisa M. Stulberg discuss how the pursuit of diversity has a long history in higher education.

The use of race in admissions policies is often linked to the famous Supreme Court case Bakke v. University of California in 1978. There, the Court ruled in favor of universities’ right to consider applicants’ race in admissions as part of a holistic attempt to increase diversity at campuses. This case set the precedent for a diversity rationale in race and admissions, but Chen and Stulberg contend that such frameworks date back even further. They name several notable university figures in mid-20th century America who discussed diversity as an important part of a college experience, such as Harvard’s dean of admissions William J. Bender in 1961 and City College psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, who highlighted the benefits of diversity and multiracial environments in an era were several colleges still practiced racial segregation.

This discussion of the educational benefits of diversity — as well as corresponding changes in admissions practices at some colleges — dates back to at least the 1960s. Yet, Chen and Stulberg argue these ideas are still relevant for society today:

“The world is a big place full of people who are different from one another, and going to a school with a diverse study body is one of the best ways to prepare for it. That common-sense lesson from American history is still worth remembering today.”