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The Need for Diversity in Higher Education

Bollinger, Lee C. JD

Academic Medicine:
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The author states that there is a need in all higher education, including the health professions, for racial, ethnic, and other kinds of diversity, and describes two court cases involving the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law school affirmative action admission policies. The outcomes of these cases will profoundly affect the quality of U.S. higher education, professional education, and graduate education.

Affirmative action is one of the tools that many universities use to ensure the kind of comprehensively diverse student body that helps teach students to participate fully in this country's heterogeneous democracy and the global economy. Students are exposed to classmates with different life experiences, their prior assumptions are challenged, and they discover what they and their classmates have in common. And a variety of Fortune 500 corporations state that employees and managers who graduated from institutions with diverse student bodies demonstrate a variety of key skills that are crucial in the U.S. workplace.

The author discusses why “colorblind” and “socioeconomically oriented” admission policies do not work and that they have only a tiny effect on white students' chances of acceptance. Until K–12 education is greatly improved for minorities, affirmative action is needed to give a “leg up” to students who might not otherwise be admitted but who can do the academic work. In medical education, there is a special urgency for diversity, since it is known that minority physicians are more likely to practice in areas where there are high concentrations of minorities.

Author Information

Mr. Bollinger is president, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, New York.

Correspondence should be sent c/o Michael E. Whitcomb, MD, Association of American Medical Colleges, 2450 N Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037.

This article is a slightly edited version of the author's Herbert W. Nickens Memorial Lecture, given on November 6, 2001, at the annual meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges, Washington, D.C.

Editor's note: Much has happened since late 2001, when Lee Bollinger gave the speech that is printed below. But the issues he raises about the implications of the University of Michigan's law and undergraduate admission policies remain just as—if not more—important today as the Supreme Court prepares its 2003 decision on those policies.

© 2003 Association of American Medical Colleges