Op-Ed: Segregated campus spaces prove the ends do not justify the means when it comes to diversity in higher education

Unfortunately for students, segregating them based on their race overshadows the commonality of their shared college experiences with what universities present as perceived divisions and irreconcilable differences.

Higher education is facing a diversity dilemma and universities cannot have it both ways. 

America’s colleges trumpet their unflinching support for racial diversity through institutional policies and statements on websites – which purportedly prepares students to live and work in an increasingly diverse workplace and society –but then pursue those goals by separating and segregating students according to race. 

Universities cannot have it both ways. When it comes to diversity, schools’ purported ends to foster diversity and the means they employ – separate spaces that operate effectively as segregation – are in conflict with one another. 

Last week, for example, Campus Reform reported on Bank Street Graduate School of Education’s separate “affinity groups” for White students and “Students of Color.”  

In its September 23 announcement, the New York City institution encouraged students to participate in these groups in order to facilitate an ongoing conversation about race and its impact on society.  

Similar racially segregated programs have been reported by Campus Reform at Western Washington University and American University, each of which recently established “Black Affinity Housing.” 

[RELATED: NYU student newspaper defends Black student-only housing, denies it's 'segregation']

 Earlier this spring, Columbia University hosted six graduation ceremonies in addition to its traditional Baccalaureate commencement program. Those separate commencement programs were designed for students based on, among other characteristics, race, ethnicity, and gender identity.  

Columbia also encourages and permits separate student housing based on race, ethnicity, indigenous status, first-generation status, and gender identity.

Similarly, Emory University justified offering separate housing for first-year Black women by claiming it will promote networking and permit these students to “articulate a version of self-authorship, which is one’s own ability to cultivate their own internal voice.”  

Consequently, the trend of segregating students based on immutable characteristics has the National Association of Scholars describing the practice as resembling a modern, albeit more palatable, version of the discriminatory and unconstitutional "separate but equal" doctrine.

Minority students are “simply conscripted to the new racially segregated normal,” the National Association of Scholars stated on its website in 2019. 

Unfortunately for students, segregating them based on their race overshadows the commonality of their shared college experiences with what universities present as perceived divisions and irreconcilable  differences.

In 2003, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, warned higher education against segregating students under the pretense of promoting student diversity and inclusion.  

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the use of race as a factor in college admission decisions to achieve a racially diverse student body.

The case involved a White female college applicant who alleged that the school’s consideration of race as part of the admissions process amounted to racial discrimination under federal law. At the time, the school’s admission decisions were made based on its consideration of a variety of factors, including a student’s race, in order to achieve a racially diverse student body.  

[RELATED: Segregation art project sparks uproar at SUNY Buffalo]

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court accepted the school’s claims of the substantial, important, and laudable educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce.

In his fiery dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia expressed skepticism of the admission scheme employed by the school and those administrators, who in court professed an enthusiastic commitment to multiculturalism.  

Scalia wrote, “Tempting targets [for lawsuits], one would suppose, will be those universities that talk the talk of multiculturalism and racial diversity in the courts but walk the walk of tribalism and racial segregation on their campuses through minority-only student organizations, separate minority housing opportunities, separate minority student centers, even separate minority-only graduation ceremonies.”

At the time, some may have discounted Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion as the cynical musings of a conservative jurist. Now, with the benefit of time, Justice Scalia’s words appear prophetic and cast a long shadow over the current trend of racial and other segregation occurring throughout higher education.  

His cautionary note also raises legitimate questions about the continued value and necessity previously attributed to achieving student body diversity if, once admitted, students and their institutions conspire to impose self-segregating programs and activities.     

Segregated campus spaces are exactly the type of exclusionary – not inclusionary – activities that Justice Scalia cautioned against. 

 If colleges and universities continue to promote student segregation in this manner, they will indeed become, as prophesized by Justice Scalia, “tempting targets” for legitimate legal action intent on dismantling and eliminating higher education affirmative action programs and race-based admission decisions.  

Don’t say that Justice Scalia didn’t warn you.