- - Monday, May 27, 2013

“Diversity” worship undermines the upper echelons of American higher education. It’s individualism that our colleges and universities should be seeking.

The U.S. Supreme Court may decide in coming weeks the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, in which Abigail Fisher challenged the school’s rejection of her admission application. Miss Fisher is white and contended lesser-qualified nonwhites were admitted ahead of her on the basis of the university’s diversity-driven affirmative-action plan.

This spring, I taught Introduction to U.S. History at a local community college. My dozen students were quite diverse.

One’s native language was Russian, another’s Portuguese. For one, English was her third tongue. The students or their families came from Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and, of course, the United States.

Some were white, others black, still others Hispanic. Several had children; all worked either part time or full time. They pursued two-year degrees in fields including nursing, information technology and political science. Some planned to go on to four-year colleges.

Diverse in these ways, each was an individual personality transcending the narrow group identities of affirmative action.

Does affirmative action in admissions, hiring, contracting or other government-bestowed group preferences violate the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the letter of the Bill of Rights?

Now-deceased Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell once observed, “Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are … odious to a free people.” Past discrimination against individuals of one group cannot be remedied by present discrimination against individuals of another group.

“Equal justice under law” is etched in stone over the Supreme Court’s entrance. It means, according to an 1891 case, that “no state can deprive particular persons or classes of persons of equal and impartial justice under the law.”

However, affirmative action in pursuit of “diverse” student bodies at prestigious universities does just that, according to Miss Fisher. In general, such policies favor black and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic college applicants while discriminating against whites and Asians of equal or higher scholastic achievement. This affronts the generic diversity that undergirds American nationality and can be seen, for example, in community colleges and “nonselective” public universities across the country.

“E pluribus unum,” Latin for “from many, one,” was America’s motto until superseded by “In God we trust.” It remains inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States and on our coinage.

Our diversity of origin is reflected in the disparate peoples who became Americans. Attracted by liberty and opportunity, a nation of immigrants — and descendants of forcibly transplanted slaves — attempted to forge one citizenry of free and equal individuals.

When an academic institution imposes group identities onto individual applicants to assemble a “diverse” student body, the underlying American principles of freedom and equality suffer.

The University of Texas and other schools claim a well-rounded education requires “a critical mass” of minority students in many classrooms. Really? How do student bodies at traditionally Catholic Notre Dame and traditionally black Howard University, for example, obtain their quality educations when the campuses don’t meet bean-counters’ religious- or racial-diversity criteria?

The diversity that has made the United States the world’s longest-running, most successful experiment in self-rule rests on individual opportunity and the results of virtually infinite free choices. Group identity, in contradiction, becomes caste or class if it is “privileged” over time.

In any case, when a person applies for admission to a relatively selective university, it is too late to compensate with a blunt instrument like affirmative action for an otherwise inadequate educational background. That many American colleges offer courses in remedial reading and study skills testifies that a more pertinent problem begins at much lower levels.

Instead of jury-rigging admissions, let each of the nation’s nearly 3,000 four-year colleges and universities and almost 2,000 two-year schools accept the most academically qualified applicants for which they have room. Let each of those roughly 20 million students freely compete, according to his or her individual merits and efforts.

The United States — in which a record one-third of all those between the ages of 25 and 29 now has earned at least a bachelor’s degree — will be well and fairly served by the highly diverse outcomes.

Eric Rozenman is a Washington-based news media analyst.