What we want the Supreme Court to know about race and admissions

Editor’s note: This op-ed first appeared in the Oct. 30, 2022, editions of The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer.

On Oct. 31, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will appear before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that diversity on campus is essential​. We are making our case for the value of diversity not only for our campus but for the thousands of colleges and universities that have been working for decades to provide the opportunity of higher education to all Americans who want to go to college.

As chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of the faculty for 27 years, I have a front row seat to the impact of a diverse student body and why it is important for the future of our nation. If we take seriously our obligation, as outlined in our charter, to “prepare a rising generation” for the responsibilities of our democracy, we must ensure graduates are ready to embrace this country’s remarkable pluralism.

Race is only one aspect of that diversity, but it is critical, and we cannot have the diverse environment we need without taking it into account.

Every year, we welcome students from all walks of life and teach them how to live and learn together. We prepare them for our global society by providing a rich experience where they learn to think critically, embrace differences, and forge common ground — qualities we know employers need.

Our country’s future depends on these students. It faces threats and we need resilient democratic institutions filled with bright, energetic young people with idealism and vision to make the world a better place. Our university’s responsibility, along with every other university, is to prepare them to tackle the grand challenges facing our world.

Diversity is part of the greatness of our student body. We consider everything we know about each student who applies, including their race, because each one has a unique story. No single factor ever decides admission. But taken together, they help us create a Carolina education that prepares everyone for the ​world that awaits beyond graduation.

Race affects our students’ lives. It shapes their experience and perspectives in different ways. To deny that race is a part of our students’ experience is to deny reality.

A federal ​court ruled that our holistic admissions process complies with established law. Now the Supreme Court is weighing whether universities may continue to use race as one factor among many in admissions decisions. At Carolina, we are firmly committed to diversity in all forms and its importance for our students’ education. Other public universities in states that have banned race-conscious admissions have faced enormous difficulty achieving diversity when race is excluded from that equation.

The roster of supportive voices for Carolina’s position before the Supreme Court runs from Christian advocacy organizations to research scientists to the American G.I. Forum. They emphasize the need for a big and diverse democracy to speak to the aspirations of all its people and leverage the ambition and insight of all its students. Thirty-five former senior military leaders called the diversity of our nation and our armed forces “critical for mission effectiveness” in addressing challenges around the world.

We are building better citizens at Carolina, and if we remove race as one of the many factors we consider in admission decisions, we jeopardize that effort. Our students are preparing to enter diverse workforces, and if they do not have experience on group projects, or in their dorm rooms, with people who have different perspectives, they will fall short of their potential.

As one of our students so eloquently put it at a recent public event, “the diversity of my fellow classmates breathed life into the classroom and the curriculum.”

Besides being the Chancellor of this university, I am also the parent of two Carolina students. ​They lived and learned from people who see their shared country and shared campus through different eyes and different life experiences. They experienced how friendship across differences can widen your sense of the world and enrich your life.

That’s what most of us want for our children. It is what we want for our fellow citizens. I am glad we are able to build a university and country where we can live and learn together while embracing those differences.