Columbia Law School Co-Sponsors A National Forum on Innovation And Collaboration


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December 12, 2008 (NEW YORK) – “Lawyers must move beyond simply saying what the law permits and prohibits,” said Columbia Law School Professor Susan Sturm, “and place themselves squarely in a relationship that advances full participation in our democracy in a lawful manner.”

The director of the Law School’s Center for Institutional and Social Change, Sturm co-organized “The Future of Diversity and Opportunity in Higher Education: A National Forum on Innovation and Collaboration,” held December 3-5, 2008 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

More than 350 noted presidents, educators, practitioners, policymakers, leaders of education initiatives, and researchers from around the country gathered for the groundbreaking conference to learn more about the nation’s most innovative programs on diversity and reconnecting higher education to its public mission.

Many participants felt that the current economic crisis combined with a new political environment creates an opportunity to embed diversity and inclusion at the core of their institutions.

The conference, sponsored by the Center for Institutional and Social Change; Columbia University; Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; and the College Board, commenced with two successive presidential panel discussions devoted to understanding how leadership sustains day-to-day efforts surrounding diversity while helping other institutions scale up similar initiatives and embed them into national policy.

During the evening’s first panel, titled “Setting the Stage,” Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger and Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick were the featured speakers.

Rutgers General Counsel Jonathan Alger, who led the evening’s first talk, elicited hearty laughter when he remarked how odd it was that a conference on diversity would lead with a panel comprising three white males. Still, as he recalled, it was Bollinger who “led the fight for diversity,” defending the historic 2003 affirmative action cases that were heard while he was president of the University of Michigan (and that bear his name).

With an eye toward yet another milestone, Bollinger cautioned that the “extraordinary election of Barack Obama and the justified sense of pride” it has inspired should not obscure the fact that even today some of the problems addressed at the time of Brown v. Board of Education remain. “Many cities, major cities especially, are as segregated, [if not] more than they were in 1960 or 1955,” Bollinger said.

Inclusion is “a matter of choice” at private universities such as Columbia, Bollinger added, noting that today’s challenging economy was no excuse for retrenchment. Traditional incentives and inducements are often used to advance diversity. But, in times of constricted resources, institutional courage is necessary to directly attack resistance, he said.

For those charged with advancing diversity, figures and statistics can be misleading. According to McCormick, more than 50 percent of Rutgers students identify as non-white but most students of color hail from suburban areas. The Rutgers president said a plan launched this year would guide 50 underprivileged eighth-grade students per year through the balance of their secondary education, with a pledge of tuition-free enrollment for those accepted at Rutgers.

Columbia University is partnering with the City of New York to develop a public school for science, engineering and math that will admit 40 percent of the class from upper Manhattan, while the Columbia Dental School has built its diversity strategy around reducing health disparities in Northern Manhattan and on a national scale.

Bold initiatives were also the subject of the second panel, “Meeting the Challenges: The Role of Leadership,” composed of presidents with a track record of innovation and led by Sturm. University presidents Nancy Cantor (Syracuse University), Freeman Hrabowski (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) and Anthony Marx (Amherst College) outlined programs integrating diversity into their core missions and discussed the importance of faculty diversity. “The so-called achievement gap is not an achievement gap, it’s not an ability gap – it’s an opportunity gap,” Cantor said.

On Thursday, the first full day of the conference, panelists appearing at a half-dozen talks widely concluded that the traditional concept of “merit” undervalues potential among groups currently left out of higher educational opportunity.

Instead of focusing on test performance and U.S. News and World Report rankings, merit should be evaluated by how students and faculty will contribute to the society through advancing public citizenship, knowledge, entrepreneurship and innovation. “Merit has become a prize, a reputational index,” said Lani Guinier, the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard University, in a plenary panel called “Reconnecting Merit and the Mission of Higher Education: Innovative Frameworks and Strategies.” She added, “Education is a public treasure and universities should be tapping the talent that exists in all populations.”

Reed College President Colin Diver said he had adopted an admissions paradigm that evaluates applicants through a system that screens for “Five I’s”: intellectual, inquisitive, inquiring, independent and interdependent. The college has doubled its minority enrollment to 25 percent in addition to attracting unusual but qualified students of all types, according to Diver.

As the conference drew to a close, many speakers made the case for diversity in higher education as a pipeline for an American workforce that will increasingly rely on a varied labor market to meet the challenges of a global economy. They vowed to harness their efforts through the Center for Institutional and Social Change’s website,, where Columbia Law School students working with the Center posted blogs about the proceedings throughout the three-day conference.

Another theme repeatedly sounded as the conference concluded was the power of effectively framing the argument to advance diversity. Some panelists suggested diversity furthers democracy by advancing pluralism over exclusivity, while others encouraged a broad view of the concept that encompasses not only race and ethnicity but also gender, class and sexuality.

During the conference’s last panel, participants looked forward, exploring steps to sustain and institutionalize significant changes and collaborative efforts. Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, armed with alarming statistics, highlighted the disparity in graduation rates among institutions within their own peer groups. Haycock also convincingly demonstrated that institutional financial aid is often used to promote selectivity over diversity with the objective of improving college rankings. “Financial aid is not going to those most in need,” she said. “Poor lottery ticket buyers are supporting middle-class students in achieving a college education.”

Panel members argued in favor of developing systems of accountability within government and academia. Susan Sturm, the Center’s director, pulled together the conference proceedings with the framework of an architecture of inclusion to sustain and scale up local innovation and provide democratic accountability.

Founded in 2007, the Center for Institutional and Social Change has become a facilitator of innovation and collaboration for scholars, practitioners and students striving to address structural inequality through institutional transformation. Housed at Columbia Law School and begun as a pilot collaboration with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), the overarching goal of the Center is to develop new frameworks, strategies, roles and institutions for effective institutional and social change directed at addressing structural inequality and achieving inclusive institutions.

Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School joins traditional strengths in international and comparative law, constitutional law, administrative law, business law and human rights law with pioneering work in the areas of intellectual property, digital technology, sexuality and gender, criminal and environmental law.