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A Princeton President, Special Collections, and Supreme Court Precedents

This post is the second this week concerning recent Supreme Court decisions and their relation to materials housed within Princeton University Library’s Special Collections. Please see the Special Collections post on the Indian Child Welfare Act for more.

By Dan Linke

The Supreme Court’s recent decision on the place of race in college admissions has two historical connections to Princeton University.  In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the high court curtailed or possibly eliminated the ability to take race into account as one factor among many in a holistic admission process, effectively overturning both the 1978 Bakke and the 2003 Bollinger cases. For these earlier cases, Princeton University Library’s public policy holdings are a source of insight into the history of these now overturned decisions, primarily through the records of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  Also of interest, Princeton President William G. Bowen’s work was cited in both sets of decisions.

A group of African American students wearing caps and gowns
Students at Princeton University Commencement, ca. 1988. Admission Office Records (AC152), Box 3, Folder 6.

The ACLU had long fought racial discrimination dating back to its defense of the 1937 Scottsboro case, its opposition to Japanese internment during World War II, and its advocacy for the end of school segregation with Brown v. Board of Education.  The Bakke case (officially known as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke) presented a challenge to the ACLU as they internally debated strategies to remedy decades of discrimination, believing in the value of diversity, but not in rigid quotas as contrary to the principle of equal treatment under the law.  Consequently, their amicus brief on the case landed close to the Supreme Court’s decision that banned the use of racial quotas but permitted the consideration of race as a factor in admissions.  With the later Bollinger cases (officially Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger), the ACLU took a more active approach, joining with a number of other organizations to represent undergraduate African American and Latino applicants, but its philosophy remained the same as in Bakke.1  The Supreme Court affirmed the “narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”  (In the recently decided Students… case, two regional ACLU offices submitted an amicus brief arguing that “diversity remains a compelling interest in higher education.”)

Bill Bowen
Bill Bowen *58, 1995. Nat Clymer Photograph Collection (AC425), Box 2.

However, the other University connection to both the Bakke and Bollinger cases is William G. Bowen, Princeton’s president from 1972-1988, who was cited affirmatively in both.  In Bakke, Bowen is quoted in a footnote (#48) in this decision that allowed universities and colleges to increase student diversity.  Given Princeton’s history on race, there was some irony in this, because for much of its history, Princeton routinely denied admission to African Americans based on their skin color.  However, while its Ivy League peers began admitting people of color starting in the late 19th century, Princeton would not admit its first Black undergraduate students until the end of World War II. Even then, Princeton initially resisted legally required integration, and thereafter the number of Black students was anemic until the middle 1960s, when the University initiated efforts to recruit and retain Black students that slowly increased their numbers.

But Bowen was a prominent advocate for affirmative action in higher education, and during his presidency, he continued Princeton’s efforts to diversify, much to the consternation of some alumni.  In an article he wrote for the Princeton Alumni Weekly (“Admissions and the Relevance of Race,” Sept. 26, 1977), he argued the value of diversity’s benefits, and it was this passage that was cited in the Bakke decision:

[A] great deal of learning occurs informally. It occurs through interactions among students of both sexes; of different races, religions, and backgrounds; who come from cities and rural areas, from various states and countries; who have a wide variety of interests, talents, and perspectives; and who are able, directly or indirectly, to learn from their differences and to stimulate one another to reexamine even their most deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world. As a wise graduate of ours observed in commenting on this aspect of the educational process, ‘People do not learn very much when they are surrounded only by the likes of themselves.’…

In the nature of things, it is hard to know how, and when, and even if, this informal ‘learning through diversity’ actually occurs. It does not occur for everyone. For many, however, the unplanned, casual encounters with roommates, fellow sufferers in an organic chemistry class, student workers in the library, teammates on a basketball squad, or other participants in class affairs or student government can be subtle and yet powerful sources of improved understanding and personal growth.

Bowen addressed diversity throughout his tenure, including this passage from his 1982 Commencement address:

I am concerned about our commitment, as a people, to the idea of opportunity—to the proposition that education of the highest quality ought to be available on the basis of individual qualifications, not simply financial means… The present-day diversity of the student body at Princeton is not something separate from the University’s commitment to educational excellence; it is required by it.

After leaving Princeton in 1988, he chaired the board of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation,  which funded research and programs aimed at increasing diversity in higher education.  However, perhaps his most important contribution to the diversity debate came when he and former Harvard president Derek Bok co-authored the influential The Shape of the River, a 1998 book filled with empirical data gleaned from over 60,000 students from 28 schools covering 13 years that demonstrated the benefits of diversity. In their foreword, they wrote:

This book is an attempt to chart what race-sensitive admission policies have meant over a long stretch of the river—both to the individuals who were admitted and to the society that has invested in their education and that counts so heavily on their future leadership.

The book was cited in the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Bollinger, and Bowen noted with satisfaction that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor applied its reasoning in her majority opinion.  However, in the recent Students… case, there is no mention of Bowen and Bok’s work in any of the opinions.

1Please note that some of the materials pertaining to the Bollinger cases are not yet open to researchers as per the ACLU’s records policy involving attorney-client privilege.


Admission Office Records (AC152)

American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001)

Nat Clymer Photograph Collection (AC425)

Princeton Alumni Weekly

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