A Compelling Interest: Activating the Benefits of Classroom-Level Diversity

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The use of affirmative action admissions practices in U.S. colleges and universities has been a source of contentious public debate and legal battles since the policy’s inception in the 1960s. The legal challenges to race-conscious admissions will continue for the foreseeable future, including renewed court scrutiny on specific universities’ policies (Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin et al., 2013). Although the benefits that arise from a diverse student body are well-documented, it is less clear how that process occurs within the classroom. Using rich qualitative data from a national sample of 203 law students, this study examines classroom-level diversity, consequences when it is absent, and necessary conditions for activating the educational benefits. From the students’ perspective, structural diversity in the classroom is a necessary prerequisite for more enlightening, interesting discussions, which promote better learning outcomes. However, the mere presence of diversity does not necessarily educe these benefits, the diversity must in fact be “activated” (Marin, 2000). Therefore, we find faculty members have the responsibility to create spaces for diverse viewpoints to be heard and to facilitate discussion so all students benefit. We call for training to help faculty take on these roles, along with other implications for policy and practice, concluding that U.S. law schools must do a better job incorporating racial diversity in teaching, learning, and practice, or they will have failed to address a compelling national interest.

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