The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hear Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, in which the university will defend its consideration of race in admissions. As an alumnus of this great American research university and as an executive who has spent a lifetime building businesses, I am doubly invested in the outcome.
The societal reasons to care about diversity alone are sufficient to support efforts to increase it within education. But I have learned that a diversified student population also has positive implications for a company’s bottom line. And I’m not alone. Indeed, some 57 of America’s best-known corporations have filed a brief with the court in support of the university’s policy, including Abbott Laboratories, Xerox, Walmart, Starbucks, IBM, Dell, Shell, PepsiCo, and Procter & Gamble. In the brief, these companies state unequivocally that the “conscious pursuit of diversity” is a “business and economic imperative.”
While it’s important for universities in general to be diverse, it’s even more important that our national research universities be so. Business leaders are not just concerned about getting more minorities into the workforce, although that certainly is an important goal in and of itself. We also want to get more ethnic diversity into the executive suite, into business leadership. Education like that offered at our nation’s flagship universities develops people to be leaders, whether in business, nonprofit organizations or government. The ethnic diversity of a leadership team has a direct bearing on the success of the organization. And in my own board service, I have frequently heard fellow directors lament that corporate boards need more diversity. Indeed, no less critical an institution than the U.S. Department of Defense is on the university’s side, as the military has joined other federal agencies in filing an amicus brief in this case. There are some differences between business and the military, but the similarities are both numerous and obvious — the need for mutual trust and teamwork within an organization, the enhanced ability to work in a variety of environments, the ability to lead diverse people and to collaborate with people of diverse cultures, and diversity of leadership as a safeguard against discrimination, to name just a few.
Diverse leaders are better able to understand, anticipate and penetrate diverse markets. They more readily comprehend the variety of consumer needs and desires specific to particular groups, and therefore more effectively develop products and services that appeal to many different consumer markets. As the world shrinks, the need for diverse leaders grows even more acute.
Diverse managers and executives also create a more positive work environment by decreasing incidents of discrimination and stereotyping. They enrich the mix of ideas that can lead to stronger products and better services. And leaders educated on a diverse campus are better prepared to function in the global economy.
To really see the value of conscious efforts to diversify college campuses, businesses need only look at their own hiring practices. They do not seek to fill quotas, nor do they hire employees on the basis of a single test score. Rather, great companies seek to hire the most qualified group of employees while taking into account all of the traits that might enrich their workplaces and strengthen their businesses.
The University of Texas at Austin takes the same approach with its holistic admissions policies, which are necessary to educating culturally competent leaders and minority leaders in our increasingly diverse state and nation.
University admission decisions, and the education and training students gain access to when admitted to UT-Austin and similar institutions, play a crucial role in determining who will be in the candidate pool for employers. When businesses make decisions about hiring and promotion, it is critical that they be able to draw from a superior pool of candidates — both minority and non-minority.
The Supreme Court should allow all universities — and especially our nation’s selective flagship research universities — to pursue diverse classes of excellent students, for the sake of the students and the quality of their educations, for the sake of a society still striving to bestow opportunity more equally across its many populations and, yes, for the sake of healthy businesses and all of the benefits they contribute to society.
American companies can compete with the world’s best. But they need the talent, creativity and resourcefulness of a workforce as diverse as the world around us all.
Kenneth Jastrow is former chairman and CEO of Temple-Inland and an alumnus of the University of Texas at Austin.