Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court struck down affirmative action policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) that allow consideration of racial preferences as a positive factor in admissions. In a footnote in his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts carved out a distinction for race-based admissions preferences by military service academies, noting the “potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor seized on the footnote in her dissent, arguing that the majority concludes that “. . . racial diversity in higher education is only worth potentially preserving insofar as it might be needed to prepare Black Americans and other underrepresented minorities for success in the bunker, not the boardroom (a particularly awkward place to land, in light of the history the majority opts to ignore).”
The Court’s exemption for military academies is unsurprising. National security decision-making is the role of the executive branch and Congress. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has historically been reticent to intervene in matters of national security, and the military’s internal decision-making in particular. The Justices’ language, however, reflects a misunderstanding of a critical purpose of service academies. U.S. service academies and their admissions processes are not solely about success in a bunker. They are about selecting and building the best possible leaders for the United States—a purpose not so distinct from elite civilian institutions.
As noted in separate amicus curiae briefs (“friend of the court” submissions filed with the court by a non-litigant) by the Biden Administration and 35 retired senior military officers, U.S. military readiness depends on having a pipeline of highly qualified officers who have been educated in diverse environments that qualify them to lead increasingly diverse forces. The Administration’s brief also noted that these benefits of affirmative action apply to the service academies and also to public and private civilian universities, which produce the majority of commissioned officers into the armed forces. The brief argued that both service academies and civilian institutions should continue to consider race in order to achieve the considerable educational benefits of diversity.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) recognizes diversity as a national security imperative. As of 2015, DoD defined diversity as “all the different characteristics and attributes of the DoD’s total force, which are consistent with DoD’s core values, integral to overall readiness and mission accomplishment, and reflective of the Nation we serve.” Each military service has further defined diversity. The Air Force, for example, defines diversity “as a composite of individual characteristics, experiences, and abilities consistent with the Air Force core values and mission.” The Air Force further delineates different types of diversity, including demographic diversity, which includes racial diversity; cognitive and behavioral diversity, diversity of career background and experience with foreign languages and cultures.
Through its diversity policies, the military accepts a theory of access and legitimacy embraced by both the public and private sectors. This theory suggests that a workforce that mirrors the consumer marketplace will achieve the best market position. Under this theory, A military that mirrors the diversity of America will improve its ability to represent and serve the nation. Just as customers will relate to sales representatives that look like them, soldiers will respond to officers who look like them. Americans will be most willing to join a military looks like them—critical for maintaining an all-volunteer force. Americans will also be more willing to rally behind a military that represents them during times of strife. Our service members’ will to fight will be bolstered by the legitimacy of truly representing America. Given that service members are the face of the United States that many foreigners see, a diverse military best represents the United States before the world, and enables the United States to strengthen its partnerships and alliances with diverse nations and groups.
Diversity is also linked to enhanced team and mission effectiveness. Research has consistently shown that diverse groups typically display more creative problem-solving methods and improved decision-making skills and are more innovative. In short, diversity creates a more efficient, agile, innovative, and effective fighting force. Diversity therefore gives the United States a distinct advantage over our adversaries – a military necessity.
Most Harvard and UNC graduates will not volunteer to fight in armed conflict. That aside, the interests of service academies and civilian institutions—particularly elite civilian institutions—are not so distinct. The same benefits of diversity are critical for graduates of civilian universities, the teams they will join and lead, and the betterment of the United States. A goal of any institution of higher education should be for its graduates to have the skills and opportunity to join the highest ranks of achievement and leadership in society. Degree-holders from powerful, elite academic institutions have a tremendous leg up in getting there. Knowing this, service academies place an obsessive focus on leadership on and off the battlefield. Ivy League universities take their role in training future leaders extraordinarily seriously—as do many others. Service academies and civilian universities have historically produced American leaders at the highest levels that work alongside each other, both in and out of uniform. To maintain American competitiveness in the world and prevail over our adversaries, both military and civilian leaders must be capable of good decision-making, creative problem-solving, innovation, and building and leading diverse teams.
The majority and dissent’s failure to delineate the “distinct” interests of the military, and to reduce those interests to leadership in a bunker, inflames public discourse—especially given the ugly history that Justice Sotomayor highlighted. Representative Jason Crow, a former Green Beret, blasted the decision as “outright grotesque,” and “reinforcing the notion that these communities can sacrifice for America but not be full participants in every other way.” However, the majority could not delineate the “distinct interests” of service academies without undermining its own argument—because their core interests are alike. Military and civilian institutions alike share an interest in building the best possible leaders, innovators, problem-solvers, and decision-makers for the United States of America.
Interestingly, the military may provide a solution to admissions officers’ new diversity dilemma. One reason the Supreme Court struck down the Harvard and UNC programs is that their goals of “training future leaders, acquiring new knowledge based on diverse outlooks, promoting a robust marketplace of ideas, and preparing engaged and productive citizens” were not measurable or “coherent.” In recent years, the military has invested extensive resources into studying the importance of diversity. And service academies are a ready-made leadership laboratory: perhaps no student population has been more studied by leadership scholars than cadets and midshipmen. The Court may uphold future policies that link diversity considerations to measurable outcomes. The military, and service academies in particular, stand at the vanguard in this area. By refusing to touch service academy policies, the Supreme Court has called the United States military to serve and lead.
Disclosure: The author is a Professor at the National Defense University (NDU), which is part of the U.S. Department of Defense. NDU is not a service academy and has a different admissions process than service academies; NDU students are senior leaders selected by their military services, agencies, and countries to attend. She attended Harvard University for her A.M. and Ph.D. in Government. As always, her views are her own and do not reflect those of Harvard University, the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or any other arm of the U.S. Government.
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