Harry Lewis writes for the Martin Center about a new book that explores American higher education’s current woes.

In his new book The Assault on American Excellence, Yale law professor Anthony Kronman traces many of the current woes of American universities back to the use of one word in one opinion in one court case.

That word is “diversity” and the opinion was Justice Lewis Powell’s in the 1978 Bakke case about minority admissions. To consolidate a five-vote majority, Powell’s opinion allowed race to be considered as one factor in the admissions process but ruled out the use of racial quotas or separate minority admissions programs.

Powell’s opinion has, Kronman says, “reshaped every aspect of educational policy and experience. It has bred bureaucracies and changed the mood on campus in ways that undermine the ideas of academic freedom and individual self-discovery that Powell puts at the center of his defense of diversity as an academic good.” Kronman himself supports affirmative action, which he regards as constitutionally permissible “in order to help cure the lingering effects of past discrimination in society at large.” But he argues that Powell’s particular argument for race-consciousness is catastrophically wrong.

The problem, Kronman argues, is that Powell conflated two quite different things.

On the one hand, democracy depends on a premise of equality. As a matter of civic principle and racial justice, all are created equal. But a university is not a democracy. It has teachers and students. It has better students and worse students. It has hierarchy. It is, in a word, an aristocracy—not a social or hereditary aristocracy, but an institution in which individual quality matters and comparisons and rankings require no apology.

It was a tragic mistake, Kronman argues, to impose the rules of democracy in academia. The alleged consequences of this conflation ripple through the book, through its discussions of excellence, speech, diversity, and the renaming of memorials.