Professor Susan Sturm ’s path to the law wound through work she did long before she got to law school—in the Head Start program, at a school for disabled kids and in a foster home. Over time she began to see that you can’t achieve lasting change if you work with only one person at a time.
Now, as the George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility and the founding director of the law school ’s Center for Institutional and Social Change , Sturm is tackling public problems with a variety of tools that go beyond traditional legal approaches. Her yearlong seminar for upper-level law and graduate students, “Diversity and Innovation,” explores how to advance institutional and social change at a time of growing inequality and shrinking confidence in public institutions’ capacity for effective action. The seminar connects scholarship and the real world, teaching students how to frame problems, develop multidisciplinary knowledge and advance a wide range of civic goals such as educational opportunities for underserved communities and full workplace participation, including for the formerly incarcerated.
Not surprisingly, Sturm is at the center of a group of academics weighing a response to an affirmative action case that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear in its next term. Fisher v. University of Texas could reverse what was considered settled law in Grutter v. Bollinger, a nearly 10-year-old decision in which the court ruled 5-4 that diversity in higher education is a compelling educational value that allows colleges and universities to factor race into admission decisions. The named defendant, Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger , was president of the University of Michigan when that case started and, like Sturm, has continued to promote the value of diversity in higher education. “Susan has enormous dedication to these issues,” says Bollinger. “She brings to bear a broad perspective and intelligence in addressing essential matters of fairness and equal opportunity in our society.”
Typically, Sturm is looking beyond whatever decision the Supreme Court may hand down in Fisher and drawing on the center’s work to promote diversity in institutional culture. “We need to be thinking long-term about the ways in which higher education institutions can be more inclusive and democratic institutions,” she said. “How does that get done whatever the court rules?”
Q. What drew you to this aspect of law involving institutional change?
When I was at Yale Law School in the 1970s, I worked on a project in Rhode Island where a special master had been appointed to deal with sentencing disparities in a lawsuit over prison conditions. It quickly became apparent that many of the litigation fixes were undercut by prison overcrowding resulting from sentencing policies, which the court didn’t directly control. So it showed me that you have to think about litigation in a much broader context and connect it to more systemic strategies for achieving institutional change. I got money to research other prison systems overseen by special masters and wrote an article called, “Mastering Interventions in Prisons.” That article won an award, and that started to open my eyes to the fact that I could have an impact through research on institutional change.
Q. What was it exactly that you wanted to do?
I became intrigued by how you can pull together a range of tools and knowledge to address complex problems. In one of the seminars I teach, I ask my students, “How do you enable other people to realize their goals for themselves and their communities?” Because that’s what lawyers do at their best—mobilize knowledge and resources to solve problems and realize affirmative agendas. Whether they are litigators framing a settlement, leaders of organizations or “gladiator” type lawyers, they bring together multiple forms of knowledge to figure out how to build structural solutions. And there are all kinds of different tools they use—traditional litigation, legislation, administrative agency action, and institutional design and networking. It requires working in a variety of arenas that set the public agenda, such as professional associations responsible for industry standards, public and private funders that determine how grant recipients including schools, universities and employers do their work, and the media, which has become a key focus for shaping public values.
Q. Did you have any particular mentor when you were formulating your ideas about the law?
The person who inspired my idea of the law the most was [Yale Law School Professor] Robert Cover (LAW’68), who died very young, unfortunately. But his idea of law really continues to inspire me to this day. Through his writing, teaching, and civil rights commitments, he gave law a profoundly transformative meaning. I refer to his legacy whenever I tell students that to live in the legal world “requires that one integrate not only the ‘is’ and the ‘ought,’ but the ‘is,’ the ‘ought,’ and the ‘what might be.’”
Q. How did your work as a lawyer lead you into the areas of higher education, testing and affirmative action?
It starts with the idea of a society with full participation and institutional citizenship. The next step is thinking about how bias and discrimination have to be addressed in order to move toward that affirmative vision.
Q. The project you do in your seminar “Diversity and Innovation” focuses on the architecture of inclusion in higher education. How is that addressed?
We’re collaborating with partners such as Imagining America, Syracuse University, Rutgers and the New York Reentry Education Network to identify strategies that advance what we call “institutional citizenship.” That involves enabling full participation in higher education by people from all communities and backgrounds, in combination with increasing participation of higher education institutions in tackling difficult challenges facing communities. If you only try to eliminate discrimination, you won’t address persistent inequality because discrimination only accounts for a part of that. So the idea is that just as law needs to be linked to other practices to achieve change, legal concepts like discrimination must be linked to broader visions of affirmative ideas and ideals.
Q. Which brings us to the Fisher case. What’s being done there?
We are working with a variety of organizations on an amicus brief. Amicus briefs are both an opportunity to share ideas with the Supreme Court that you hope will clarify the assumptions that are driving the case and to show how diversity and affirmative action work in ways that aren’t obvious. Fisher is a key moment to participate in the public conversation about what we mean by diversity. It is important to share with the court the evidence that diversity is intertwined with effective public problem-solving in America’s cities, where a majority of our nation resides, building leadership, and realizing higher education’s role as a critical site to full participation and opportunity.
Q. So you would argue that an educational institution like Columbia isn’t there just to educate the people who are within its walls?
Right. I co-chaired a project for the Ford Foundation on building transformative leadership. And that project was really about how higher education institutions are positioned to be a space that creates the capacity to tackle these tough problems. Leadership development happens not by just taking someone and saying, “Here are some skills you need.” It happens by bringing multigenerational cohorts of people together to solve problems.
Q. Do many people assume that the issue of affirmative action in higher education has been settled?
It’s an issue that we don’t know how to talk about. And an important part of the work is to figure out how people who actually agree about many things can work together. Most people agree that every kid should have an opportunity to have a quality education, and that that should not be determined by where they grow up, and that quality education is an important part of being able to participate fully in your community. If we can agree on that, perhaps we can also agree to look at the patterns that affect who is and who is not able to get a quality education. And when those patterns reveal that in many communities, issues of class, race, gender and economic status determine whether you have access to the resources that determine your life chances, I think you can have a conversation that includes race. But we need to be able to talk about it in a way that isn’t about zero sum. Race is often the presenting problem, but once you look below the surface it’s about all of the complexity of who is and who isn’t being included. And that examination leads to the pursuit of full participation, which ultimately builds institutions that enable people from all backgrounds to enter, succeed and thrive.
— by Bridget O’Brian
At an April 18 World Leaders Forum event , prominent Columbia physicists and two of the nation’s top science journalists discussed the questions, “What if we find the Higgs particle? And what if we don’t?" (Introduction by President Bollinger—10:17; panel discussion—1:00:06)
Four Columbia faculty have been named research fellows by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which awards two-year, $50,000 grants to support the work of exceptional young researchers early in their careers. The fellows are: Xi Chen, assistant professor of computer science; Valentino Tosatti, Joseph Fels Ritt Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics; Jonathan Vogel, assistant professor of economics; and Junfeng Yang, assistant professor of computer science.