Columbia's Lee Bollinger added that he supports affirmative action in academia, saying universities are where young people with distinct cultural backgrounds and experiences are brought from all over the world to be educated.
"We (universities) bring people together from different parts of the country, geographic diversity. We bring people together from different parts of the world. We want international diversity. We want students from different parts of the socio-economic spectrum," he told his National Press Club audience in Washington.
Bollinger's appearance came one day after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Graty v. Bollinger.
They involve a "reverse discrimination" case filed by a rejected law student applicant against the administration of the University of Michigan law school. Bollinger was university president during the period.
"We made several decisions. One was to defend the lawsuits as vigorously and fully as possible. The second was to take this issue to the public and to explain candidly and openly and as persuasively as we could the reasons why this was important," Bollinger said.
"It was a major decision to link the issue to the great Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, when the Supreme Court said that separate but equal was no longer an acceptable constitutional principle for our society and you could not discriminate in education against African-Americans," he added.
He said that at stake in the case "is all of higher education" and that "all selective universities have joined in to support this."
"We want racial diversity -- this is the way America is stronger, and we think that will happen because the young people who have learned in this environment will be better able to cross boundaries that exist in the society to this day," he said.
Bollinger said his goal at Michigan was to defend the school's position by articulating the importance of racial diversity in colleges and universities throughout the country. He continues to do same thing at Columbia. Bollinger added that the issue is supported by mainstream America.
Bollinger is a graduate of the University of Oregon. He clerked for three federal judges, including former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, before joining the Michigan law faculty in 1973, where he was named dean in 1987. He was named University of Michigan president in 1996.