Columbia Journalism School Dean Emeritus and Professor Nicholas Lemann returned to his home state on Wednesday, Sept. 14, to deliver the 2022 Judge Alvin B. and Janice G. Rubin Visiting Professor Lecture at the Lod Cook Alumni Center, presented by LSU Law.
“I’m very happy to be here today—not just because it’s always great to have an occasion to come home to Louisiana, but also, and especially, because of being given an opportunity to honor the memory of Judge Alvin B. Rubin,” said Lemann at the opening of his lecture. “Alvin and Janice Rubin were good friends of my parents, and I saw a lot of them while I was growing up.”
In his lecture, “The Supreme Court and Civil Rights: the 1950s and 2020s,” Lemann discussed how the nation’s high court wrestled with and ruled on major Civil Rights cases in the past, and what is different about the current court at it issues decisions on related issues that are upending decades of established jurisprudence. Just months after the court issued its ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that dramatically reversed its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, he noted, the court is now set to take up yet another polarizing issue that will have an immediate nationwide impact.
“This fall, the court will have another opportunity to overturn a half-century of jurisprudence on a different topic, affirmative action in admission to universities,” Lemann said, noting the key decision on the issue is the 1978 case of Bakke v. Regents of the University of California has been reaffirmed several times by the court. “That’s where the court ruled that it is impermissible to reserve admissions slots explicitly for members of minority groups, but permissible to consider minority race as a qualitative plus factor in making admissions decisions. The court’s justification was that affirmative action of this kind promoted diversity; if you think about all the times you encounter references to diversity in American life today, you should bear in mind that they originated with that one Supreme Court decision. Such is the influence of the court.”
There are currently two cases before the court—one filed against Harvard University and another against the University of North Carolina—that seek to have the diversity standard overturned and make any consideration of race in admissions impermissible.
“By agreeing to hear these cases, only a few years after it last issued a decision affirming the diversity standard, the court seems to be signaling that it is ready to reverse its previous position on affirmative action as dramatically as it has on abortion,” Lemann said. “If it does that, sometime in the early months of next year, the consequences will be felt, and the reactions will be immediate and strong, at every major university campus, including this one.”
Prior to his lecture, Lemann was the featured guest on the “Talk Louisiana” radio show with Jim Engster, where he spent more than a half hour discussing his upbringing in New Orleans and career, along with the current state of journalism and his lecture. Listen to Lemann’s interview with Engster. Following the radio appearance, Lemann had lunch with some LSU Law students at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center.
Born, raised, and educated in New Orleans, Lemann’s grandfather and father were lawyers, as is his eldest son. But Lemann was attracted to journalism from a very early age, landing his first job at a weekly newspaper in New Orleans when he was just 17 years old. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1976, where he concentrated in American history and literature and was president of the Harvard Crimson. After graduation, his extensive and impressive journalism career included stops at the Washington Monthly, as an associate editor and then managing editor; at Texas Monthly, as an associate editor and then executive editor; at The Washington Post, as a member of the national staff; at The Atlantic Monthly, as national correspondent; and at The New Yorker, as a staff writer and then Washington correspondent.
In September 2003, Lemann became dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and remained in the position through two five-year terms, stepping down in 2013. Today, he teaches there. He also directs Columbia Global Reports, a book publishing venture. From 2017 to 2021, he was the founding director of Columbia World Projects, a new institution that implements academic research outside the university.
Lemann continues to contribute to The New Yorker as a staff writer. His books include “Transaction Man: The Rise of the Deal and the Decline of the American Dream” (2019); “Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War” (2006); “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy” (1999), which helped lead to a major reform of the SAT; “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America” (1991), which won several book prizes.
Lemann currently serves on the boards of the Authors Guild, the Knight First Amendment Institute, the Thomson Reuters Founders Share Company and the Russell Sage Foundation. He is a member of the New York Institute for the Humanities and was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 and a fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2019.
The Judge Alvin B. and Janice G. Rubin Visiting Professor of Law Program provides funds to bring outstanding legal scholars to the LSU Law Center.