If ever there were a “hot seat” upon which a major university president could sit, it would undoubtedly be between Harvard law professor Lani Guinier and NAACP legal defense fund head Ted Shaw. As two of the country’s top civil right’s scholars, and as two people profoundly troubled by, and conversant in, the state of diversity and affirmative action, it would take a slick legal-type with civil rights cred of his own to emerge unscathed–especially from at panel entitled “The Future of Diversity: A Discussion on Affirmative Action,” which was held last night at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

PrezBo fits the description, but he still found himself having to strike a very fragile balance. The man wasn’t named the #24 person who’s screwing up America for nothing–he’s the precedent-setting public face of affirmative action, even if he rejected the idea that race is any better an indicator of “diversity” than class or even geography during his opening speech. But he presides over the same kind of monolithic, exclusive institution his co-panelists so vehemently criticized. Shaw, for instance, argued that true diversity was limited by the white establishment’s inability to see race from the perspective of minorities. Guinier spent most of her presentation explaining how institutions have to be diverse at their “core,” and how peripheral diversity (e.g., the superficial “differences in phenotype” achieved through affirmative action) helps insulate and protect higher education’s exclusionary center. Both identified the basic misunderstanding of race on the part of entrenched whites as a crucial social and institutional hurdle.

Bollinger is not just an entrenched white, but an entrenched white with power. Civil rights defender or no, judging by the restive and oftentimes vocal nature of the audience it was lost on no one that Gruinier and Shaw’s presentations were focused on people like him. And with Bollinger’s simultaneous progressive and conservative pressures laid bare (basically the whole pissing off Bernard Goldberg thing versus the whole running a school with a $7 billion endowment thing), he performed brilliantly.

In his opening speech, Bollinger both rejected the uniqueness of race and argued for affirmative action on the sole basis of the educational value of diversity. With typical Bollingerian subtlety, he took the minimalist and institutionally convenient stance that affirmative action is not about race, and that racial equity issues are not primarily about social or historical justice–notions which Grunier and Shaw identified as destructive to the current dialogue on race relations.

Were Bollinger like Ruth Simmons at Brown University, he would have used Guinier’s call for core, institutional changes to make some recommendations of his own. Within a year of becoming the first black president in the history of the Ivy League, Simmons launched a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice to explore the university’s connection to the slave trade, and to begin the process of institutional self-purification that necessarily precedes other long-term, diversity-related goals.

It would be presumptuous to think that Bollinger lacks the imagination or the initiative of a Ruth Simmons. But tonight he stayed on defense, and tactfully rebutted his potential critics in the audience with a statistical profile of the incoming freshman class: fifty percent of the class of 2011 are people of color. Twenty percent are black, Hispanic or Native American. Fourteen percent qualify for Pell grants.

But even if Bollinger was able to negotiate the doubtless uncomfortable territory between social and institutional responsibility, it was Shaw who provided the evening’s most eloquent argument against even trying to negotiate it at all. “I can’t let go of race,” he said, “because race can’t let go of us.” Shaw might have been referring to the dangers of trivializing or misunderstanding issues of race. Or maybe he was warning those who would try to let go of and hold on to race at the same time.