Whether in the context of police brutality, gender equality, or systemic racism, the issues of our time often seem to echo those of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Now, as the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a decades-long precedent allowing colleges and universities to consider an applicant’s race in college admissions, we again find ourselves at a crossroads in civil rights,
Court rulings in June 2023 deemed affirmative action unlawful for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment in two cases involving both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, while Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissenting opinion on the ruling.
“Because Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points, those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” Roberts wrote.
The ruling does not prohibit consideration of race in college application essays: “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion described the 6-3 decision as rolling back “momentous progress.”
“It holds that race can no longer be used in a limited way in college admissions to achieve such critical benefits,” she wrote. “In so holding, the Court cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”
The Path Ahead
The recent Supreme Court decision has left many considering how best to promote diversity and address historical educational inequalities. The University of Texas–at Austin, which went before the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2016 case focused on the use of race in college admissions, posted a statement to Twitter in the aftermath of the 2023 decision.
“Since the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, The University of Texas at Austin has continued to recruit and enroll consistently stronger classes composed of students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and improved graduation rates among all students, especially those who are underrepresented or first-generation,” read a June 29 statement posted via verified Twitter handle @UTAustin. “While doing so, the University has lawfully been considering race among many factors as part of its comprehensive and holistic admissions process.”
According to the post, the university will “make the necessary adjustments to comply with the most recent changes to the law” and “remains committed to offering an exceptional education to students from all backgrounds and preparing our students to succeed and change the world.”
To make progress in other ways, some institutions are focusing on targeted recruitment efforts and eliminating admission testing mandates and legacy policies that overwhelmingly benefit white applicants. According to TIME, Johns Hopkins University’s elimination of legacy admissions preferences in 2014 led to a direct increase in the percentage of low-income and first-generation college students.
Other schools are now following suit, with Carnegie Mellon University and Wesleyan University both ending legacy admissions policies in response to the recent ruling.
Victoria Angis, a retired student life specialist and former associate dean of students at Castleton University served on ACUI’s Affirmative Action Task Force. She said that reflecting on the past can help universities make informed choices moving forward.
“At the 63rd annual ACUI conference in 1983, colleagues from across the country reported on their ‘Think Tank’ on the critical issues in higher education,” she said. “Their comments on diversity are as relevant now as they were 40 years ago.”
“Ideally, the college or university community should mirror our hopes for the global community,” the comments read. “If the world is to become a more humane place, its leaders must establish goals that provide opportunities for international understanding. Similarly, in institutions of higher education …. we must promote not merely tolerance or even acceptance but respect for people of all races, from every cultural heritage, representing various points of view and … lifestyles. It is critical that our role models be both male and female, young and old, black and white, liberal and conservative. Diversity is needed at all levels….”
Angis said that while the recent Supreme Court decision has made it more difficult for institutions to diversify their communities, it should not impact the personal and professional commitment of ACUI members to remove barriers to success for all students and staff.
“Over the last 40 years, we have benefited from a more diverse community; we have learned from each other and, together, built a stronger Association,” she said. “On our campuses we have supported, embraced, and celebrated the contributions of all of our students. We must continuously monitor our policies, programs, and attitudes to ensure that the goal of a ‘global community’ remains a priority.”