By Erica Gunderson
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, a policy that withstood challenges reaching as far back as 1978. In her dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson called the decision a “tragedy,” saying “with let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the rip cord and announces color blindness for all by legal fiat, but deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”
Now, higher education institutions wishing to achieve racially diverse student bodies have to find a new way forward.
Paul Gowder, professor of law and associate dean of research and intellectual life at Northwestern University, said the principle behind affirmative action’s beginnings was simple — that diversity in schools is important and desirable.
“The court argued and, until (Thursday), really seemed to be solidly accepting the idea that educational diversity is a compelling interest, that the idea of having an educational environment that includes people from all kinds of backgrounds and particularly from racial groups and other groups of people that are underrepresented in colleges and universities is a compelling interest, justifying the attention to race,” Gowder said. “What the real issue is, is that there are continuing consequences of government discrimination. The government participated in the residential segregation that leads to people of color being disproportionately located in communities with under-resourced schools having essentially starting 20 feet behind the starting line in many cases. And what affirmative action rightly can do is, one, rectify that as a matter of justice. And two, also allow universities to identify students who have just as much ability as the students who started with the advantages.”
Christian Perry, director of policy and advocacy with the Partnership for College Completion, is also a U.S. Navy veteran. He said the exception Chief Justice John Roberts made allowing service academies to continue considering race in admissions is a telling one.
“The fact that the chief justice could carve out for ‘distinct interests’ is what he called it, for military institutions, and say that that’s good for our men and women serving in uniform, but not good for the likes of our elite institutions in the country — I think it’s hypocrisy,” Perry said.
Nicholas Jones, executive vice president and vice president for academic affairs with the University of Illinois system, said his institution has prepared for this ruling and that University of Illinois’ core beliefs remain steadfast.
“Our mission is to serve the citizens of the state of Illinois,” Jones said. “And that is all citizens of the state of Illinois. We must just redouble our efforts to ensure that we are indeed doing that. It means that we will have to look at all of our practices and make sure that we follow the law, but that commitment is robust.”
Gowder pointed out that the ruling is narrow and there are many ways higher education institutions can continue ensuring diversity in their student body.
“All the case considered was specific admissions policies that the court claimed could make race and race alone determinative of people’s chances of admission,” Gowder said. “The court specifically said that you can still think about race in individual cases. If a student says, ‘Here’s a story of how race interacts with some kind of other qualities,’ that is OK for admissions use. So if somebody says, ‘Here’s how I overcame racial discrimination,’ the … university can consider that, for example, as part of someone’s character. The court decision also didn’t rule out things like pipeline programs trying to increase applicant rules from all kinds of backgrounds.”
Perry said his organization has also been anticipating this ruling and will be issuing suggestions this summer for institutions to consider implementing.
“In the advocate community, what we’re concerned with is making sure that colleges, one, don’t overreact … thinking that they have to now be overly legalistic in how they go about interpreting this ruling,” Perry said. “But also, that they are intentional about expanding their recruitment efforts to still affirm diversity in the classroom. We know that there will be some institutions that take this as an opportunity, and we hope that higher ed institutions, as well as state legislators, take the opportunity to lean in … and fight back.”
Jones said the University of Illinois system will continue to make diversity in its student body a priority because it results in a better education.
“Our students learn best, learn the most, learn most effectively when they are in an environment where they are exposed to a broad diversity of viewpoints and perspectives,” Jones said. “So from my perspective, having that diversity in the in the classroom is critical to our success. Our focus is on bringing students to the University of Illinois who we believe can successfully graduate from our institution. This challenges us to think a little bit differently about how we do admissions, not view it as a process of threshold and presenting barriers to entry, but focusing on ensuring that we are identifying those talented people … and ensuring that they have the support that they need to be successful. And that’s what we’re absolutely committed to doing.”