People within higher education and those who work closely with colleges and universities are offering perspectives on Thursday’s Supreme Court decision — which struck down the use of race in college admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — across social media, in interviews, and commentaries.
Ruth Simmons, the first African American president of an Ivy League institution — Brown University, told CBS Morning news, “This is a long struggle and we have to be in it for the length of the struggle not because we are winning or losing at any given time.” She added, “Affirmative action as carried out by Harvard was very much misunderstood, I think, by the Justices. Harvard tried to shape a class, bringing in many many elements, one of which may have been race, but not ever the deciding factor.”
Harvard University professor Anthony Jack, noticing that military academies were exempted from the ruling, tweeted, “Riddle me this, Chief Justice: What “compelling” and “distinct” interests in diversity do military academies have that our nation’s colleges do not? To exempt military academies from your own ruling is beyond hypocrisy. It is criminal disregard for our future. Make it make sense.”
And Andre Perry, a senior fellow at Brookings, reminded readers, “HBCUs have developed talent that other institutions turn a blind eye to, and in the face of the Court’s decision, society will demand that these schools educate even more students… to meet that demand, these systematically devalued institutions must receive greater investment.”
Seeing much nuance in the opinions and insights of higher education insiders, I reached out to individuals across a variety of institutions and organizations to get a feel for their perspectives. Some scholars see the High Court’s decision as the result of a larger effort to roll back federal initiatives aimed at ensuring equity and justice. According to Boston College faculty member Andrés Castro Samayoa, “The decision is a culmination of decades of fastidious work from conservatives who have sought to undermine the pursuit of racial justice by pretending equitable outcomes occur when we force institutions to pretend race does not matter in people’s everyday lives.”
From Nichole Garcia’s vantage point as a scholar who studies race and higher education, “The Supreme Court’s decision demonstrates why critical race theory is needed more than ever. The erasure of decades of empirical evidence by scholars, lawyers, and practitioners of color is painful especially because we know diverse communities in colleges and universities promote learning and growth for everyone.”
Other scholars feel moved to action by the Court’s decision or are demanding accountability. Sultan Jenkins, an African American scientist at LaGuardia Community College shared, “I am disappointed, but at the same time not surprised by the court’s decision. I’ve decided to turn my disappointment into personal action to ensure that those Blacks who want to pursue higher education will have that opportunity.”
Sergio A. Gonzalez, a faculty member at Duquesne University, much like Jenkins, was not surprised by the Court’s ruling, and was confused much like Harvard’s Anthony Jack about the exemption for military academies. According to Gonzalez, “The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on affirmative action was not a surprise to me, but the exemption of military academies from the ban on race-conscious admissions is quite baffling. The question that comes to mind is, where is the equity between those who can fight to protect institutions of higher education in contrast to those who can attend institutions of higher education?” He added, “The U.S. must acknowledge and hold itself accountable to the reality that we do not exist in a color-blind world, we exist under the gaze of white supremacy.”
Like Gonzalez, leaders pointed to the absurdity of colorblindness in America given the nation’s history of racism. According to Leah Hollis, Associate Dean of Access, Equity, and Inclusion in School of Education at The Pennsylvania State University. “The Supreme Court has overturned affirmative action stating race should not be a factor in college admissions. For anyone from an underrepresented group, race is always a factor. In the U.S., race is not only a socially constructed manifestation, but race also brings the historical baggage of past indignities and injustice.” She expanded, stating, “Removing affirmative action is removing one of the few policies that just began to correct the historical and social injustices that have been conflated with race for over 400 years. What is forgotten when a segment of our society is left behind is that such a problem affects the entirety of our society.”
Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund, which represents Native American students across the nation, shared in response to the High Court’s embracing of a colorblind society: “We do not live in a colorblind world: Our histories and cultures are still being removed from curricula across the country. Students continue to face prohibitions from wearing regalia at graduation ceremonies. Native students are frequently excluded from accessing campus resources and rarely see themselves represented on college campuses.”
Touting the importance of diversity and equity, leaders at Asian Pacific Islander American Scholars, shared, “As an organization that supports diversity, equity and inclusion, APIA Scholars decries the Supreme Court’s decision today to repeal affirmative action. We support #affirmativeaction. We defend diversity and we affirm inclusivity for students.”
Sachs Foundation President Ben Ralston, whose organization fosters diversity in the teaching profession, communicated his dismay with the Supreme Court’s ruling. He noted the impact of political ideology, and the High Court seemingly adopting an “All Lives Matter” approach to college admissions — one that disregards racism in America and its impact. Ralston stated, “Regrettably, the recent Supreme Court ruling serves as a striking example of how federal courts, when driven by political ideology, can subvert the legislative process to shape laws aligned with that ideology. By eliminating the consideration of race in university admissions, the federal government is inserting themselves in admissions offices and undermining intentional efforts to recruit and retain a diverse and representative student body.”
He added, “Adopting a broad ‘All Lives Matter’ stance toward college admissions disregards the importance of targeted initiatives to redress historical inequity in higher education and foster a truly diverse academic environment. While colleges and universities are no longer allowed to consider race when recruiting students, they are still allowed to consider factors such as legacy admissions, parent’s occupations and total family donations.” As a result of these factors, Ralston noted that we can expect to see less racially diverse student bodies, especially within highly selective institutions.
As the Supreme Court ruling could also have an impact on the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with more students considering these important institutions given the environment they provide for learning, I reached out to leaders and scholars within the HBCU community as well.
Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University shared his thoughts on potential increases in students at HBCUs: “More students of color, who might have chosen to apply to a predominantly white institution, will now apply to and attend an HBCU instead. HBCUs—and an ever-broadening array of HBCUs will draw a greater number of talented students of color. We will welcome them as we have always done. And we will need stalwart partners to help us in our work.”
Likewise, Bryan Kent Wallace, Dean of the Graduate School at Fisk University stated, “The California University system never recovered from the drop in the number of underrepresented minorities’ when it abandoned affirmative action policies for college enrollment. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling is an indicator of the importance of HBCUs and other Minority Serving Institutions’ future role of producing our nation’s scientists, doctors, and engineers. We will answer the call…”
And, although Rodney T. Cunningham, a faculty member at North Carolina Central University, laments the High Court’s decision, he commented, “This decision provides another exceptional opportunity for HBCUs and [Minority Serving Institutions] MSIs to step in. As a three-time HBCU alumnus, I encourage students to explore HBCUs more seriously when considering your college of choice. You are not only wanted here, but you will be nurtured to become your best selves.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling related to affirmative action will likely have much spill over in terms of the way race can be used in higher education. The representation of Black and Brown students at highly selective institutions will be the first major change we will see. According to Zack Mabel of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, the percentage of Black and Brown students attending highly selective institutions of higher education throughout the country will likely drop from roughly 20% to 16% without affirmative action.
Leaders across the nation expect many changes and more legal challenges, but they have a sense of hope with regard to the ways that colleges and universities will creatively achieve diversity that represents the nation as a whole and embrace all students.
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