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Pulitzer Center Update July 26, 2023

Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling Spurs a Political Battle Over College Admission Policies

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On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ended the use of affirmative action in college admissions. In...

Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Image by Clayton Henkel/NC Newsline.

Pulitzer Center panel interprets the decision, advises how universities can achieve diversity.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on NC Newsline and republished with permission from the author.


When UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz faced questions about a new tuition and outreach program from the UNC Board of Governors last week, it laid bare a looming political conflict at colleges across the nation. How will they react to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against race in admissions? And will they face pressure to abandon campus diversity efforts altogether?

That question was tackled last week by a panel of experts brought together by the Pulitzer Center in a discussion of what’s next for higher education in the wake of the court’s decision — and whether colleges will face pressure to go beyond the actual court decision.

A Pulitzer Center Panel last week examined the future of higher education’s diversity efforts in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against race in admissions. UNC-Chapel Hill was one of the parties in the case.

Clockwise from the left: Moderator Liz Willen, editor-in-chief of the Hechinger Report; David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Marcela Rodrigues, education reporter for The Dallas Morning News; and Mitch Gelman, president and CEO of WCNY.

David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, argued before the Supreme Court in defense of UNC-Chapel Hill’s admissions policies in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. He told his fellow panelists that colleges and universities nationwide are having to decide how to proceed. Many are already facing “overreach” from conservative activists demanding they exceed the court’s mandate.

Hinojosa pointed to a letter sent last week by Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, to 150 colleges and universities making a series of demands that align with the group’s interpretation of the decision. In its own response letter, Hinojosa’s group called Blum’s letter “an effort to overstate the reach of the decision and stoke fears through implicit and explicit threats of litigation.”

“We implore universities to not overreact to opportunists’ efforts,” Hinojosa wrote. “But instead to thoughtfully digest the decision and work within its bounds in ensuring that qualified students across races and ethnicities continue to learn and grow together through means consistent with the recent decision.”

A conflict over interpretation

David Hinojosa. Image courtesy of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

 

“All during the trial they were saying, ‘Use socio-economic status, get rid of legacy preferences. Engage in all these practices, supposedly it will help open doors so we don’t close them to Black and brown students,'” Hinojosa said during last week’s panel.

Yet one of Students for Fair Admissions’ board members, hours after the decision, was asked if it was okay for universities to use socio-economic status, Hinojosa said. The board member replied, “No — it’s just grades and test scores, it’s just about merit,” said Hinojosa, who heard the exchange. “Because they don’t want to share a space in line. They want to push people out of line to make sure they still have their rights and privileges moving forward.”

Mitch Gelman, a Pulitzer Center grantee and president and CEO of New York public media station WCNY, was also on the panel. He said colleges and universities need to resist overreacting.

“Clearly, after years of persistence, Blum and the legal team that he brought together with the support from the very conservative institutions that provided the backing for this decades-long campaign. … Blum was finally able to convince a court to end affirmative action in higher education admissions as we knew it for the last half century,” Gelman said.

But that doesn’t give Blum, his group or its allies any special authority in interpreting the decision or deciding on next steps for campuses, Gelman said.

“It’s not going to be up to Edward Blum to determine how colleges and universities take next steps toward creating diverse student bodies for their students,” Gelman said. “The court decision did preserve the right of universities and colleges to shape their best learning environments.”

Universities’ next steps are unclear

 

But what is possible, under the decision, for universities trying to diversify their student bodies?

Hinojosa pointed to a few tools:

  • Ask students about their experiences of race and how it has impacted them.
    While the court’s decision would prohibit colleges and universities from making the race of applicants a factor, the majority opinion clearly stated that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”
  • Continue to work on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.
    “The Court’s decision only addresses race-conscious college admissions,” he wrote in his letter to colleges and universities. “You should continue, or start anew, great programs that ensure success for all students on your campuses, such as outreach targeting underserved communities, supporting student affinity organizations, and providing anti-discrimination and anti-bias training consistent with state and federal laws.”
  • Make clear diversity on campus is a public goal.
    “This means that you may continue to embed diversity goals in your missions and work to achieve those goals through permissible race-conscious and race neutral means. Nothing in the opinion suggests otherwise.”
  • Eliminate artificial barriers to admission.
    “Federally funded institutions have affirmative duties under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ensure they are not intentionally and unintentionally preventing access to historically marginalized students of color,” Hinojosa wrote. “Such discriminatory policies and practices may include the consideration of standardized test scores—which under predict the talent and potential of Black and Brown students—for admissions and scholarships; legacy and donor preferences; and unnecessary course requirements for certain degree programs.”

In the UNC System, universities trying to use any of those tools face hurdles established by the UNC Board of Governors and campus boards of trustees, all of whom are political appointees of the North Carolina General Assembly’s Republican majority.

As NC Newsline has reported, the General Assembly is already targeting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts on campuses — part of a national conservative wave of actions against them. Earlier this year the system’s board of governors passed a policy that would effectively ban DEI statements through banning “compelled speech.”

“[T]he University shall neither solicit nor require an employee or applicant for academic admission or employment to affirmatively ascribe to or opine about beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles regarding matters of contemporary political debate or social action as a condition to admission, employment, or professional advancement,” the policy reads.

“Nor shall any employee or applicant be solicited or required to describe his or her actions in support of, or in opposition to, such beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles,” it reads.

However, it could be difficult to craft questions about students’ racial experiences without running afoul of the prohibition against asking about “matters of contemporary political debate or social action.”

North Carolina is hardly alone. Marcela Rodrigues, an education reporter with the Dallas Morning News and a Pulitzer Center panelist, said higher education officials in Texas face the same sort of legislation. They have been told to not even discuss their diversity efforts, if any, for fear of reprisal, Rodrigues said.

“Employees of colleges that work within DEI offices are terrified,” Rodrigues said. “It seems there’s a lot happening all at one time in places like Texas and Florida. … It feels on the ground very destabilizing. It feels uncertain.”

Last week, the political pressure was palpable when UNC System’s Board of Governors and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees asked Chancellor Guskiewicz to defend his plan to cover tuition and fees for in-state students whose families earn less than $80,000 a year.

Guskiewicz faced questions from conservative members of the board of governors not just on the plan and how it was announced but whether it was a direct reaction to the Supreme Court decision. When he denied that it was, board members pressed further, asking him whether he agreed with statements by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that challenged the value of diversity.

The chancellor also had to answer for a recently announced outreach program the university hopes will continue its commitment to diversity, with some board members saying the outreach should be broader and others suggesting it shouldn’t be happening at all.

Throughout the questioning, Guskiewicz said his university would comply with the Supreme Court decision on race in admissions but defended his view that a more racially diverse campus is a stronger campus and better for students.

“The lens by which I view this through is my experience at a place like Carolina,” Guskiewicz said. “Where those different lived experiences and a curriculum coming to life when you have students in that classroom who can contribute in a meaningful way that I think prepares our students to become active participants in our democracy.”

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