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Pulitzer Center Update July 21, 2023

Update: Affirmative Action On Trial

The United States' Supreme Court Facade

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

“I learned that I must be careful about what I read and hear about the application of the Supreme Court decision, and ever vigilant about the next steps being contemplated by those seeking to curtail diversity,” said an attendee at a Pulitzer Center-hosted panel discussion about the Supreme Court’s historic, 6-3 ruling against affirmative action in college admissions.

On July 20, 2023, panelists began the session with a short clip of conservative legal activist Edward Blum in Equal Protection: The Supreme Court's Battle with Affirmative Action, a documentary supported by the Pulitzer Center and co-produced by the Hechinger Report, PBS/WCNY, and Retro Report.

Panelist Mitch Gelman, CEO of WCNY, compared Blum’s interview, in which he advocates generally for so-called “race blind” criteria like extracurriculars and test scores, to a list of demands issued by Students For Fair Admissions Inc. (SFFA), of which Blum is president. The demands were sent to 150 colleges and universities in the United States on July 13, 2023. SFFA’s demands stretch an outcome-focused opinion with no process directives as such.

“They don’t have any more authority regardless of how loud and confident they may be now, coming off of what they see is a celebratory opinion,” Gelman said. “They don’t have any more authority than anyone else to interpret what the Court ruled.” 

He advised those looking for clarity about the ruling to actually read the Supreme Court opinion, don't “listen to the rhetoric coming from the people who are trying to stretch the opinion to meet their social goals or cultural goals ... That’s what the court’s are going to interpret.”

Another panelist, David Hinojosa, director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, worried that elite colleges and universities would bind themselves to existing measures of merit when redesigning admissions policies.

“[Universities] end up thinking that this ruling says I can only focus on particular metrics we’ve been used to using, like standardized test scores, GPAs, and certain coursework or degrees [are] where we’re going to see the biggest scaleback unless universities do the hard, important work right off the bat and say, ‘Yes, you are welcome,’” Hinojsa said. “They have to look at their own role in systemic policies [and normative criteria] that often [lead them] to overlook highly qualified candidates.”

“It’s critical that universities understand that there is no silver bullet to ensuring more diverse admission,” Hinojosa said. “[Some, like Texas’ policy of admitting the top 10% of each public school class into state schools] work for some groups more than others.” 

Many policies are likely to be challenged under the theory that they are proxies for race. Hinojosa emphasized the importance of a diverse classroom. 

“When you have greater numbers, you have greater viewpoints, and people aren’t isolated as spokespeople for their race,” Hinojosa said. “Colleges want to do the good work of making sure that students across race and ethnicity learn together and grow together.”

He warned that if colleges and universities don’t hold the line, SFFA will “be attacking student affinity groups, DEI training, anti-bias training.”

Liz Willen, editor-in-chief of the Hechinger Report and panel moderator, noted that elite colleges and universities, for all of their pamphleteering, have not done a very good job of increasing access to education for under-represented and -resourced students, even while affirmative action was in use. Panelists parsed a popular understanding of affirmative action from its past practice in admissions offices. 

“A lot of people have said, ‘I got in because of affirmative action,’ and we don’t really know that,” said panelist Marcela Rodrigues, a 2022 Pulitzer Center Post-Grad Reporting Fellow and current education writer at The Dallas Morning News. “We don’t really know why you got in, because the process is holistic. President Obama said that. It makes it seem like every person of color got in because of affirmative action and every white person got in because of merit, and that’s just not how it works. It has a psychological impact; students say that they’ve been told they got in because of their race, and it’s psychologically damaging.”

As she reported from schools in Texas, Rodrigues said, she heard from professors and students that “on the ground, [it’s] very destabilizing. [...] There’s a lot happening at the same time for higher ed in places like Texas and Florida. There are potential bans on critical race theory, bans on DEI, threats to tenure. [...] People [wonder,] ‘Can I still have a student club? Can I have a [Black student association]? Can I hold this event on campus?’ [...] It’s beyond admissions.”


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