Supreme Court Rules Against Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court has been in the news a lot lately, and one of its latest decisions has the world of college admissions reeling. Many college admissions offices, in looking at prospective students’ applications through the lens of affirmative action, have previously considered race as a factor in the students they have accepted. But as of last week, that is no longer a constitutional choice for a college admissions office to make. With the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down affirmative action in colleges, the responses have been many and varied. But at the end of the day, one major benefit of college is having a broad range of students with varying backgrounds and cultural representations, so that students will encounter many perspectives in preparing their young minds.

What is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action is the type of phrase that is bantered about a lot, but people do not always clearly understand what it means. Simply put, it is any set of policies created to forge equal opportunity and prevent discrimination in many types of a person’s identity, such as gender, race, religion, disability, and national origin.

“The purpose of affirmative action is to ensure equal employment opportunities for applicants and employees. It is based on the premise that, absent discrimination, over time a contractor’s workforce generally will reflect the demographics of the qualified available workforce in the relevant job market,” the U.S. Department of Labor writes on its website. Affirmative action as we know it today was created for the most part to counteract racial discrimination.

Lyndon B. Johnson created the first major affirmative action policy in 1965 to prohibit employment discrimination for any organizations that received federal contracts and subcontracts. Later, a 2003 Supreme Court decision (Grutter v. Bollinger) created a precedent to allow schools to consider race when making admissions decisions. This has held true for the last 20 years, with many college graduates benefitting from the policy.

Many colleges have used the tenets of affirmative action in their admissions policy. CBS News recently reported that “More than 40% of American universities, and 60% of selective schools, consider race to some extent when making admissions decisions, according to documents that Harvard filed in court.”

What Did the Ruling Change?

At the end of June, the conservative-leaning United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that said colleges and universities can no longer use race as a factor in their admissions decisions for students. Specifically, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina both previously relied on race in their decision-making process, but the court ruled that these schools were violating the Constitution’s guarantee for equal protection by doing so.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts expressed the majority opinion when he wrote the following: “The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote. “Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

As soon as the decision was rendered, people on both sides of the aisle started expressing their viewpoints, and the opinions continue to unfurl. Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted to do away with affirmative action, said “This is not 1958 or 1968. Today’s youth do not shoulder moral debts of their ancestors.” Another point he made was that Asian students suffered because of the outdated Civil Rights era affirmative action, and this decision would even the playing field.

But on the other side of the aisle, Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained “Today’s decision imposes a superficial rule of race-blindness on the nation.” She added that “Ignoring racial inequality will not make it disappear.”

Colleges Respond

With so many students’ educations at stake, and such a decisive change to the status quo, the colleges are understandably perplexed about what to do next. Just about half of the schools in the United States have spent decades using race as an admissions category, and now they need to stop the process immediately to be in line with the Constitution.

Kevin Guskiewicz, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expressed his disappointment when he said in a statement that the school “will carefully review the Supreme Court’s decision and take any steps necessary to comply with the law,” acknowledging that it was “not the outcome we hoped for.”

“Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond,” Guskiewicz said.

Harvard was likewise disappointed and looking for a way forward.  “In the weeks and months ahead, drawing on the talent and expertise of our Harvard community, we will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values.”

Boston University President Robert A. Brown wrote in a letter to the BU community: “The ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS)—in cases addressing the admissions practices at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina—is profoundly disappointing because it takes us backward, potentially creating less diverse college campuses and a less just America. This decision is antithetical to Boston University’s values and mission.”

For colleges and universities across America, the coming months will be a critical time for decision-making. A college education, after all, is really a cultural education, and all segments of society should be represented on campus. If colleges and universities are to open students’ minds and to prepare them for the future, all voices should be present and heard. And many college leaders are committed to doing just that. Justice Sotomayor invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when the verdict was rendered, promising that eventually “the arc of the moral universe will bend toward racial justice.” And in today’s global economy, all races need to truly be represented both in colleges and in the world at large.