A blow to diversity: Supreme Court restricts Affirmative Action in college admissions

June 29, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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In a major shift for American higher education, the Supreme Court on Thursday restricted the use of affirmative action in college admissions. This overturns decades of precedent that allowed race to be considered in the effort to diversify college campuses.

The court’s decision was passed in a 6-3 ruling against affirmative action policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chief Justice John Roberts led the conservative majority’s opinion, drawing criticism from liberal members of the court. In his view, admissions decisions should focus on “challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned” rather than the color of an applicant’s skin.

President Biden expressed strong disagreement with the court’s decision, arguing that it deviates from established norms. “This is not a normal court,” he stated, adding that adversity faced by students should be considered during the admissions process. “I’ve always believed that one of the greatest strengths of America … is our diversity,” Biden added.

Biden took the opportunity to highlight a misconception that affirmative action grants admission to unqualified students. The President clarified that all admitted students meet admission standards, with race only coming into play once those standards have been met.

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Despite the ruling, Biden said he would direct the Department of Education to analyze practices that help build a diverse student body. His remarks implied a critique of “legacy admissions,” suggesting that such practices serve to expand privilege rather than promote opportunity.

Former President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments in a statement, saying: “Like any policy, affirmative action wasn’t perfect. But it allowed generations of students like Michelle and me to prove we belonged. Now it’s up to all of us to give young people the opportunities they deserve  − and help students everywhere benefit from new perspectives.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the lack of diversity among Supreme Court advocates as she dissented from the ruling, joining with the court’s liberal wing to decry the decision. According to Sotomayor, the court’s ruling effectively rolls back “decades of precedent and momentous progress.”

In their opinions, the conservative majority agreed that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment had been violated by Harvard and UNC’s affirmative action policies. These decisions have potential to impact not only higher education but also corporate diversity programs.

Critics warn that the ruling may spur further restrictions on other race-conscious policies while proponents hope it will encourage a broader reevaluation of fair admissions practices. Regardless, the ruling will undoubtedly have profound implications for the future of American higher education.

In response, the NYS Bar Association acted almost immediately to establish a task force to recommend how colleges and businesses can maintain diversity in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson will co-chair the task force.

“Businesses – including law firms – are worried about the legitimacy of corporate diversity initiatives,” said Richard Lewis, president of the NYSBA. “This could also impact governmental programs that require quotas such as minority business enterprise requirements. We want to prepare our members, clients and lawyers throughout the state and nation for any eventuality.”

Note From The Editor: Reflecting on the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, I’m reminded of my own educational journey. Transitioning from a mostly segregated high school to the diverse ecosystem of Brooklyn College was transformative. This exposure to various backgrounds and worldviews fostered empathy, challenged my assumptions, and enriched my overall academic experience. It is disheartening that the opportunity to learn in such a diverse setting might be denied to many in light of the current ruling. As we navigate these changes, let’s remember that diversity is a cornerstone of education, not a threat, and strive to uphold this ideal.


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