College Community Anticipates Likely End of Affirmative Action

On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases concerning race-conscious admissions. Community members spoke about the potential impact that the court’s decision, which is expected to overturn precedent, would have on the college’s efforts to promote diversity. 

On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases concerning race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC). According to most court observers, last week’s arguments indicated that the court’s conservative majority appears ready to strike down these programs. Such a ruling, which would come out in the late spring or early summer of 2023, would have far-reaching implications for admissions programs at colleges across the nation, including Amherst.

The court appeared inclined to side against the kinds of arguments presented by Amherst in an amicus curiae brief to the court asking it to uphold race-conscious admissions. The brief, which was also signed by 32 other “private, highly selective residential colleges,” notes that a reversal of affirmative action would “deal a powerful blow against Amici’s effort to create diverse student bodies.”

The brief also specifically discusses the effect that a decision in favor of the plaintiffs could have on Amherst: “Amherst … has determined that an entirely race-blind policy would reduce the percentage of historically underrepresented students of color in its student body — including Native American, Black, and Hispanic students — by approximately half.”

Court watchers believe, however, that the court will bypass these concerns and argue that race-conscious admissions violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating on the basis of race.

Mathew McGann, the dean of admission and financial aid, waited in line for 15 hours to attend the oral argument last week, and he stressed the importance of race-conscious admissions to Amherst’s own admissions policy. “We know that if we are no longer able to have a holistic admissions policy that includes race as a factor it will have a negative impact on campus diversity,” McGann said.

Numerous other schools, professors, groups, and organizations filed amicus briefs in support of Harvard and UNC, ranging from the National Association of Basketball Coaches to the Anti-Defamation League to members of Congress and several states.

The plaintiff in the case, Students for Fair Admission (SFFA), a nationwide non-profit that claims to represent 20,000 members, is challenging Harvard’s admission policy on the basis that it discriminates against Asian American applicants. SFFA alleges that Asian American applicants are consistently marked lower by Harvard admissions officers for subjective traits such as likability, personality, courage, and kindness in order to keep Asian-American admission rates below a certain percentage. In the organization’s case against North Carolina, SFFA claims more generally that the admissions process has treated White and Asian American applicants less favorably than Black, Latino, and Native American applicants.

The university defendants have claimed that their admissions policies do not discriminate, but rather consider race as one factor in a holistic admissions process, asserting that plaintiffs have relied on a flawed analysis of admissions statistics. Moreover, they argue that their policies are consistent with the Court’s ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which plaintiffs seek to overturn. Since the case entered the court system, two trial courts have sided with the universities, and a federal appeals court also affirmed Harvard’s admission policy.

An Amherst graduate, Ryan Park ’05, the solicitor general for the state of North Carolina, represented UNC before the court.

In addition to banning the explicit use of race as an admissions factor, the Supreme Court arguments also focused on whether students can mention race in their admissions essays. McGann told The Student that a ruling preventing such discussion in application materials would be at odds with Amherst’s mission. “We believe in an admissions process that considers all aspects of a person’s identity, and we want students to feel free and open to share all the parts of their identity with us that they feel are salient to who they are,” he said.

Zaki Alaoui ’24, who is in his second year as a diversity outreach intern with the admissions office, echoed McGann. “The impact of a decision against the universities would really hurt the overall diversity and demographic makeup of Amherst, which makes it the special place that it is,” he said. For Alaoui, “diversity is not only essential in the classroom but also essential within social dynamics for understanding people from different backgrounds and cultures.”

Sirus Wheaton ’23, who is also a diversity outreach intern, serves on the Student Anti-Racism Advisory Committee. Wheaton said that President Michael Elliott discussed the potential ramifications of the impending court decision with students on the committee. “President Elliott asked if it would be helpful to have a lawyer come in and talk about what the college’s options are,” he said. “He [Elliott] said the school is going to still do as much as they can to promote diversity on campus, but they would have to work under new guidelines and restrictions,” he continued.

Wheaton said that one possible way Amherst may look to continue to foster diversity in the wake of a decision gutting race-conscious admissions policies would be to look to socio-economic status, using zip codes as an indicator of income level. “If the college looked to promote socio-economic diversity, it could also really help with racial diversity,” he said.

One other “race-neutral” alternative to race-conscious admissions frequently proposed is to accept top students from a wide range of high schools.The University of Texas, for example uses a “top 10%” rule, which admits students graduating in the top 10 percent of their class from every high school in the state. Because of the high degree of segregation in Texas schools, the plan promotes diversity on campus without explicitly using race as an admissions factor. But, like the use of socio-economic status as a proxy for race, it is far from flawless, and would not work as well in states with fewer majority-minority schools.

Other students also expressed their concerns about what the court’s decision could mean. Theo Dassin ’24 has been following the Harvard case closely. “It’s about quite literally the future of America in a lot of ways,” he said. “It impacts everyone, regardless of whether you are directly benefiting from race-conscious admissions or not. Everyone who goes to Amherst is an example of someone who is benefiting from the campus diversity that race-conscious admissions fosters. If the court strikes down these policies, it would have a profoundly detrimental impact on my immediate community here at Amherst and the country as a whole.”

While many in the community have expressed fears about the impending decision, McGann noted one bright spot from his trip to Washington. Discussing his experience attending the arguments, he said that the number of people who showed up to the hearings last week gave him hope despite the direction of the oral argument.

“So many people in line with me also had a part in the case in some way,” he said. “It made what could have been a very sad occasion into a moment of many students and educators standing up loudly and proudly for the value of diversity. It was wonderful to see just how many people came out.”