Four months after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases that threaten the constitutional status of affirmative action, the college hosted a panel discussion titled “The Future of Affirmative Action: Race-Conscious Admissions and the Supreme Court” on Thursday, March 2.
The conversation included Ryan Park ’05 — who is the solicitor general of North Carolina and argued on behalf of the University of North Carolina’s admissions policy in one of the cases before the Supreme Court — and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Matthew McGann. The discussion was moderated by Pawan Dhingra, associate dean of the faculty, associate provost, and professor of American studies.
(Originally, Paul Smith ’76, P’09 was to be featured on the panel instead of McGann, but he was unable to attend at the last minute. A professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, Smith has argued 21 cases in front of the Supreme Court.)
Perhaps due to the absence of a second lawyer on the panel or perhaps due to Park’s reluctance “to make this [event] into a law school lecture,” the discussion largely glossed over the specifics of the case or predictions about how the court is likely to rule. Instead, the conversation focused on the value of diversity in higher education, how race is currently used in college admissions, and Amherst’s commitment to maintaining a diverse student body.
Chair of the Board Andrew Nussbaum ’85 and President Michael Elliott opened the evening. Their remarks made it clear that the college is firmly in favor of the use of race in college admissions, affirming the commitment expressed in the Aug. 1 amicus brief the college filed in favor of Harvard and UNC. The discussion was thus a strategic conversation about the possibility of an “adverse ruling” as opposed to a neutral exploration of the topic.
Both Nussbaum and Elliott quoted the college’s mission statement in their remarks, emphasizing the phrase “students of exceptional potential from all backgrounds” to highlight diversity as one of Amherst’s central values. Nussbaum’s statement that “whatever it takes, whatever the legal means, we will do it” (referencing the college’s dedication to maintaining a diverse student body) was met with audience applause.
Park and McGann echoed this ideological commitment to affirmative action for the sake of diversity, with Park speaking about the value of diversity in higher education as a whole and McGann focusing on the importance of diversity at the college.
“The work of trying to build communities like this one — it has a purpose,” Park said, “ because all the students here — and all the students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — they become the next generation of leaders.” Park spoke about the value of diversity beyond undergraduate institutions as well, highlighting the example that racially diverse juries tend to reach more accurate decisions than racially homogenous juries.
McGann stressed the importance of race as part of the holistic admissions process at Amherst. “In our individualized holistic review, for students to be able to bring their whole selves to this admission process, not just part of themselves, but their whole selves, benefits everyone in the community. I think it’s crucial for students to be able to proudly talk about all aspects of their identity.” In discussing the prospect of college admissions without the consideration of race, McGann posed the question: “How can we have [an admissions] process that allows students to bring their whole selves except for one thing?”
Part of the argument against race-conscious admissions is that it devalues traditional academic achievement in favor of curating a diverse student body. Park admitted that, in order to live the stated value of diversity, college admissions offices often have to prioritize admitting students who have faced adversity over students with the highest test scores. However, Park further explained that there is a general consensus that having overcome adversity, like academic achievement, is a valuable quality for a well-rounded student body.
He continued, “there’s actually very broad agreement that your racial identity can be something that poses adversity to you,” implying that race can, in some cases, be used as a proxy for identifying students who have overcome adversity.
In assessing the impacts of omitting race from college admissions, McGann said that Amherst has looked to the University of California and the University of Michigan systems for information. Through ballot initiatives, both systems voted that race would not be a factor in the admissions process.
“They saw significant declines in racial and ethnic diversity,” said McGann. “Those impacts were most severely seen and have continued to be most severe and stinging among Black students and Native American students.”
Both the California and Michigan systems attempted to maintain a racially diverse student body using other strategies, and the efficacy of such alternatives to affirmative action were the subject of many questions during the oral arguments in October. For instance, they have used socio-economic status as a proxy for race and have intensified recruitment efforts in minority communities. But, McGann pointed out, “They have not been able to get back to the same place of diversity where they were before these ballot initiatives were enacted … it’s not enough.”
According to Park, it is difficult to predict how a ruling against affirmative action would play out at Amherst, as the impacts of a ruling affecting race-consciousness are likely to be “completely different from institution to institution.” He highlighted the example of the “personality rating” to illustrate this point. In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, one piece of evidence used in the case is the fact that Harvard consistently assigns Asian American students lower “personality ratings” than other students.
However, Park pointed out that at the University of North Carolina, “Asian American students have higher personal ratings than other backgrounds, if you control for academic credentials.”
Park remains optimistic that the court will rule in favor of UNC: “I think we’re going to win the case,” he said. Park further explained that “I still think that there is a working majority of the court that believes in diversity very strongly and does view it as a compelling interest.”
The questions that will decide the case, he believes, are: “Is the consideration of race necessary to advance that compelling interest? Are there other ways to meet that compelling interest without conscious consideration of race?”
McGann, who has been following the cases closely, was less certain of the outcome, remarking, “I’m not naive to the current realities of this court and the degree to which they’ve been willing to overturn decades of precedent to go against people’s rights, and that gives me a lot of fear.”
“We all have to collectively embrace the responsibility to be a part of this process,” said Park, “There is no case that decides what your values are, and the whole point of democracy [is that] it’s all up to us to decide.”