Diversity Dilemma: Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action

Home to judicial proceedings: The Supreme Court building. PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Supreme Court overturned the use of affirmative action in college admissions on June 29, effectively eliminating race as a factor in admissions decisions, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. The conservative majority ruled that affirmative action violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution in cases regarding how race impacts admissions at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University.

In the past, affirmative action helped colleges and universities offer opportunities to students of color by providing funding for scholarships that consider a student’s race. As explained by the Department of Education, these scholarships were set aside with the intention of not only promoting diversity, but remedying past discrimination. 

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who voted in favor of overturning, said the decision exposed the reality of affirmative action admissions policies, which he called “rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes,” in his concurring opinion

The ruling strays from the precedent set decades ago by cases like University of California v. Bakke (1978), and more recently Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), in which the court ruled that race could be considered in the admissions process because it was in a university’s best interest to maintain a diverse campus.

This ruling introduces the possibility of challenging other racial diversity plans used by employers, and could even affect K-12 students, according to NBC News. Many of the same “colorblind” arguments that led to the elimination of affirmative action could apply to a number of anti-discrimination programs justified under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act allowed for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for example, which protects employees from various forms of discrimination.

The New York Times estimates that the elimination of affirmative action policies may lead to fewer Black and Hispanic enrollments, as seen in certain states that had previously banned affirmative action. As The New York Times details, when Michigan stopped race-based admissions in 2006, the University of Michigan saw a decline in Black undergraduate students, who represented only 4% of the student body in 2021. In the two years after California’s 1996 Proposition 209 banned race-based admissions, UCLA’s Black student population at UCLA declined by more than half. 

In an NBC News article from 2022, when the idea of overturning affirmative action at the national level was heating up, Cara McClellan, an assistant counsel at the Legal Defense Fund, said, “Any ruling that calls into question the legality of race-conscious admissions would be a huge reversal of more than 40 years of Supreme Court precedent.” 

Also according to the New York Times, studies suggest these changes within highly prestigious schools will force students to turn to less competitive institutions and will impact their future careers and incomes. This hinders social and economic mobility among people who would otherwise have been offered more advantageous opportunities through affirmative action.

Without affirmative action, colleges and universities are now left with the task of devising race-neutral programs while maintaining racially diverse student bodies, according to NBC News. Some schools, according to the Associated Press, are working around the new ruling by supporting students based on other criteria, like socioeconomic status, or by working with private donors and foundations who are still permitted to establish scholarships based on race.

President Biden commented on the decision, saying that schools “should not abandon their commitment to ensure student bodies of diverse backgrounds,” and encouraged them to consider “adversity overcome” by candidates, according to the Associated Press.

Many schools have pledged their commitment to ensuring diversity in their communities, in spite of the court’s decision — one of these schools being USF. 

In a schoolwide email, President Paul Fitzgerald S.J. said, “USF administrators and faculty, colleagues at other Jesuit universities, and our regional and national education associations are actively following the repercussions of the court’s decision and proactively devising legal pathways forward for us to pursue our mission.”

Anita de Sousa, a second year English major, commented on the Supreme Court’s decision, “It’s important to consider race as one of the many factors in deciding who is to be admitted,” she said. “Colleges and universities are not just accepting a new set of statistics for the year; they are accepting real people. People whose cultures, religions, and experiences have shaped and influenced every choice they’ve made.” 

She continued,“If we want to treat everyone equally and grant everyone the opportunity to higher education, we need to look at every aspect possible and that needs to start with race.”

According to USF officials, USF students do not need to anticipate any major changes in the near future.

USF Media Relations Specialist Kellie Samson said, “Because of USF’s exceptionally strong record of attracting and enrolling a diverse pool of candidates, we do not anticipate making any significant changes to our processes. We will continue to track demographic data points among admitted students — including geography as well as race and ethnicity — but race will not be considered in admissions decisions.

When asked about potential disparities and inequalities, Samson said, “We don’t expect disparities and inequalities to arise in the absence of affirmative action in admissions due to our exceptionally strong record of attracting and enrolling a diverse pool of candidates.”
“Established USF programs (both academic and cocurricular) designed to support underrepresented or vulnerable students — regardless of race — will not change as a result of the Supreme Court ruling,” Samson said.


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