The U.S. Supreme Court on June 29 ruled race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) unlawful in a decision that overruled decades of precedent protecting affirmative action programs at colleges and universities across the country.
In both Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, the court ruled 6-3 in favor of Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative group which challenged the admissions policies. Members argued that affirmative action policies discriminated against white and Asian students.
The majority found the use of race in admissions violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts penned the majority opinion, which argued the programs lacked “sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race” and negatively employed race without “meaningful end points.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson led two dissenting opinions, both joined by Justice Elena Kagan. Sotomayor said the majority’s opinion “subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education.”
Jackson, who recused herself from the Harvard case due to previously serving on the college’s Board of Overseers, wrote that forbidding UNC’s admissions program “stunts…progress [in addressing inequality] without any basis in law, history, logic or justice.”
The court’s ruling left in place colleges’ ability to weigh applicants’ discussions of how race has impacted their lives as part of their admissions process, though the discussion must be “concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
Chancellor, UW-Madison community members respond
The court’s ruling on diversity comes at a critical time for Wisconsin after the Republican-controlled state Legislature cut $32 million in funding for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across UW System schools.
The Associated Students of Madison (ASM) released a statement Friday calling on the University of Wisconsin-Madison to implement additional measures for equity.
“UW-Madison, as the flagship campus of the University of Wisconsin System, has a vested interest in ensuring that every student deserves an equitable shot at a Wisconsin education regardless of their identity,” the statement said. “Without the legal framework of Bakke, the leaders of this university must fill those gaps.”
Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin addressed ramifications for UW-Madison in an email sent out to students and staff Thursday afternoon.
Mnookin said race is one of many factors in UW-Madison’s holistic admissions process, with written statements, extracurriculars, recommendations, experiences, talents and backgrounds all also considered.
“Every admitted student here at UW-Madison has demonstrated the potential for academic success within our competitive applicant pools,” she added.
UW-Madison and UW System attorneys are reviewing the court’s decision and will likely make changes to the admissions process to comply with the law, Mnookin said.
Still, Mnookin stressed that diversity “remains a bedrock value of the institution” and that UW-Madison is “committed to the value of diversity within our community.”
“Our excellence in teaching, research and outreach demands no less,” she said.
The history of affirmative action
Affirmative action in higher education refers to admissions policies put in place to increase the number of Black, Latino and other minority groups on campus. The goal of race-conscious admissions policies is to diversify the student population and enhance the overall learning experience for all students on campus.
The Supreme Court has historically upheld race-conscious admissions. In the landmark 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court ruled schools could not set aside a specific number of spots for minority students but that increasing campus diversity was found to be a “compelling interest” that would promote a better learning environment for all students. The court ruled schools could consider race in admissions as long as it remained one factor among many.
The court’s ruling in the Harvard and UNC cases diverges from its ruling in Bakke and multiple other precedent-affirming cases.
In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled against the University of Michigan's use of a system that awarded “points” to minority applicants but affirmed Bakke’s finding that race could be used as one of several factors for admission. The court again upheld race-conscious admissions were upheld by the Supreme Court in a 2016 challenge to University of Texas policies.
The court’s decision last week significantly changed the longstanding status quo of race-conscious admissions.
Multiple universities, including Harvard College and the University of North Carolina, stated they will abide by the Supreme Court ruling but reaffirmed their commitments to achieving diversity in their admissions. However, without Bakke’s precedent, universities prioritizing equitable admissions will need to take different measures to adhere to the latest Supreme Court ruling.
Ian Wilder is a current features writer and former state politics reporter for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @IanWWilder.
Anna Kleiber is a state news reporter for The Daily Cardinal.