Members of the Harvard community and leaders of higher education and civil rights organizations expressed dismay at the Supreme Court’s decision on Monday to take up a case challenging race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
President Larry Bacow said in an email to the Harvard community on Tuesday that the College’s ability to consider race as one of many admissions factors creates a diverse learning environment that enriches education for all. . “Diversity opens our eyes to the promise of a better future,” he writes.
“As the Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, race matters in the United States,” he wrote. “I look forward to the day when that is not the case, but we still have miles to go before our journey is complete. Harvard will continue to vigorously defend the admissions policies that were approved in the Thoughtful Decisions two federal courts that have found that we do not discriminate our practices are consistent with Supreme Court jurisprudence there is no compelling and credible evidence to justify a different outcome Although I wish yesterday turned out differently, I remain convinced that the rule of law – and the respect for precedent that perpetuates it – will prevail.
The plaintiff in the cases against Harvard and UNC is Students for Fair Admissions, led by Edward Blum. In a press release posted on the SFFA website on Monday, Blum said, “We are grateful to the Supreme Court for accepting these important cases for review. We hope judges will end the use of race as an admissions factor at Harvard, UNC, and all colleges and universities.
Niyati Shah, director of litigation for the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which supported Harvard in the legal proceedings, came out strongly in favor of the university’s position in a statement released after the court’s announcement.
“Race continues to unfairly limit educational opportunities for students of color,” she said. “Racially-conscious admissions policies provide the student with the opportunity to tell their full story, including their race, ethnicity, and lived experiences, in addition to their academic achievements. Asian Americans are used as a wedge in these cases to try to dismantle race-conscious admissions policies, but the fact is that 70% of Asian Americans support affirmative action. Our students deserve race-conscious admissions policies to remain the law of the land.
Sherri Ann Charleston, head of diversity and inclusion at Harvard, reaffirmed the University’s commitment to diversity in an email to the community. “I am immensely proud of the work that has been done by Harvard College Admissions and across the University to help create the diverse working and learning environment we now enjoy,” she wrote. “Diversity is our path to excellence, and we will continue to protect the advantages we enjoy today. It will be the foundation of Harvard’s excellence for centuries to come.
Some fear the court’s decision to hear the case could open up the possibility of judges overturning long-standing rulings on the issue, throwing out nearly four decades of legal precedent and radically changing higher education. Such a move could also have implications for diversity and inclusion that extend far beyond the nation’s college campuses, according to higher education leaders and others.
Ruth Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University, testified on behalf of Harvard at the 2018 federal district court bench trial. Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, Simmons said Tuesday. that she worried about what a potential reversal might mean for civil rights.
“Affirmative action in college admissions is certainly a long-established policy. With the attempt to roll back civil rights gains currently underway, it is expected that the appropriateness and appropriateness of this policy will be debated. So it’s no surprise,” Simmons said. “The question is what does this mean for this continued backsliding, as affirmative action in admissions and the like has been a central avenue to alleviate much of the historical discrimination in the country. So what if affirmative action [in admissions] is declared unconstitutional? This could have ramifications in many areas.
Simmons, who as former president of Brown University was the first black woman to lead an Ivy League institution, added that she was keeping an open mind about the outcome.
“I don’t have a problem with our debate in every era about whether or not our policies are appropriate and timely,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong if there is a pre-determined interest in making a decision because some supporters want that decision to be made. So you have to be afraid, I guess, of political intrusion into this review. But hopefully smart and knowledgeable judges will be able to see how vital this is to the future of the country. And I’m not so cynical about it, that I think it’s a foregone conclusion that there are political machinations that predict the Court’s decision.
Holistic admissions practices not only allow colleges and universities to achieve the compelling appeal of a diverse campus, but they “help alleviate the systemic barriers to educational opportunity faced by many Black and other students.” students of color,” Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) president and director-attorney, said in a statement Monday. The DFL has submitted amicus briefs on behalf of a range of Harvard student and alumni organizations in support of the University.
“Given the meticulous and comprehensive opinions of the lower courts in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC who closely followed more than 40 years of settled law, the Supreme Court’s decision to grant writs of certiorari seriously threatens the nation’s ideals of equality,” Ifill said. “A holistic, race-conscious college admissions program ensures that students’ experiences, shaped and influenced by race, are fully considered and valued for their potential contributions to a vibrant, dynamic and diverse educational environment.”
Itzel Vasquez-Rodriguez ’17, who spoke on behalf of Harvard at the 2018 district court trial, said she was surprised the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, but optimistic she would rely on precedent when developing its opinion. “I hope the Court will ultimately uphold the use of race-conscious admissions because I believe that throughout this process the Court will look back on four decades of its own decisions, and these have affirmed policies admissions programs that have encouraged diversity and expanded opportunities. for millions of students, including Asian students, white students, and students like me.
Vasquez-Rodriguez said diversity on the Harvard campus and representation of students of color was “integral” to her college experience allowing her to “learn, grow and thrive.” She said interacting with students from different backgrounds helped her “counteract a lot of my assumptions” and gave her a “nuanced understanding of racial experiences in this country.”
Currently an engagement coordinator for the California State Water Resources Board, Vasquez-Rodriguez said her experience at Harvard has been invaluable in her efforts to connect with underrepresented communities. “The lessons I’ve learned from living in a diverse community on the Harvard campus have allowed me to directly provide skills and experience that I use in my day-to-day work.”
Simmons noted that there is more to a person than grades and test scores, saying that “human potential shows up in different ways. If you try to reduce the recognition of this potential to mere quantitative measures, you will miss the opportunity to have a more level playing field in this country. After a long career in higher education, she adds: “Many of the students I have seen admitted to university with perfect profiles, quantitatively speaking, have far less well than students who had potential who had not materialized due to factors such as economic situation, limited track record, etc.
Peter McDonough, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said he was not surprised the Court returned to the issue of race in admissions, noting that it first addressed the issue in Regents of the University of California v Bakke case, and revisited most recently in 2016 in a case involving the University of Texas. “Of course, the Court has also repeatedly upheld the relevance and right of institutions to consider race and ethnicity as a set of considerations or elements when seeking to create a diverse learning environment,” McDonough said.
“When institutions are challenged for failing to follow the rules, the Supreme Court has declared the institutions to have won,” he added. “Now we have the complainant saying, ‘OK, we’d like the rules changed. “”
McDonough said the case also raises important questions about institutional autonomy. “Our organization, joined by 37 others, submitted an amicus brief in the [last race-conscious admissions case that came] before the Supreme Court. And we emphasized there that there is a constitutionally protected freedom to bring together a diverse student body. And that wouldn’t be much if it didn’t include the freedom of an institution to define the diversity it seeks.
The original complaint against Harvard by Blum and his organization alleged that the College discriminated against Asian American applicants in its admissions practices. In 2018, in a three-week trial in federal district court, Harvard attorneys successfully argued that the College’s consideration of race when determining its incoming class composition was consistent with Supreme Court precedent. In a 130-page decision released in October 2019, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard on all claims. Just over a year later, a federal appeals court upheld Burroughs’ decision.
The court will likely hear oral arguments in the case during its fall term.
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