In her award-winning book, Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, Farah Jasmine Griffin reminds us that “history is not a straightforward process; at times it moves toward greater freedom, at other times it is jerked away by backlash.”
The recent Supreme Court decisions prohibiting the use of race as a factor in college admissions represent a profound moment of backlash that will inevitably stall the progress of colleges and universities striving to fulfill the democratic purposes of American higher education.
The rulings in two cases brought separately by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard and the University of North Carolina eschew nearly half a century of precedent, established in decisions ranging from Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) to Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2016), which have affirmed a compelling state interest in a diverse student body. At the same time, by eliminating the narrow deference afforded to an institution’s “reasoned, principled” academic judgment, as noted in Fisher, derived from experience and expertise, that a diverse student body serves critical educational goals, the current Court ignored Justice Felix Frankfurter’s admonition in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) that “a free society [depends] on free universities.” Noting “the grave harm resulting from governmental intrusion into the intellectual life of a university,” Frankfurter argued that such freedom entails the right of each institution to determine who may teach, what can be taught, how it is taught, and who will be admitted.
While the educational benefits of diversity on campuses persist and the constitutional basis for prior decisions upholding race-conscious admissions as a tool for colleges and universities remain unchanged, the makeup of the Court and its politicization have undergone a dramatic shift. The consequences for higher education are far-reaching. Curtailing the freedom of colleges and universities to control their own admission processes will impede their ability to advance their distinctive missions and create educational experiences that produce the learning outcomes necessary for graduates to thrive in work, citizenship, and life.
The prohibition against race-conscious admissions will simultaneously enhance barriers to educational opportunity, precipitating declines in social mobility and the enrollment of students from historically underrepresented groups. Evidence for this eventuality comes from the nine states that have already banned the use of race in college admissions. Each has seen a long-term decline in admitted and enrolled African American, Native American, and Latine students at public universities, despite the implementation of alternative policies designed to increase representation. A case in point is the dramatic drop of 50 percent or more in first-year students from underrepresented groups among California’s most selective public universities following Proposition 209, which barred race-conscious admission policies at public institutions.
Research on the relationship between students’ educational outcomes and their campus experiences with peers from different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders and sexual orientations has demonstrated that diversity catalyzes identity construction, contributing to subsequent cognitive growth. Indeed, policies and practices that hamper the ability of colleges and universities to construct a diverse class constitute a major setback for educational excellence. The long-standing commitment of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) to inclusive excellence is grounded in a conviction that equity and excellence in higher education are inextricably linked. In deciding the Students for Fair Admission cases, the majority of Supreme Court justices failed to countenance that the equity mandate for college campuses extends beyond a focus on the composition of the student body. Rather, it encompasses, as AAC&U describes it, an understanding of diversity that consists of “active, intentional, and ongoing engagement” with difference—among people, in the curriculum, in the cocurriculum, and in intellectual, social, cultural, and geographical communities with which individuals might connect in ways that increase one’s awareness, content, knowledge, and cognitive and empathetic understanding of the “complex ways individuals act within systems and institutions.”
The anticipated fallout from the recent rulings regarding the educational aspirations of students of color and infringements on academic freedom and institutional autonomy is troubling. Equally disconcerting, however, is the Court’s positing of a colorblind society and disavowal of the persistence of structural racism, especially amid the proliferation of current legislation banning the study of critical race theory, abolishing offices of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and prohibiting the use of diversity statements in hiring practices at public colleges and universities.
In Griffin’s reflections on the cyclical nature of the history of the United States, she contemplates Frederick Douglass’s tenacious belief in America’s capacity to live up to its ideals, despite his recognition that the forces of injustice have never been fully defeated. For Griffin, the question that emerges is whether movement building requires hope. If the answer is “yes,” she suggests that our hope ought to be transferred away from the institutions that have not proved themselves worthy of hope to “justice-seeking and freedom-loving people, engaged in and transformed by the project of building a better way.” I couldn’t agree more.
Illustration by Elena Scotti