In case you missed it, the Supreme Court of the United States went on a tear over the last couple of weeks, issuing a series of landmark rulings, many of which busted up causes favored by progressives.
The ruling that caught my eyes, however, was Thursday’s rejection of race-based affirmative action in colleges and universities, specifically at Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill. The decision was a reversal of precedent because the right to employ race-based preferences in higher education was found by the SCOTUS to be constitutional under the 14th Amendment as recently as 2016.
My heightened interest in the case stems, in part, from the fact that Connecticut has a large number of colleges and universities, some of which cut a national profile and are among the finest in the world. All institutions of higher learning in our state are bound to be affected by this recent ruling to one degree or another.
Judging from the impassioned responses from leaders in Connecticut higher education, all of whom said they would nonetheless obey the law, the ruling will deal a blow to the goal of achieving diversity among their student bodies. At Yale, which had filed an amicus brief last year in support of Harvard and UNC, President Peter Salovey described himself as “deeply troubled.”
“This is a detriment to everyone who benefits from the diversity of our campuses,” Solovey wrote in a June 29 statement to the Yale community. “To the extent today’s decisions impede progress in this regard, I believe they have done the nation a disservice.”
UConn president Radenka Maric said she and the university are in a state of “dismay” and that, “no matter what, our commitment to vital, unifying, and transformative diversity will remain one of our core values at UConn.”
Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, who also appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Friday to discuss the issue, told the Wesleyan community he was “extremely disappointed” in the decision, but was nonetheless encouraged when Chief Justice John Roberts added that admissions officers could consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” Still, Roberts warned against using such experiences as a means of getting around the court’s decision.
In order to assess whether the ruling will have the kind of detrimental impact on diversity that education leaders have asserted, it’s worth asking whether racial preferences as one of many factors in admitting students really achieve the diversity its proponents say it does.
Colleges and universities are almost unanimous in insisting that race-based affirmative action works, though there is disagreement on how well. Reliable data are not easy to come by.
At the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California, the share of Black and Hispanic students fell by about half immediately after a California voter referendum in 1996 banned affirmative action based on a variety of factors, including race, at state and local government agencies and public universities.
My personal preference to replace race in affirmative action – socioeconomic status – is viewed as a poor proxy for race because there are more low-income white households in the U.S. than there are low-income Black and Hispanic households combined. A recent analysis in the Wall Street Journal examined the alternatives to race thoroughly and fairly, and concluded that history suggests most are ineffective.
As I suspected they would in a Substack column last week, in the wake of this defeat, affirmative action supporters have turned their sights on so-called legacy admissions. It’s an open secret that applicants whose parents or grandparents attended the college in question are more likely to gain admission than similarly qualified applicants who have no past connection with the school. Fortunately, some colleges, such as Amherst, have given up the practice voluntarily and do not seem the worse for it.
Most observers insist that legacy admissions are about nothing but money. Well, they’re partly right, though, as is often the case, it’s not quite that simple, as I discovered while working for nine years in private school development and fundraising.
The way to maintain existing donors and – and even to identify new ones – is to ensure that they always remain connected to the institution on some meaningful level. And what better way to continue that connection than having a child or grandchild attending the school? Those alumni are likely to come to family weekends or athletic events if they have a close relative at the school. Development officers schmooze with them when they’re on campus. Then when it’s time for the big ask, those legacy forebears will open their wallets – or that’s the theory anyway.
But contrary to popular belief, one of the most popular restrictions placed on major gifts to independent schools and universities isn’t that the donor’s name be placed on a building, but that the money go toward scholarships for either merit- or need-based financial aid. Donors love having their names attached to perpetual scholarship awards. It stands to reason that if you discontinue legacy admissions, then there will be less money, not only for the shiny new thing, but for financial aid as well.
The group challenging legacy admissions at Harvard is doing so on the grounds that the practice violates federal civil rights law because it overwhelmingly benefits white applicants over applicants of color. I would not shed a tear if the courts eventually find that legacy admissions have run their course and should be prohibited.
Discontinuing race-based preferences while maintaining privilege-based preferences will be a hard sell, even with a Supreme Court that has a conservative supermajority. Look for an end in the coming years to what some are calling “affirmative action for white people.” Higher education will ultimately be better off for it.