Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action In Higher Education Admissions

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against Harvard and UNC in a pair of cases that will effectively end the practice of race-based admissions to colleges and universities in the U.S.

Affirmative action is dead, killed by the United States Supreme Court.

On Thursday (June 29), the court released opinions in a pair of highly charged cases arising from challenges to the admissions processes at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Both suits were brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, led by conservative activist Ed Blum. The UNC case, Students For Fair Admissions Inc. v. University of North Carolina, alleged the public university discriminated against White and Asian-American students by allowing race to be considered as one factor in an overall holistic admissions process; while the Harvard case, Students For Fair Admissions Inc. v. President And Fellows Of Harvard College, alleged discrimination against Asian Americans under a similar approach, which allows race and ethnicity to be considered as part of a candidate’s personal rating.

The high court ruled in both that race-based admissions, which has been practiced since 1978 and survived three previous high court challenges, violates the Equal Protections Clause of the 14th Amendment. The vote was 6-3 along ideological lines, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the conservative majority.


UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz: ““Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences”

Harvard, in an email message to university community members signed by President Lawrence Bacow and co-signed by all deans, including Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Dakar, reacted to the SCOTUS ruling:

“We write today to reaffirm the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences. That principle is as true and important today as it was yesterday. So too are the abiding values that have enabled us—and every great educational institution—to pursue the high calling of educating creative thinkers and bold leaders, of deepening human knowledge, and of promoting progress, justice, and human flourishing.

“We affirm that:

  • Because the teaching, learning, research, and creativity that bring progress and change require debate and disagreement, diversity and difference are essential to academic excellence.
  • To prepare leaders for a complex world, Harvard must admit and educate a student body whose members reflect, and have lived, multiple facets of human experience. No part of what makes us who we are could ever be irrelevant.
  • Harvard must always be a place of opportunity, a place whose doors remain open to those to whom they had long been closed, a place where many will have the chance to live dreams their parents or grandparents could not have dreamed.

“For almost a decade, Harvard has vigorously defended an admissions system that, as two federal courts ruled, fully complied with longstanding precedent. In the weeks and months ahead, drawing on the talent and expertise of our Harvard community, we will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values.

“The heart of our extraordinary institution is its people. Harvard will continue to be a vibrant community whose members come from all walks of life, all over the world. To our students, faculty, staff, researchers, and alumni — past, present, and future — who call Harvard your home, please know that you are, and always will be, Harvard. Your remarkable contributions to our community and the world drive Harvard’s distinction. Nothing today has changed that.”

UNC, the other defendant in the pair of cases, also issued a statement reacting to the Supreme Court decisions. University of North Carolina Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said despite the ruling against his school, UNC will remain committed to diversity in its student ranks.

“Carolina remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond,” Guskiewicz said. “While not the outcome we hoped for, we will carefully review the Supreme Court’s decision and take any steps necessary to comply with the law.”

David L. Boliek Jr., Chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, added: “On behalf of the people of our state, we will work with the administration to ensure that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill complies fully with today’s ruling from the nation’s highest court. We intend for America’s oldest public university to keep leading.”

(Read the Supreme Court’s full decision here.)


Peter Rodriguez Rice Jones Dean

Rice Jones Dean Peter Rodriguez: “Having students from a variety of backgrounds enriches the cohort’s learning experience and reflects our community, state and national diversity”

Business schools, which have reported minority data with greater granularity and enthusiasm in recent years, will be impacted by the Supreme Court’s 237-page ruling along with the larger universities they are a part of. But how extensive will that impact be? At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Dean Francesca Cornelli told the school community in an email message that evaluations of the ruing’s import are underway and Kellogg “is actively participating in University dialogues” to “determine how we will comply with the decision while continuing our work to advance diversity, equity and inclusion on our campuses.

“As you know, Kellogg is committed to the power that people of diverse backgrounds, perspectives and experiences bring as we train future global leaders for business and society,” Cornelli writes. “The entire Northwestern community will continue to collaborate and drive our mission forward.”

Echoing the view of many, Dean Matthew Slaughter of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College told his students and faculty that the SCOTUS ruling will not alter the school’s “commitment to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community where every person can find their sense of belonging and thus can thrive. Our mission at Tuck,” Slaughter added, “is to develop wise, decisive leaders who better the world through business. Leaders succeed with and through teams, and empirical research has repeatedly found that diverse teams can lead to better decisions, better organizational performance, and better business results—particularly diverse teams in which there is a high degree of trust.”

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania issued a brief unsigned statement on social media that it “remains committed to a diverse and vibrant student body, and to conducting our admissions efforts in accordance with the law as we recruit future classes into the Wharton community.”

Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, says that while the full impact of the SCOTUS decision is unclear, B-schools like Rice Jones will continue to be committed to enrolling diverse classes at the undergraduate and MBA levels.

“The decision is not a surprise, as this outcome has been all but certain since the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear these two cases (in October),” Rodriguez tells Poets&Quants. “The decision punctuates the need for us to do all that we can to assure all applicants that they are valued and welcome at Rice and that our commitment to their success, well-being, and to the value of diversity is unchanged.

“Our primary goal in the admissions process is first, to attract a highly talented and diverse set of applicants and second, to ensure that every enrolled student can be successful in and can make notable contributions to the learning experience of the admitted cohort. Having students from a variety of backgrounds enriches the cohort’s learning experience and reflects our community, state and national diversity.”


Rodriguez says his primary concern, for both Rice’s graduate and undergraduate students, lies in Rice’s ability to continue to attract the best students to apply, “and to assure them that our degree programs provide them the benefits that derive from learning together within a highly capable and diverse community that reflects the state and nation in which we live. It is not clear how and by how much our school and its programs will be affected.

“What happens to under-represented minority students depends greatly on the details of the ruling and it will take time to understand the implications of those details. The net effects will result from changes in the composition of the applicant pool and it is too soon to tell what those will be.

“Of course, we will comply with the law. We will also broaden and reaffirm our outreach to student groups that are negatively impacted by this ruling and work with and learn from our peers as the implications of this ruling are clarified and better understood.”


Peter Johnson: “Persistent inequities in education from kindergarten through college and unequal socio-economic opportunities have meant that the kind of diverse representation that is needed is not going to happen organically”

Peter Johnson, former assistant dean of the MBA program and admissions at the University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business and current director for admissions consultancy Fortuna Admissions, says California and Michigan — where race-based admissions ended years ago — are not a good model for universities and B-schools going forward.

“If anything, they are an example of why affirmative action is so important,” Johnson tells P&Q. “In California, where race-conscious admissions in public institutions was banned in 1996, so-called ‘race-neutral’ alternatives have not resulted in a student population that is reflective of the country or the state of California, despite significant investments and energy. In fact, according to the amicus brief filed by the UC system, underrepresented minority enrollment at the most selective UC campuses dropped more than 50% since the ban went into effect.”

Johnson says for business schools, affirmative action has been an important factor in creating programs that more accurately reflect the diversity of the U.S. population. “Businesses and other organizations need leadership and a workforce that reflect the communities they serve,” he says. “Persistent inequities in education from kindergarten through college and unequal socio-economic opportunities have meant that the kind of diverse representation that is needed is not going to happen organically. Race-conscious admission practices have helped graduate management education programs to create learning environments that better reflect the U.S. population and to educate talented students representing a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

“I’m puzzled why those attacking affirmative action are largely silent about the preferential treatment that has been given for generations to the children of wealthy alumni and donors at the expense of talented students who lack the same socio-economic status, including first generation students from all backgrounds.”

Regardless of the Supreme Court ruling, Johnson says, diversity will continue to be an admissions priority “as educational institutions will still have a compelling interest in creating student populations that reflect the diversity of our country and which help to overcome long-standing inequities. Striking down affirmative action removes an important tool for achieving a more equitable society, and the assertion that race-neutral options can achieve this goal has been proven to be false. As a result, this decision may shift the entire landscape of higher education – it just depends on how far the ruling goes and what it allows or disallows universities to do.”


Petia Whitmore: After the high court’s ruling, B-schools “might end up having a much stronger impetus to consider ways to assess and bring more socio-economic diversity into their classrooms”

Petia Whitmore, former dean of MBA admissions at Babson College and founder of My MBA Path admissions consultancy, says the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action will have huge implications on MBA admission and the graduate management education space in general.

“I personally believe that enrolling and educating truly diverse MBA classes is an absolutely core aspect of the value proposition of graduate business education,” Whitmore tells P&Q. “As a former dean of graduate admissions, I also believe it’s part of business schools’ core responsibilities to business and society. Yet, meeting this obligation might become more complicated now that affirmative action has been struck down.

“If there is a silver lining to all this, it will be that business schools might end up having a much stronger impetus to consider ways to assess and bring more socio-economic diversity into their classrooms.”

Paul Bodine, founder and president of consultancy, says affirmative action played a vital role in achieving balance in university admissions.

“Race conscious admissions give ‘preferential treatment to students from certain under-represented groups,’ according to The Economist. That preferential treatment has been given in order to balance out the preferential treatment long enjoyed by over-represented groups,” Bodine says. “Outlawing the former (by overturning 40+ years of precedent) without addressing the latter hardly seems like justice.

“The ruling will de facto green-light one set of anti-meritocratic admissions processes — those favoring ALDC (athletes and legacy, donor and faculty children) applicants and affluent families who can afford private schools, extracurricular tutoring, etc. — but outlaw the anti-meritocratic admissions processes — “race-conscious” affirmative action — that, flawed or not, at least partially atone for the former.

“In the years after the Universities of California and Michigan were required to drop affirmative action admissions in the mid-2000s, they struggled to build classes that reflect U.S. demographics. By creating a climate where admissions officers feel less able to atone for the system’s other inequities (ALDC, affluence, etc.), SCOTUS’s decision will also make it harder for business schools to sustain one of their biggest recent achievements: near gender parity and entering classes that (mostly) reflect U.S. demographics better than ever before. How is that a good thing?”

See the next page for more reaction to the SCOTUS affirmative action decision. 

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