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Affirmative action: What’s that?

Mel Rising Dawn Cordeiro


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On June 29, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities can no longer use race as a consideration for admission. This decision overturned the longstanding precedent that has benefited minority students in higher education for years.

Affirmative action, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups regarded as disadvantaged or subject to discrimination.” In terms of higher education, affirmative action refers to “a set of policies that ensure equal opportunity and prevent discrimination based on a broad range of identities including race, sex, gender, religion, national origin, and disability.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is also used by “equal opportunity” employers.

Affirmative action, known then as Executive Order 10925, was used by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, requiring government contractors to ensure that applicants are employed and treated fairly. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, simultaneously creating the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. A year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246, establishing the Office of Federal Contracts Compliance within the Department of Labor.

The revision of Order Number 4 in 1971 saw the inclusion of women. The signing of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also saw equal opportunity as it applied to people with disabilities. This act made it illegal to discriminate based on disability in programs associated with the federal government.

The first court case occurred in 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld race as a factor in choosing among qualified applications for college admission. The court determined that this practice violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The most recent case, filed in November 2014, was ruled on June 29. In this lawsuit, the organization Students for Fair Admissions, a non-profit organization composed of people who believe that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair and unnecessary, filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, claiming that Harvard’s race admissions policy discriminated against Asian American applicants. Harvard considers race as one factor among many in its undergraduate admissions process to expand diversity for minority students who have been underrepresented in higher education.

The case sat until September 2019 when Judge Allison Barrow rejected the plaintiff's claim. She ruled that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans or engage in any racial balancing, and its admissions practice use of race is consistent with the Supreme Court precedent. The Students for Fair Admissions filed an appeal in which the decision was upheld.

In February 2021, the Students for Fair Admissions petitioned for a writ of certiorari to have the case reviewed by the Supreme Court. The petition was rejected, noting the 40 years of established legal precedent. In January 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case in consolidation with the Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. It is important to note here that UNC is a public university, covered by the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. This is significant because these cases argued that the university’s consideration of race in the undergraduate admissions process violates the Constitution.

The findings in both cases held that race-based affirmative action admissions policies at both Harvard and the UNC were unconstitutional. These rulings reversed 45 years of race-based admissions policies. The Students for Fair Admissions organization has promised to monitor college admissions policies.

For some colleges and universities across the country, this may mean a change in the variety of the student body. This change may also mean a difference in the admissions process, by which things such as personal essays and test scores will mean more now than they did in the past. There will need to be new institutional policies and procedures in place regarding monitoring these processes. There may need to be new federal regulations in place as well.

President Jack Warner addressed this by saying that “RIC is an institution focused on access and opportunity, meaning our admission criteria relies on a holistic review of candidates’ academic preparation demonstrated by their transcripts, grade point averages, writing, and letters of recommendation, with little to no reliance on standardized testing or other criteria. This dramatic decision will have less of an immediate impact on our work to continue to fulfill our mission.” Dr. Warner also made it clear that, “Any rollback of protections of civil rights is a threat to us all.”

Rhode Island colleges and universities say they do not base admissions solely on race, but it is still too early to predict how this ruling will affect our schools and to what extent. The impact will most likely be felt in the Ivy League schools as well as other schools that gave the appearance of having a “quota to fill.” One thing is for sure: there will be more legal trouble on the horizon for colleges and universities.


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