National News

Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action Policies in University Admissions

Supporters of affirmative action demonstrate near the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington Oct. 31, 2022, after the court heard oral arguments in two cases challenging whether colleges may continue to use race as a factor in student admissions. (Photo: CNS/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court June 29 struck down affirmative action policies used in admissions by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina to ensure student diversity.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said the use of this practice in admissions was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The court heard challenges to these policies separately because Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from the Harvard case as she recently finished serving a six-year term on the university’s board of trustees.

The justices voted 6-3 in the University of North Carolina case and 6-2 in the Harvard decision.

A June 29 statement by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities said the court’s action was “more than disappointing as it ignores the more-than-apparent effects of continued racism in our society.”

The group also said the court’s decision “undermines the work that higher education has voluntarily taken on for many decades to be a solution in a society that provides too few solutions for this social evil.” 

A group of 56 Catholic colleges and universities had weighed on these  cases urging the court to uphold affirmative action in admissions. The college leaders, joining in an amicus brief filed by Georgetown University, stressed that the right to consider racial diversity in admissions is essential to their academic and religious missions and is “inextricably intertwined” with their religious foundations. 

They also said the right to achieve a diverse student body is rooted in the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and free exercise of religion.

Roberts said the use of affirmative action policies in university admissions has led many colleges and universities to wrongly conclude “that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin.”

Both of the school programs, he said, “lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points. We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today.”

The cases before the court came in a challenge from the group Students for Fair Admissions, founded by conservative activist Edward Blum. The group wanted the court to overturn its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger in which it said schools could consider race in the admissions process.

The group filed lawsuits in 2014 that accused UNC of discriminating against white and Asian American applicants and Harvard of bias against Asian American applicants.

In 2016, the court rejected a challenge to a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin.

In a separate opinion agreeing with the court’s ruling in the two cases, Justice Clarence Thomas said the decision “sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes.”

But not all justices viewed the admission policy this way. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent joined by Justices Jackson and Elena Kagan, said the court’s decision rolls back “decades of precedent and momentous progress.”

Sotomayor also said that the court’s ruling in these cases “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”

In a separate dissent, Jackson, the first black woman to serve on the court, wrote: “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat.

“But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life,” she wrote. Jackson said that the court’s action “detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences” and “has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems.”

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, tweeted after the October 2022 oral arguments in these cases that more Catholic colleges and universities should have defended affirmative action admission policies.

“Catholic higher ed must do much more to promote models of access, equity and justice on our own campuses, and we should be advocates and activists for students of color who are still marginalized in too many places,” she said.

And just after the court’s decisions were announced, McGuire tweeted that their rulings “will reinforce the opportunity gaps in American life, ensuring even greater racial and social injustice which will, in turn, debilitate the economic health of the nation and promote the ongoing social divisions that we have suffered for generations.”

She also said the court was ignoring “long-term social consequences of forcing the most elite/influential universities in the nation to end efforts to include parts of the American populace who do not have equal opportunity to participate in the economic benefits of elite education.”

A month before the court’s decision, Vincent Rougeau, president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, wrote in an opinion piece in the Boston Globe that Justice Thomas, “once the beneficiary of the most overt example of race-based admissions I can imagine, will probably be among the Supreme Court’s majority” when it is expected to strike down the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

Rougeau said the college believes, as it did when its president decades ago personally recruited black high school students, including Thomas, “that a diverse learning community is essential to our academic and Jesuit, Catholic missions. It creates a rich learning environment that promotes understanding of and empathy toward people of different backgrounds. It forces all of us to engage directly with uncomfortable realities about our nation’s past and to consider the consequences of ignoring them.”

In his May 29 opinion piece, he said colleges were gearing up for the court’s expected decision.

“Many higher education institutions across the country are already taking steps to prepare for what’s to come, from reducing barriers to admission to intentionally recruiting applicants at high schools in underrepresented communities,” and developing partnerships with organizations that “work to help expand opportunities for marginalized students,” Rougeauu wrote.

The ACCU statement reflected a similar path forward, saying it would continue to be guided by Catholic social teaching and would “within the bounds articulated by this latest decision, continue to create paths by which those in society who do not have opportunity find it at our institutions.”