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Reactions: Faculty and alumni criticize Supreme Court affirmative action decisions

People in bright orange garb lining a path. Some ride golf carts. In the background is a brown building.
Golf carts carrying some of Princeton’s oldest living alumni form a line to pass through East Pyne.
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

On June 29, the Supreme Court ruled (6–3) against race-conscious admissions in cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). While Chief Justice Roberts noted in the majority opinion that applicants may still discuss ​​“how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” universities are now unable to use race as a part of the holistic reading process. As a result, the future of admissions and diversity efforts at universities, including Princeton, is unclear. 

With that in mind, we asked a range of Princeton-affiliated experts — from professors to college counselors — for their Reactions to the ruling. 

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Everyone loses with the loss of race-conscious admissions

By Allison Slater Tate, College Counselor

What’s important to understand about Thursday’s decision regarding Harvard and UNC is that although it will impact students of color the most — I would never want to minimize that — it hurts everyone and “helps” no one. No one should be applauding this outcome. 

The college admissions process is inherently unfair and never pretended to be otherwise. Every day, I explain to students and their families that the myth that college acceptance is based on some kind of meritocracy is patently false. It’s not about being “good enough” or accomplishing the most in high school. Instead, gaining acceptance to a college or university is based upon meeting the academic qualifications required, then fulfilling the specific institutional priorities of that specific institution in a specific application cycle. From the student side, it’s maddening — like trying to complete a puzzle without the ability to see the front of the box to know what the finished picture should be. But colleges do know what the finished puzzle should look like. It’s not a mystery; they have a plan.

For most universities, that picture and that plan ideally include diversity on campus – diversity of experience, socioeconomic background, geographical location, culture and heritage – because diversity is a critical, irreplaceable part of higher education. After all, how do you have a nuanced conversation about books or ideas without a variety of experiences and perspectives to bring to the texts? There would be a palpable and profound impact on the quality of education without that diversity. 

The decision, as written, does allow for universities to ask applicants to discuss their experiences in regard to race and ethnicity in their applications and for universities to consider that in admissions evaluations. Unfortunately, that places an additional burden on applicants. Moreover, it takes up space students could use to tell an admissions office something else they find integral to their identity, their character, and their humanity. That point doesn’t make this ruling better. It’s just one more hurdle for underrepresented students to clear. 

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The nuances of the impact of this decision are yet to be seen. But from my perspective, everyone lost today. I dread the added layer of angst this will add to an already fraught process for my students and for the professionals I know on both the university and high school sides, especially those of color themselves, who try so hard to do the right thing and support students. It’s hard not to feel defeated and discouraged.

Allison Slater Tate ’96 is the Director of College Counseling at Lake Mary Preparatory School and a college counselor for Dunbar Educational Consultants. She can be reached at allisonstate@gmail.com. 

A matter of will, not judgment

By Martin S. Flaherty, Constitutional Law Scholar

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The Court’s decision on affirmative action was as poorly justified as I expected. First, Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion willfully turned a blind eye to a thorough understanding of the original understanding of the Equal Protection Clause, despite originalism ostensibly being a method of interpretation that this Court champions. Among other things, the establishment of the Freedman’s Bureau during Reconstruction supports the idea that those who created the Fourteenth Amendment supported what would now be called affirmative action.  

Second, for the first time that I can recall, the Court has dismissed a government goal – diversity in higher education – not because it was not compelling, but because it is somehow not quantifiable. This justification is not only wrong, but is arrogance masquerading as institutional humility. Third, as the dissents stress, the imposition of a colorblindness principle alone, in a society where structural racism dates back to the very beginnings of American history, is not tone-deaf so much as deeply cynical. 

In Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented from the Court’s approval of the doctrine of “separate but equal” in racial discrimination. He famously declared, “Our Constitution is colorblind. There is no caste here.” He meant that a Jim Crow law violated the Equal Protection Clause for two reasons: such a law made a distinction based on race, and it used that distinction to subordinate a group. Affirmative action measures violate only one of those principles since they use race to attempt to address the previous subordination of races. Chief Justice Roberts had the audacity to quote Justice Harlan; as with much else in his opinion, he ignored Justice Harlan’s obvious point. Where it should have seen the obvious constitutionality of the affirmative action measures, the Court struck race-conscious admissions down as a matter of will, not judgment. 

Martin S. Flaherty ’81 is a visiting professor in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). He is an expert in constitutional law and was a law clerk at the Supreme Court for Justice Bryon White. He can be reached by email at mading@princeton.edu or on twitter at @MFlaherty17.

Equity at Princeton is in the University’s hands, not the Court’s

By Soo-Young Kim, Lecturer

The end of affirmative action is a chance for schools like Princeton to demonstrate their true commitment to equity — and for students and workers at these schools to ensure that they do so. 

First it’s important to recognize that the specific way that the fight was won in the courts, and to some extent in the public, involved pitting Asian and Black communities against each other. This tactic has a long history disguised in concepts such as “model minority” and “proximity to whiteness” applied to Asians, and its effect is to fracture solidarities among communities of color and draw attention away from those who have held the most privilege. We can separate out the two issues — Asian students have faced discrimination, but the culprit is not affirmative action, but rather anti-Asian biases and stereotypes.

So what kind of equity will Princeton commit itself to now? The reality is that Princeton has the resources at its disposal to craft more or less the student body it desires, and that the end of affirmative action does little to change this. While there’s debate regarding the extent to which alternatives to race-based affirmative action can result in racially diverse student bodies, there’s no reason why a holistic approach to admissions combined with a genuine desire for and investment in diversity can’t produce meaningful racial representation. The issue isn’t what Princeton and its peer institutions are able to do, but what they’re willing to do. Shortcomings in equity at elite institutions like Princeton must be recognized for what they are—not the outcome of legal restrictions, but the result of choices about what kind of places these institutions want to be. 

Partnering with college access programs and offering generous financial aid packages are some of the steps that Princeton already takes to build a racially and economically diverse applicant pool. Yet the long-standing underrepresentation of Generational African American students can’t be chalked up to Princeton’s hands being tied by a Supreme Court ruling. To understand what might actually explain it, we could consider where a thoroughgoing commitment to racial and class equity in accessing a Princeton education might lead — to building a cross-racial, working-class solidarity within the heart of elite institutions that would threaten the established role of these institutions in largely reproducing social hierarchies and credentialing the dominant classes.

Acknowledging what a genuine pursuit of equity would look like exposes the fundamental tension between the ambitions of equity and the elitism that’s integral to making a Princeton education what it is. In this light, the real question we have to grapple with isn’t how to bring about equity in accessing elite institutions, but how we should understand and justify the existence of such institutions in the first place.

Soo-Young Kim teaches in the Writing Program, the Freshman Scholars Institute, and the Freshman Seminar Program. She can be reached at csk2@princeton.edu.

Pretending injustice is not there does not make it any less real

By Professor Agustín Fuentes

Mountains of data and countless analyses collected across decades of scholarly research demonstrate unequivocally that bias and inequity based on race (racism) have occurred and still occur throughout US society. Higher education is one of the places where racism has been, and still is, well documented again and again and again. The Supreme Court of the United States has chosen to ignore these facts and contribute to the continuation of systemic racism in the US.

The key harm in this decision is the ideologically driven, factually erroneous rejection of the reality of systemic inequity via racial discrimination. Just because a cluster of six conservative judges don’t believe that racism exists, does not mean that it is not real and felt daily by millions of Americans. The impact of this decision will not only be a reduction in racial and ethnic diversity in higher education but also an offer of structural support for multiple other court cases asserting that any recognition of racism in the workplace, in real estate markets, and in an array of other contexts is unwarranted and unconstitutional. 

By ignoring the factual reality of racial discrimination and attacking and removing the structures and programs that ameliorate systemic inequities, we move further away from the common goal of a just society. I hope that this Supreme Court decision, and all the relevant data, analyses, and impacts related to it, are front and center in discussions in the classroom, the scholarship, and the community at Princeton this fall. This is not the time to be silent or ignorant or complacent.

Agustín Fuentes is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He can be reached at afuentes2@princeton.edu. 

Race-blind admissions will cause us to regress, not advance

By Sydney Montgomery, Educational nonprofit founder

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes at a time when students of color increasingly lag behind white students in attending selective colleges, attend two-year colleges in disproportionate numbers, and are less likely to attend or graduate from college. Yet Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote: “many universities … have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin.”

Roberts’ comments, however, ignore the fact that many students of color are not seen based on their challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but actually face discrimination and systemic injustices at every step of their educational journey purely on the basis of the color of their skin. The notion that we can have a completely race-blind admissions process in a society where educational advancement is not race-blind sets us up to regress, not advance, diversity and representation in higher education. To bar schools from being able to be conscious of the background and racial histories of students applying sets us up to continue to replicate and exacerbate the racial disparities in education at a time when the equity gap is already expanding at a staggering rate. 

While students will be able to discuss their racial background in their essays, this puts undue burden and pressure on students of color to feel that they have to exploit their racial trauma in order to gain admission to highly selective schools. 

To students, I say: Get to know the schools you are applying to on both the undergraduate and graduate levels — look at free resources to get a sense of the experiences of students of color on their campuses and attend conferences where you can speak to graduate schools directly about diversity initiatives. Be authentic in your essays: Don’t feel the need to insert racial trauma into an essay because you feel that you have to, but don’t exclude your background if it’s important to you. 

Most importantly, don’t let this ruling discourage you from pushing your dreams. Above all, admissions deans and directors want to build a diverse class. They want to support you no matter your racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background.

Sydney Montgomery (P15) is the Founder and Executive Director of the Barrier Breakers® nonprofit organization. Barrier Breakers® aims to increase access to, and success in, higher education for BIPOC and other marginalized students and will have helped 7,000 students on their college and law school admissions by the end of 2023. Sydney is a first-generation graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School and currently lives in Princeton, NJ. She can be reached at sydney@barrier-breakers.org.

Inconsistencies in the ruling raise questions about other admissions policies

By Professor Paul Frymer

The Supreme Court’s decision to effectively end affirmative action policies in higher education will have longstanding consequences, some intended by the Court, some likely not. Most immediately, it will likely lead to significantly fewer Black and Latino students being admitted to elite universities like Princeton. The case also sends the (incorrect) message that race — and the nation’s history of racism and discrimination — is no longer in need of recognition and redress. While affirmative action was by no means a perfect policy, it was at least an effort to recognize and confront the nation’s history of racial discrimination, as well as the existence of ongoing prejudice and systemic inequities. 

At the same time, this decision is going to raise a whole host of complications and inconsistencies that will reverberate through universities and beyond. The decision will place great pressure on private universities like Princeton to make fundamental changes to their admissions policy, well beyond prohibiting affirmative action. The Supreme Court majority says it wants to end the use of race as a consideration for admissions; if sincere, then they ought to support a thorough examination of the admissions process to uncover the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which race is baked into the architecture of the whole system. 

For instance, there will be immediate pressure to end legacy programs, and more focus on the existing biases towards white applicants that come from different athletic programs and other features of the admissions process — these factors drive inequities more than affirmative action policies ever did. And, by suggesting that universities may consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” the Roberts majority likely incentivizes the subject of race and identity to become more prominent in the admissions process, not less. 

This decision, just as the recent cases involving abortion rights, religious rights, and gun rights were, is full of unsustainable contradictions that will only create more questions and controversy. The Court is engaged in ideological and partisan activism on par with previously controversial courts, such as the conservative Lochner era or the liberal Warren Court that it wishes to dismantle. Past eras ended with widespread resistance from rising social movements, and demographic and political changes. The opposition they both succumbed to was not immediately manifested but grew steadily and was sustained and built around new coalitions, politicians, and theories. This era will end no differently. 

Paul Frymer is a Professor of Politics at Princeton. He can be reached at pfrymer@princeton.edu.

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