courtesy of Chronicle of Higher Education
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down colleges’ use of race-conscious admissions nationwide, ruling in a pair of closely watched cases that the practice is racially discriminatory.
Writing for the court’s majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that policies that claim to consider an applicant’s race as one factor among many are in fact violating the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“The court has permitted race-based college admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions: Such admissions programs must comply with strict scrutiny, may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and must — at some point — end,” Roberts wrote. “Respondents’ admissions systems fail each of these criteria.”
The cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, Nos. 20–1199 and 21–707, challenged those institutions’ use of that contentious practice, known as race-conscious admissions, and asserted that they resulted in discrimination against Asian American applicants. Chapel Hill and Harvard defended their policies and prevailed in court until the Supreme Court, in January 2022, agreed to consider the cases. The justices heard oral arguments in both cases on October 31, 2022.
The decision reverses decades of legal precedent affirming that a diverse student body is a “compelling state interest,” a stance that had allowed colleges to use race-conscious admissions to reach that goal. In 1978, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke established that colleges could consider race in their admissions decisions to achieve “educational benefits,” not to remedy past discrimination. In 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which a white applicant sued the University of Michigan Law School over her admissions denial, upheld the Bakke ruling.
The compelling interests identified by the colleges — training future leaders, acquiring new knowledge based on diverse outlooks, promoting a robust marketplace of ideas, and preparing engaged and productive citizens — “cannot be subjected to meaningful judicial review,” Roberts wrote.
“While these are commendable goals, they are not sufficiently coherent for purposes of strict scrutiny,” he wrote. “It is unclear how courts are supposed to measure any of these goals, or if they could, to know when they have been reached so that racial preferences can end.”
Roberts carved out one exception: The ruling does not apply to military academies, “in light of the potentially distinct interests” they may present, he wrote.
The UNC case was decided on a 6-3 ruling; the Harvard case was a 6-2 ruling because Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a member of Harvard’s governing board when the case was at an earlier stage, recused herself.
In the oral arguments last fall, the court’s conservative majority sounded skeptical of the colleges’ defenses, focusing much of their questioning on how college admissions might change if the court barred admissions officers from considering race in their evaluations.
That will now be a question for selective colleges to take up. They will very likely draw lessons from colleges in states that have already banned race-conscious admissions, like California and Michigan.
In dissents, Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor, in the Harvard case, and Justice Jackson, in the UNC case, wrote that the ruling would have devastating effects on equity in higher education. “Today, this court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress,” Sotomayor wrote.
The court’s decision, Sotomayor continued, “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”
Jackson wrote in her dissent that the decision effectively amounted to ignorance. “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat,” Jackson wrote. “But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”
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