Northwestern faculty reflect on Supreme Court affirmative action cases, discuss past and future of race in college admissions


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Conservative advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina for admissions discrimination against Asian American students in 2014. The cases reached the Supreme Court in January, and the court heard the oral arguments Monday.

Casey He, Reporter

Three months after its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and revoke the constitutional right to an abortion, the Supreme Court is back in session. This term, it’s taking up another major issue: the future of affirmative action.

Conservative advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina for admissions discrimination against Asian American students in 2014. The court agreed to hear the cases in January and the oral arguments regarding the matter took place Monday.

History Prof. Kate Masur said she was surprised to find how little the attorneys and justices discussed the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all citizens, in the oral arguments.

“The lawyer for Students for Fair Admissions said the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause requires race neutrality,” Masur said. “But he never actually came back and explained why.”

In April, Masur co-authored an amicus brief supporting Harvard and UNC in the two Supreme Court cases.

The brief argued that the Fourteenth Amendment does not mandate race neutrality, contrary to the petitioners’ interpretation, and that opposing views neglect the historical context of the amendment.

“We live in a country that was defined from its origins by two particularly racist policies, that is, slavery and settler colonialism. So race has always been a factor in American life,” Masur said. “(Factoring race into college admissions) is an entirely reasonable thing to do, particularly given the context of the society that we live in.”

Sociology and political science Prof. Anthony Chen said affirmative action policies have been the subject of past litigation. A 1978 Supreme Court decision outlawed racial quotas at universities, and in 2003 the court prohibited the use of an admissions points system that guarantees points to minority applicants.

But none of those results entirely eliminated race as a factor that can determine college admission decisions, Chen added. He said a race-neutral admissions process could hinder institutions’ efforts to build diverse campuses.

“There is a large body of interdisciplinary research supporting the conclusion that racial diversity confers a number of important educational benefits,” Chen said.

Chen cited studies by the American Educational Research Association and the American Psychological Association on these benefits. Both detail the advantages of a diverse student body, including improved cross-racial understanding, reduced prejudice and increased civic engagement.

Political science Prof. Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern, said striking down affirmative action will not make admissions truly race-blind due to factors like legacy and athlete recruitment, which traditionally favor white students.

“You’re just taking race out of admissions for Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Indigenous Americans,” Tillery said. “We’re not taking it out of the system because all of those other forms of privilege, which accrue to whiteness, are still going to be at play.”

Following the oral arguments, Supreme Court experts said the justices seem prepared to strike down affirmative action. The decision for the cases is expected to be released next summer.

In an Oct. 27 op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, University President Michael Schill said diversity is fundamental to higher education, and race should remain a factor in achieving it. Tillery, meanwhile, said he hopes NU will continue to prioritize diversity on campus regardless of the cases’ outcomes.

“I just hope that Northwestern keeps its head in the game and really tries to think of some creative ways to balance racial equity and justice for all,” Tillery said.

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