Legal experts say upcoming Supreme Court decisions could threaten diversity in universities


Illustration by Shveta Shah

Experts say upcoming Supreme Court decisions could have ramifications for universities like NU.

Luis Castañeda, Reporter

Prior to 1966, an average of five Black students per year enrolled at Northwestern. That year, NU’s race-based recruitment infrastructure changed with the inception of two new programs: the NU Chicago Action Program and a special summer program which aimed to encourage Black students to enroll.

“Although not all black students participated in this summer program, the program must be considered to be the primary reason for the increasing enrollment of black students,” according to a 1970s progress report on the admission of Black students since the fall of 1965. 

The University recruited students from Chicago Public Schools through NUCAP. By 1969, over 100 Black students were enrolling at NU per year.

But, this upcoming June, the structures put in place by NU and other universities in the 60s could be in jeopardy. The Supreme Court is set to rule on affirmative action in two cases against  Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, respectively.

Plaintiffs in the first case allege Harvard’s admissions policy discriminates against Asian American students, while the other argues the University of North Carolina discriminates against Asian American and white students. 

If the Supreme Court rules against current precedent, universities may change their policies on race in the admissions process.

Earlier Supreme Court challenges to affirmative action outlawed racial quota systems. Legal Studies Prof. Joanna Grisinger said the Court found schools couldn’t set aside certain seats on the basis of race in 1978.

Grisinger said the 6-3 conservative-leaning makeup of the current Supreme Court indicates affirmative action policies will change. 

“It seems likely that this composition of this particular Supreme Court is very hostile to affirmative action and will say that schools cannot consider race at all as part of an admissions process,” Grisinger said.

NU student activism has centered on increased admission of Black students for decades. The original list of demands presented to the University in the Bursar’s Office Takeover in 1968, when students occupied the Bursar’s Office for 38 hours, included a request for greater racial diversity in admissions.

“It is hoped that in the future, through the combined efforts of the black students and the Office of Admission, a greater number of applications will be received from black high school students,” reads a May 4, 1968 agreement between the Afro-American Student Union, For Members Only and the University. “If such efforts are successful, it is realistic to assume that the black community in the nation at large will soon be proportionately represented in the Northwestern student body.”

NU has made significant strides toward proportional representation since then. Black students make up 12% of the Class of 2025 — which nearly mirrors the proportion of Black people in America in 2021.

Students are demanding the University prioritize protecting its current race-conscious admissions process ahead of upcoming rulings.

A list sent to the University by Black student activists last month called for “an in-depth review of how the University plans to adjust recruitment and admissions in response to the upcoming 2023 Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.”

Broderick Turner (Kellogg M.S. ’18, Ph.D. ’20) said he thinks students should demand more from the administration.

“If the students are asking for what the plan is, that’s a fine request, but you can ask for more,” said Turner, co-founder of the Technology, Race and Prejudice Lab. “In America, when you bring value to somewhere, you should be compensated for that value.”

In a Thursday morning letter to the student body, University President Michael Schill said the school is committed to student diversity, emphasizing it as a critical component of a well-rounded education.

“Regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court cases, we will work hard, within the law, to protect our diversity and will remain committed to practices that have helped us in recent years and be open to new strategies,” Schill said in the letter.

Schill listed six ways the University will protect its diversity policies in light of the upcoming decision. NU will continue its holistic review of applications, temporary test-optional policies and partnerships with college-access organizations such as QuestBridge, STARS College Network and College Horizons.

University spokesperson Jon Yates said a cross functional team has been working over the past several months with students, faculty and staff to adapt to potential changes in the legal landscape. 

Turner said research shows that prioritizing diversity in admissions is a “win-win” for universities.

“It’s hard being an underrepresented minority in a majority-white environment,” he said. “All research bears out mental health (and) all these things are much worse. It’s a tougher experience.”

In a 1991 report about University efforts to recruit Black students, then-Assistant Director of Admissions Allison Jefferson (Medill ’86, ’87) noted the challenges that NU’s lack of diversity posed to the recruitment of Black students at the time.

“Rightfully so, many African American parents … are encouraging their children to investigate predominantly black institutions instead,” Jefferson wrote in the report. “Once students have decided that they would be more comfortable at a Black college, it is extremely difficult to attract them to a predominantly white school.”

In response, the Office of Admissions set recommendations to increase Black student enrollment, formally organizing Black alumni, assisting Black students with financial aid forms and getting students involved with local, community-based education programs.

Grisinger said previous Supreme Court decisions have reaffirmed the argument that universities have an interest in building diverse student bodies, meaning the state should support that interest. Still, she said, the Court outlawing race-based admissions could be hard for universities to interpret. 

“What if someone writes their essay about a personal experience they have that involves race? Can they not read that? Well, that seems unlikely. So then how do you then prove you aren’t taking it into account?” she said. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @LuisCasta220 

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