About a year ago the Trump administration shook up higher education when news leaked that it was to “redirect resources” of its civil rights division “toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” Recently, the administration weighed in on the lawsuit against Harvard University that claims that the ways Harvard takes race into account discriminates against Asian-American applicants. This week the Departments of Education and Justice rescinded Obama-era guidelines that encouraged taking race into account in a holistic admissions process as a path towards the educational benefits of having a diverse campus.
This last move by the Trump administration was not surprising, but it does not change the law. Given recent court decisions, colleges and universities are still free to develop policies that take race into account in relation to a number of other factors in their efforts to create a diverse educational environment. Wesleyan University will continue to use our nuanced, holistic admissions procedures, which act affirmatively on our core priorities and values ― including diversity.
Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African-Americans.
Creating a diverse campus is in the interest of all students, and it offers those from racial minorities opportunities that have historically been denied them. That’s why governing boards and admissions deans have crafted policies to find students from underrepresented groups for whom a strong education will have a transformative, even liberating effect.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written that the equal protection clause of the Constitution “guarantees that the majority may not win by stacking the political process against minority groups permanently, forcing the minority alone to surmount unique obstacles in pursuit of its goals ― here, educational diversity that cannot reasonably be accomplished through race-neutral measures.”
Many citizens, but particularly citizens from racial and ethnic minorities, have turned to the federal government to ensure access to political and economic opportunity. That’s why it’s particularly appalling to see the Trump administration attempting to push higher education away from affirmative action. This latest threat to higher education ― like recent decisions undermining voting rights and plans for a “merit-based” immigration system ― is at its core another attempt by elites to hold on to their privileges by limiting access to political participation, social mobility and economic opportunity.
We who work in educational institutions must push back against this threat, recognizing our responsibility to provide real opportunity to those groups who historically have been most marginalized.
College and university admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments. Higher education institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived ― including intellectual diversity ― and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will just return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past. We must resist it.