Princeton University will no longer be allowed to use admissions programs that rely on racial considerations when determining who to admit after the Supreme Court today delivered two historic rulings that eliminate the notion of affirmative action.
Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 sent a message to the campus community hours after the rulings were released reiterating “principles and commitments fundamental to this University’s mission,” including “talent exists in every sector of American society, and we have an obligation to attract exceptional people of every background and enable them to flourish on our campus” and “diversity benefits learning and scholarship by broadening the range of questions, perspectives, and experiences brought to bear on important topics throughout the University.”
Princeton, he said, “has been preparing for this possibility with assistance and advice from legal counsel. While today’s decision will make our work more difficult, we will work vigorously to preserve — and, indeed, grow — the diversity of our community while fully respecting the law as announced today.”
Last fall, the court heard oral arguments for Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFAI) v. President and Fellows of Harvard and SFAI v. University of North Carolina (UNC), both of which centered around affirmative action and race-based admissions in higher education.
In the former case, the plaintiffs argued that Harvard’s admissions practices limited the number of admitted Asian American students, despite an increase in applications from Asian Americans and an increase of Asian Americans in the general population. The justices voted along ideological lines 6-2, with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recusing herself as an alumna of Harvard and a former member of its Board of Overseers.
In the latter case, the plaintiffs maintained that UNC unlawfully considered race in admissions decisions and gave preference to underrepresented minority applicants. The justices again voted along ideological lines, 6-3. Sonia Sotomayor ’76 wrote the dissenting opinion, saying, “Today, this Court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress,” adding that the decision “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion.
Paul Schiff Berman ’88, a professor of law at George Washington, said that “this is the culmination of a long-term effort in conservative legal circles to transform the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Originally enacted after the Civil War to ensure the integration of former slaves into society, the clause was read by today’s majority as requiring complete color blindness.
“I think … we will see universities moving to other kinds of admission systems that focus on socioeconomics and geographic diversity as a way of ensuring that their institutions remain diverse, vibrant communities despite this decision,” Berman said.
Writing in a President’s Page column in the March issue of PAW, Eisgruber argued against the view that “students can and should be ranked on some all-things-considered metric.” He said: “This myth of merit-based ranking infects and distorts discussions about affirmative action, including in the cases now pending at the Supreme Court. People mistakenly say that the cases are about whether colleges should choose students on the basis of ‘merit’ rather than taking race or other factors into account. Race and ethnicity are among the many factors that help us to understand the challenges that applicants have overcome and the perspectives that they can add to our campus.”
Critics of the decision point to higher-education institutions such as the University of California and the University of Michigan, both of which saw a decrease in the diversity of their student bodies after the institutions’ respective states previously banned race-based admissions practices.
Sheldon Bernard Lyke ’96, an associate professor of law at Loyola University Chicago, says he’s an advocate for and product of affirmative action, but that he personally agrees with some of the points outlined in the majority decision, as higher-education institutions should focus on equality rather than diversity, which can be amorphous and hard to measure.
“I think that Justice Roberts points out a lot of the inconsistencies of relying on the diversity rationale. The problem is that he just leaves everything exposed and doesn’t account for the fact that racial bias still exists in the system, right? Like he got rid of affirmative action, but didn’t get rid of race in admissions, because race in admissions is alive and well, and more so now that affirmative action has been struck down,” Lyke said. “You look at standardized tests, grades, letters of recommendation — all of those things are tainted with racial bias.”
In 1978, the Supreme Court decided in the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that an applicant’s race can lawfully be considered so long as it is just one of several factors in the admission determination; the court’s decision on Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003 affirmed that decision.
Sotomayor, in her dissenting opinion, noted, “The three Justices of color on this Court graduated from elite universities and law schools with race-conscious admissions programs, and achieved successful legal careers, despite having different educational backgrounds than their peers.”
Berman and Lyke both said they believe the decision today may have impacts beyond higher education, for example in employment and governmental funding decisions.
Former first lady Michelle Obama ’85 alluded to these wide-ranging impacts in a response to the decision posted on social media, which recalled her Princeton days and the impact of race-conscious admissions. “Today is a reminder that we’ve got to do the work not just to enact policies that reflect our values of equity and fairness, but to truly make those values real in all of our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods,” Obama wrote.
Three of the current Supreme Court justices are Princeton alumni: Samuel Alito ’72, who was part of the six-justice majority in the affirmative action decision, and Elena Kagan ’81 and Sotomayor, who sided with Harvard and UNC.