In a groundbreaking decision, the Supreme Court has invalidated affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The ruling, delivered on Thursday, states that both institutions have violated the Fourteenth Amendment and federal civil rights law.
This landmark decision effectively puts an end to the practice of overtly considering race in higher education admissions. It overturns the court’s 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed colleges to use race as one factor in the admissions process to foster a diverse student body.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in the majority opinion, emphasized the importance of eliminating all forms of racial discrimination. “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” he wrote. “The Equal Protection Clause applies universally, without regard to any differences of race, color, or nationality.”
The challenge against the affirmative action programs at Harvard and UNC was initially brought in 2014 by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group founded by conservative activist Edward Blum. SFFA argued that colleges and universities can achieve diversity through race-neutral approaches, such as focusing on socioeconomic status and eliminating preferences for children of alumni and major donors.
At Harvard, the admissions process involved a “first reader” who assigned a numerical score to applicants in various categories, including academics, extracurricular activities, athletics, and personal background, taking race into consideration. Admissions subcommittees and the full admissions committee also considered race during the decision-making process. The court found that race was a decisive factor for a significant percentage of African American and Hispanic applicants.
Affirmative action, as a practice, entails favoring individuals from historically discriminated groups, including minorities, in employment and educational opportunities. The 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger established that colleges could consider race to assemble a more diverse student body.
The recent Supreme Court decision declares the affirmative action programs at Harvard and UNC unconstitutional, citing a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law for all U.S. citizens. Chief Justice Roberts emphasized that while applicants can discuss how race influenced their lives, universities cannot establish race-based regimes through application essays or other means.
Conservative justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch joined Chief Justice Roberts in the majority opinion. Justice Thomas, in his concurrence, emphasized that two discriminatory wrongs cannot make a right and criticized the inability of Harvard and UNC to justify their current racially discriminatory programs.
On the other hand, the court’s three liberal justices, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, dissented in the UNC case. Justice Jackson, a former member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, recused herself from the Ivy League school’s case. Justice Sotomayor, in her dissent, expressed concern over the reversal of decades of progress, while President Biden strongly disagreed with the court’s decision and urged colleges and universities to consider the adversity students have overcome, including racial discrimination.
With this ruling, the Supreme Court has reshaped the landscape of affirmative action in college admissions. While nine states already prohibit the consideration of race in public college and university admissions, this decision sets a precedent that may have far-reaching implications for higher education institutions across the country.