The court’s conservative majority overturned admissions plans at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the nation’s oldest private and public colleges, respectively.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that for too long universities have “concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
Justice Clarence Thomas, the nation’s second Black justice who had long called for an end to affirmative action, wrote separately that the decision “sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the decision “rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress.”
Both Thomas and Sotomayor took the unusual step of reading a summary of their opinions aloud in the courtroom.
In a separate dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson — the court’s first Black female justice — called the decision “truly a tragedy for us all.”
The vote was 6-3 in the North Carolina case and 6-2 in the Harvard case. Jackson sat out the Harvard case because she had been a member of an advisory governing board there.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that he “strongly, strongly” disagrees with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the use of affirmative action in college admissions, saying justices unraveled “decades of precedent” as the president stressed that race-based discrimination continues to exist in America.
He also urged colleges not to let Thursday’s ruling “be the last word.”
“They should not abandon their commitment to ensure student bodies of diverse backgrounds and experience that reflect all of America,” Biden said from the White House.
Maryland colleges, lawmakers remain committed to diversity
The decision has the greatest impact on Maryland’s selective colleges — those that admit only a small portion of applicants — including the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The institution posted a statement on Twitter following the ruling:
“Cultivating a diverse community is indispensable to our university’s ethos and educational mission, and our commitment to that goal is unwavering,” the statement said. “As we work to understand and comply with the Supreme Court’s decision, we will continue to pursue our efforts to reduce barriers to access to higher education and to ensure that the promise of equal opportunity that lies at the heart of our nation is fully realized.”
Anthony L. Jenkins, the president of Coppin State University in Baltimore, said in a statement that the court’s decision “undermines the importance of diversity in all its forms, as well as the role diversity has played in the intellectual advancements of our society and higher education.”
He said it would have “a chilling effect on campuses where students of color and students from underrepresented backgrounds question whether they belong, are accepted, and are valued,” and may lead college faculty and staff members to rethink where they work.
“Institutions of higher education should serve as inclusive places where important life-changing issues can be discussed, and solutions can be created by diverse minds,” Jenkins wrote. “They should not be places where those conversations are silenced.”
Morgan State University, which, like Coppin State, is a historically Black institution, shared a statement noting that it does not consider race in its admissions process and does not anticipate any negative impacts from the decision. The university “will continue to serve a multiethnic and multiracial student body. This has always been the case at Morgan and will continue to be the case, ensuring that our doors to higher education are opened as wide as possible to as many as possible,” the statement said.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, said in a statement that “by disallowing the use of race in college admissions, the Supreme Court is now complicit in expanding the race-based education and wealth gap in America. The conservative majority is perpetuating an antiquated system of discrimination designed to hold back Black and Brown students from realizing their full potential.”
He wrote that he’d heard concerns from Maryland colleges leading up to the decision about their ability to meet their goals and values for diversity. “While I am confident that these institutions and others across the nation will work to maximize racial diversity within the bounds of today’s decision, this ruling will cause unnecessary regression in our work toward a more equitable future,” Cardin’s statement said.
The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland said it would “continue to fight relentlessly for every Maryland student to have equal opportunity to higher education and pursue their dreams.
“We thrive when we intentionally include the talents and potential of students from all backgrounds,” Chairwoman Jheanelle Wilkins, Democrat from Montgomery County, said in a statement.
Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat from Baltimore County, called this “a profoundly sad day for our country and our state.” She said she has “already begun working with Attorney General Brown to look at all our options to mitigate the effects of this extreme decision by the Supreme Court.”
Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions for 45 years
The Supreme Court had twice upheld race-conscious college admissions programs in the past 20 years, including as recently as 2016.
But that was before the three appointees of former President Donald Trump joined the court. At arguments in late October, all six conservative justices expressed doubts about the practice, which had been upheld under Supreme Court decisions reaching back to 1978.
Lower courts also had upheld the programs at both UNC and Harvard, rejecting claims that the schools discriminated against white and Asian American applicants.
The college admissions disputes are among several high-profile cases focused on race in America, and were weighed by the conservative-dominated, but most diverse court ever. Among the nine justices are four women, two Black people and a Latina.
The justices earlier in June decided a voting rights case in favor of Black voters in Alabama and rejected a race-based challenge to a Native American child protection law.
The affirmative action cases were brought by conservative activist Edward Blum, who also was behind an earlier affirmative action challenge against the University of Texas, as well as the case that led the court in 2013 to end use of a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
Blum formed Students for Fair Admissions, which filed the lawsuits against both schools in 2014.
The group argued that the Constitution forbids the use of race in college admissions and called for overturning earlier Supreme Court decisions that said otherwise.
Blum’s group also contended that colleges and universities can use other, race-neutral ways to assemble a diverse student body, including by focusing on socioeconomic status and eliminating the preference for children of alumni and major donors.
The schools said that they use race in a limited way, but that eliminating it as a factor altogether would make it much harder to achieve a student body that looks like America.
At the eight Ivy League universities, the number of nonwhite students increased by 55% from 2010 to 2021, according to federal data. That group, which includes, Native American, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander and biracial students, accounted for 35% of students on those campuses in 2021, up from 27% in 2010.
Some states had already ended race-conscious admissions
The end of affirmative action in higher education in California, Michigan, Washington state and elsewhere led to a steep drop in minority enrollment in the states’ leading public universities.
They are among nine states that already prohibit any consideration of race in admissions to their public colleges and universities. The others are: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.
In 2020, California voters easily rejected a ballot measure to bring back affirmative action.
A poll last month by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed 63% of U.S. adults say the court should allow colleges to consider race as part of the admissions process, yet few believe students’ race should ultimately play a major role in decisions. A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that half of Americans disapprove of considerations of applicants’ race, while a third approve.
The chief justice and Jackson received their undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard. Two other justices, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch, went to law school there, and Kagan was the first woman to serve as the law school’s dean.
Every U.S. college and university the justices attended, save one, urged the court to preserve race-conscious admissions.
Those schools — Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Notre Dame and Holy Cross — joined briefs in defense of Harvard and UNC’s admissions plans.
Only Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s undergraduate alma mater, Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, was not involved in the cases.