On October 31, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases that will decide the fate of race-based affirmative action. Presented by Students for Fair Admissions, an organization run by conservative legal activist Edward Blum, the cases were against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC). The College, along with 32 other liberal arts colleges, filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Havard and UNC’s use of race as part of a holistic factor in admissions.
In an email to the campus community on the day of oral argument, President Clayton Rose acknowledged the court’s skepticism toward affirmative action and stated the College’s continuing support for diversity and inclusion.
“We will continue to move forward with purpose to advance our work on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Rose wrote. “We will hope for the best when the court issues its decision in these cases next year, but whatever the outcome and no matter how challenging the work, we will never back away from our commitment to build and sustain a truly diverse community where everyone has the opportunity for an equitable experience and an enduring sense of belonging.”
Bowdoin faculty members specializing in areas of constitutional law provided historical context to the case, elaborating on the use of affirmative action in higher education admissions.
“Affirmative action policies in general, not specific to college admissions, have been around for a while and they started in an effort from the federal government to generally award contracts only to companies that had some sort of equal opportunity hiring,” Assistant Professor of Government Maron Sorenson said.
One of the first cases in which the court considered the constitutionality of affirmative action was University of California v. Bakke (1978), wherein the Court affirmed race as an acceptable factor for evaluation in admissions but prohibited the use of quotas.
In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the Court refined its affirmative action jurisprudence, upholding the use of race as part of a holistic review process. The Court found that there was a compelling interest for colleges and universities to consider race as a factor for admission, and that it was narrowly tailored enough to survive strict judicial scrutiny. The present cases seek to dismantle that standard and preclude in totality the use of race as an admissions factor.
“Based on the transcript of the oral arguments, the conclusion one would draw is a probable 6–3 division among the Justices, with a majority deciding in favor of overruling the 2003 Grutter decision and rejecting the use of race as an appropriate criterion in higher education admissions,” Adjunct Lecturer in Government George Isaacson said.
Bowdoin’s amicus brief called diversity a “compelling interest” for the College. It urges the court to uphold the use of race in college admissions and warns of the potential consequences of a decision on the contrary.
“Were Amici unable to offer the diversity that students value and demand, they would likely receive fewer applications and enroll fewer of the brightest students. Without the ability to take race into account in admissions, Amici would find the kind of diversity they seek nearly impossible to attain,” the brief reads.
Additionally, the brief pushes back against the idea of using proxy factors such as socioeconomic status to achieve admitting a diverse class without taking race into account.
“It is unrealistic to believe that highly selective institutions could promote diversity simply by improving search techniques or by treating socioeconomic status as a complete proxy for race.… As several researchers concluded, ‘class-based preferences cannot be substituted for race-based policies if the objective is to enroll a class that is both academically excellent and diverse,’” the brief asserts.
Isaacson believes that it would still be possible to enroll an excellent and diverse class without necessarily classifying students on the basis of race because of the holistic admissions process already in place.
“My understanding is that the research and conclusions on this issue are controversial and that there are alternative ways of obtaining a diverse student body,” Isaacson said. “I think the court’s ultimate decision may have much less impact than many college administrators fear. Other considerations, such as socioeconomic factors, letters of reference, applicants’ essays are more focused on individual experiences and personal attributes and will still provide the context College officers need to obtain a diverse student body, including racial diversity.”
In an email to the Orient, Dean of Admissions Claudia Marroquin stated the College’s continued support for a holistic admissions review, echoing arguments made in the amicus brief.
“There is a compelling interest in higher education to have a racially diverse study body,” she wrote. “I am a firm believer in that principle and in our process that considers race and ethnicity as one of many factors in our holistic admissions review. Bowdoin’s admissions application review is thoughtful, thorough and recognizes that a student’s environment and upbringing have shaped the opportunities and experiences available to them. We build each incoming class recognizing that students are complex people whose experiences cannot be defined by a singular experience, number or metric.”
The College has not publicly stated how a possible ruling against affirmative action would change its admissions policy. Marroquin stated that it would comply with the Court’s decision while maximizing the College’s goal of building a diverse student body.
“Once the Court issues a decision, we will consult with legal counsel to ensure our processes follow the guidance of the court, and we will continue to be committed to building a diverse community,” Marroquin wrote.