Affirmative Action case against Harvard could have impacts for U-M

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 3:46pm

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Design by Roseanne Chao

A court case focusing on Harvard University’s consideration of race in their admissions process could impact the University of Michigan’s future admissions policy. On Oct. 1, U.S. District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled that Harvard University’s admissions policy, which accounts for race, did not discriminate against Asian American applications and would be allowed to stay in place. 

Students for Fair Admissions, the organization that represents a group of Asian-American students rejected by Harvard, has filed for appeal with the First Circuit Court of Appeals. If the case reaches the Supreme Court and the court rules in favor of Harvard University, it would reverse precedent and result in policy changes for the nine states that have banned affirmative action. For the state of Michigan, this would mean the University could resume its previous practice of affirmative action and the use of race in admissions decisions. 

The lawsuit was filed in November 2014, claiming that the practice of racial balancing, commonly known as affirmative action, in Harvard’s admissions process was discriminatory. 

In Burroughs’ conclusion, she described her belief that racial balance positively affects Harvard University’s student body and explains why she upheld their affirmative action policy. 

“(Students) will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences,” Burroughs wrote. “Until we (can all do that), race conscious admissions programs that survive strict scrutiny will have an important place in society and help ensure that colleges and universities can offer a diverse atmosphere that fosters learning, improves scholarship, and encourages mutual respect and understanding.” 

Rob Sellers, the University’s vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, commented on the Harvard admissions case and how it could ultimately affect the University in an email statement to The Daily. 

 “The decision is important in reaffirming the compelling nature of [the] benefits [of diversity] -- an argument that U of M successfully championed before the Supreme Court in the Grutter and Gratz decisions -- but ultimately does not affect our admissions practices, as we remain subject to Prop 2,” Sellers wrote. “On a national level, the case’s ultimate impact is not yet clear: SFFA has reportedly already said it will appeal to the First Circuit, and to the Supreme Court if necessary. 

LSA senior James Lee, the advocacy chair of United Asian American Organizations, similarly expressed that affirmative action would benefit the University.

“I think we very much need it,” Lee said. “I think affirmative action is a good thing, inherently. It gives people the channels and avenues that they historically weren’t given into the top tier elite universities. So I guess as a blanket statement, yes, we do support affirmative action.” 

In contrast to Harvard University, the University of Michigan has not considered race as a part of the admissions process since 2006. This change occurred after a statewide ballot initiative when the Proposal 2 amendment, which banned the use of race in admissions in education, was added to the state constitution. The Supreme Court ruled the amendment was constitutional in 2014. 

Following this change, the University saw declines in the enrollment of minority students. To combat this shift, the University established programs through The Center for Educational Outreach, such as collaborations with K-12 schools and service organizations on campus. University administration has confirmed they will continue to be an affirmative action employer, ensuring all individuals have an equal opportunity for advancement, and have reaffirmed their commitment to diversity, implementing a five-year plan for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts that began in 2016. 

Sellers also commented on how these programs and the University’s commitment to diversity affect students, despite not being able to use affirmative action in admissions. 

 “As the University of Michigan enters the fourth year of its five-year strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, we continue to make progress in transforming the university into a place where everyone has an equitable opportunity to succeed and contribute,” Sellers wrote. “These changes can be seen and felt throughout our campus, as programs, practices and initiatives continue to reflect our values in making Michigan a more diverse, equitable and inclusive university.”

Despite the University’s commitment to diversity, Public Policy junior Cydney Gardner-Brown said she is one of only two Black students in her cohort at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. This has often forced her to be the spokesperson of her race, she said.

“Black students entering spaces where they are the racial minority can be extremely difficult for them to navigate,” Gardner-Brown said.  “As one of the only two Black students in the Ford Class of 2021, my presence is hyper-visible to my classmates and instructors. My voice, face and opinions are often amplified, whether I want them to be or not, because a Black perspective is quite rare.” 

She thinks the state of Michigan’s lack of affirmative action in admissions has negatively impacted the University and student body. 

“I’ll say that repealing (affirmative action) made a significant negative impact on diversity on campus which is harmful to the university as a whole,” Gardner-Brown said. “Its repeal was a demonstration of the Supreme Court’s lack of empathy and resolve for social reform and of its failure to recognize and honor the dire need for trailblazers in public educational settings to help rectify institutionalized racism.” 

In Harvard’s case, though Burroughs’ ruled in favor of the school, she also suggested there were ways the admissions process could be improved. 

“Notwithstanding the fact that Harvard’s admissions program survives strict scrutiny, it is not perfect,” Burroughs wrote in her decision. “The process would likely benefit from conducting implicit bias trainings for admissions officers, maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race in the admissions process … That being said, the Court will not dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better.”