The Arguments for Affirmative Action

Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill file briefs with the Supreme Court.

August 1, 2022
The interior of the US Supreme Court, featuring white marble columns and red drapes.
(U.S. Supreme Court)

Though the Supreme Court last week separated the affirmative action cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both universities filed briefs in their cases today. Each brief offered the cases for affirmative action in admissions and was accompanied by the president of Harvard and the chancellor of Chapel Hill speaking out directly about the cases.

Harvard’s brief cited the backdrop and history of the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing “equal protection of the laws.” And it stressed that the Supreme Court has 40 years of precedent upholding the ability of colleges and universities to consider race as one factor among many in admissions decisions.

“The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment understood that race may be considered to advance overriding governmental objectives, rejecting more absolute language [Students for Fair Admissions] would have preferred, and both state and federal authorities at the time enacted race-conscious measures to promote African Americans’ equal participation in society,” said the brief. (Students for Fair Admissions filed the suit that led to the Supreme Court cases.)

Further, the brief said the Supreme Court has said repeatedly that diversity has educational benefits.

“That conclusion reflects commonsense reality, not stereotype,” said the brief. “This court’s repeated holdings that the educational benefits of student-body diversity are a compelling governmental interest justifying the narrowly tailored consideration of race in college admissions are correct, empirically sound, and consistent with precedent.”

Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow said, “I encourage everyone to read the brief. It also persuasively argues that the text and history of the 14th Amendment support the conclusion that the Constitution permits consideration of race as one factor among many in a whole-person admissions process. We remain steadfast in our belief that every college and university must retain the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse educational communities that will prepare their students for the opportunities and challenges they will confront in an increasingly diverse society.”

The University of North Carolina brief stressed the nature of admissions at the university. It noted that UNC considers academic performance, class rank, essays, experiences and potential contributions to the educational environment on campus, geography, military background, and socioeconomic background. UNC considers race or ethnicity only if a student chooses to share that information and—even then—as one factor among many others.

“Carolina is passionately public, and we’re proud to be one of the few flagship universities to practice need-blind admissions and provide low-debt, full-need student aid,” Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said in a statement. “Our approach to admissions serves the university’s mission and reflects our core values. Every student earns their place at Carolina.

“As a faculty member here for over 27 years, I have witnessed firsthand the value of our holistic admissions process,” Guskiewicz said. “Each year, we welcome bright and talented new Tar Heels from a variety of backgrounds and with different lived experiences. Their interactions with others who have a wide range of experiences are vital to their education and to their life success after graduation.”

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Students and alumni of Chapel Hill also filed a brief with the Supreme Court, in which they were harshly critical of the university. Chapel Hill acknowledged the impact of segregation and Jim Crow in its history, but the students and alumni made those points crucial.

“Being Black is intrinsically linked to all my life experiences, and therefore, my college application,” said Andrew Brennan, UNC Class of 2019. “This lawsuit is a blatant attempt to undervalue and overlook students of color like me. I’ve witnessed firsthand the benefits of a multiracial campus—one that accurately reflects the society we live in, and allows students to have a more culturally enriched educational experience. It will be a disservice to all students if we undo the progress we’ve made on diversifying schools across the country, which is in significant part thanks to affirmative action.”

The Other Side

Students for Fair Admission could not be reached for comment.

However, in May, when it weighed in with the Supreme Court on the cases, it had a very different view from any of the briefs filed Monday.

Edward Blum, president of the group, said at the time, “The ancient faith that gave birth to our nation’s civil rights laws is the principle that an individual’s race should not be used to help or harm them in their life’s endeavors. It is the hope of the vast majority of all Americans that the justices end these polarizing admissions policies.”

Also in May, groups that side with Students for Fair Admissions filed briefs with the Supreme Court.

Many more briefs are expected next week. Aug. 1 is the deadline for briefs backing Harvard and UNC.

The cases are scheduled to be argued in the fall.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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