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The U.S. Supreme Court, with its red velvet drapes and white columns.

It seems like everyone in higher education has something to say about affirmative action. To judge by the dozens of briefs submitted to the Supreme Court Monday, they strongly support it.

Of course, there are also those who oppose affirmative action and hope the Supreme Court uses cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to end it. They had an earlier deadline, in May. To learn why, see this article on those 34 briefs.

Far more briefs were submitted Monday (although the Supreme Court does not normally consider the volume of briefs in its decisions). But they represented individual colleges, individual scholars and associations arguing for Harvard and UNC.

A brief from the Ivy League institutions (beyond Harvard) and the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Emory, Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins Universities; the University of Chicago; and Washington University in St. Louis said, “Amici speak with one voice to emphasize the profound importance of student body diversity—including racial and ethnic diversity—to their educational missions. The diversity that amici seek in their admissions processes is nuanced and multifaceted; it encompasses myriad perspectives, talents, experiences, goals, backgrounds, and interests … Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the complexity of the modern world.”

The president of the University of California system and chancellors of UC’s 10 campuses said their system was an example of what the court should avoid.

“For the past 25 years, UC has served as just such a laborator[y] for experimentation,” the brief said. “After Proposition 209 [which banned affirmative action] barred consideration of race in admissions decisions at public universities in California, freshmen enrollees from underrepresented minority groups dropped precipitously at UC, and dropped by 50 percent or more at UC’s most selective campuses. Since then, UC has implemented numerous and wide-ranging race-neutral measures designed to increase diversity of all sorts, including racial diversity … Those programs have enabled UC to make significant gains in its system-wide diversity. Yet despite its extensive efforts, UC struggles to enroll a student body that is sufficiently racially diverse to attain the educational benefits of diversity. The short-fall is especially apparent at UC’s most selective campuses, where African American, Native American, and Latinx students are underrepresented and widely report struggling with feelings of racial isolation.”

More than 50 Roman Catholic colleges and universities submitted a brief that said, “Catholic teachings emphasize the dignity of each individual and the importance of service to the underrepresented. Diversity creates a learning environment that furthers the pedagogical goals of Catholic colleges and universities, including rigorous thinking, understanding of and empathy toward people of different backgrounds, concern for the poor and underserved, and leadership in service to others.”

Professors of history and Black women law scholars filed briefs. So too did the American Psychological Association.

Constitutional Arguments

The American Council on Education, along with 39 other college associations, weighed in with an argument more focused on the Constitution, and the First Amendment specifically, than on diversity (although there was plenty of talk about diversity).

“Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission,” the ACE brief said. “Colleges and universities cannot nurture the ‘robust exchange of ideas’ that so typifies the American tradition without a continued national commitment to academic freedom. Within higher education, there are few places where the need for autonomous decisionmaking is more acute than in the admissions process.”

And the brief stressed that any change in those traditions would affect far more than the competitive colleges that are parties to the case.

“This includes institutions with educational missions that would be substantially undermined if a race-blinded admissions process impaired student diversity within a particular program or an institution as a whole: a bachelor of fine arts program at Fordham [University] that works hand in hand with a historically Black dance company; the country’s sole four-year fine arts institution devoted to contemporary Native American and Alaskan Native arts [the Institute of American Indian Arts]; a historically Black divinity school aspiring to set an example of racial unity for the nation.”

Or Judson University, which says a “diverse student body is “central to [its] mission as a Christ-centered institution.” Said the ACE brief, “As articulated by the university, a racially and ethnically diverse student body goes hand in hand with Judson University’s mission to ‘equip students to be ambassadors for Christ in this diverse world God has created.’”

The ACE brief also flat out rejected the idea that fairness can somehow be equated with admissions that only considers grades and standardized test scores.

“Quantitative metrics viewed in a vacuum are an inaccurate measure of a student’s qualifications or anticipated contribution,” the brief said. “Test scores and grades provide some information, to be sure, but the judgment that such metrics are an insufficient measure of qualifications to attend a particular institution is entitled to deference. Colleges and universities should enjoy the freedom to experiment in how to best bring together a student body that furthers the institution’s mission and goals.”

Impact on Asian Americans

Several groups filed briefs arguing that Asian Americans benefit from affirmative action. This runs counter to the suits filed against Harvard and UNC, which claim the opposite to be true.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, for instance filed a brief (on behalf of itself and 121 other Asian groups or individuals) that said, “The notion that race-conscious admissions policies discriminate against Asian Americans relies on and perpetuates harmful stereotypes against Asian Americans. The Asian American community is vast and varied, including first-generation college students and children whose parents’ professions secured their immigration; children of working-class refugees and multigenerational Americans; speakers of over 300 languages; aspiring entrepreneurs, artists, teachers and more.”

Many of these students need and want affirmative action, the brief said.

It included a statement from Jassyran Kim, a management consultant in Boston who graduated from Davidson College in 2020. She is half Cambodian and half white.

At Davidson, due to what she called an “Asian hierarchy,” it was assumed that Kim’s friends would be Japanese and Chinese Americans whose families had lived in the United States for generations. “Our experiences were different and I did not feel a connection. I became friends with primarily African American and Latinx students,” she wrote, explaining why she didn’t fit in with most Asian students there.

She wrote that she frequently was the only Asian American woman in economics classes.

“This isolation made speaking up more difficult when I disagreed with others’ points of view, because I did not want to be labeled as ‘that girl’ who kept ‘causing problems’ by pushing my classmates and professors to recognize their respective privileges and the ways that their actions impact underrepresented people like me,” Kim said.

Saving Lives

And there was a brief filed by the Association of American Medical Colleges (together with numerous other associations that work in health education).

“As an overwhelming body of scientific research compiled over decades confirms, diversity literally saves lives by ensuring that the nation’s increasingly diverse population will be served by healthcare professionals competent to meet its needs,” said the brief.

“It is, of course, neither proper nor possible for all minority patients to be treated by minority healthcare professionals,” the brief said. “But medical educators have learned—through both scientific research and years of experience—that health disparities can be minimized when professionals have learned and worked next to colleagues of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in environments that reflect the ever-increasing diversity of the society the profession serves. Thus, diversity in medical education yields better health outcomes not just because minority professionals are often more willing to serve (and often very effective at serving) minority communities, but because all physicians become better practitioners overall as a result of a diverse working and learning environment.”

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