Bloomberg — It was meant to be a week of celebration for Harvard University.
For the first time in its 386 years, the Ivy League institution is about to be led by a Black president — Claudine Gay, a political scientist who attended as a graduate student and has long been a champion for diversity.
Instead, Gay, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences until this Saturday when she’ll assume her new role, had to make a heartfelt video to students and alumni. The Supreme Court had hours earlier struck down affirmative action in a case that named Harvard and the University of North Carolina as defendants.
“For many, this decision feels deeply personal,” said Gay, whose academic work has explored issues of race and politics in America. “It means the real possibility that opportunities will be foreclosed.”
Gay and other campus officials had been bracing for a decision for months, but still described Thursday as a “hard day.” Harvard had spent almost a decade defending its admission policy in the courts only for Chief Justice John Roberts, a Harvard graduate himself, to reject the idea that racial preference programs were warranted to ensure campus diversity.
Many 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,” Roberts wrote in the ruling. “Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
The 6-3 decision, along ideological lines, may lead to fewer Black and Hispanic students at the country’s top universities, forcing hundreds of schools to revamp policies.
“Deep and transformative teaching, learning and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences,” Harvard University wrote in a statement signed by leaders from across the institution.
The school “will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values,” it said, without elaborating on how.
Americans are divided over whether it’s fair to consider race and ethnicity in college admissions, with the number of those vehemently against the practice now larger than those who strongly support it, a Pew Research Center survey found this month. Conservatives have long sought to curtail affirmative action in higher education, with Harvard their most high-profile target.
A seat in the freshman class is viewed as a ticket to success and a vehicle to economic mobility for less wealthy students. More than 60,000 students sought admission in the last year with fewer than 2,000 accepted.
Students for Fair Admissions, run by Ed Blum, filed the case against Harvard in 2014. The group contended that the university penalizes Asian Americans, especially during the admissions process, assigning them lower ratings on leadership and likability, while automatically giving preferences to Black and Hispanic applicants.
William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions, testified at the school’s trial in 2018 that each applicant is rated on more than a dozen metrics, including athletics, academics, artistic ability, extracurricular activities and the personal category.
“Gaining admission to Harvard is thus no easy feat. It can depend on having excellent grades, glowing recommendation letters, or overcoming significant adversity,” Roberts wrote. “It can also depend on your race.”
Harvard has made significant progress in diversity. The incoming class of 1963 included 18 Black students, which was a mere 1.6% of the broader group — yet more than any Harvard freshman class since the institution’s founding in 1636, according to a book by two class members.
In recent years, the school has boasted of increasingly diverse admissions. The upcoming freshman class, announced in May, is more than half non-White.
Anthony Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, worries the ruling will make the undergraduate college even richer, Whiter and more privileged, unless the school can come up with alternative ways of recruiting.
“Universities now have to find new metrics and measures to create a diverse class,” said Jack, author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. “It’s going to be a plethora of proxies” that will be used to help maintain diversity.
Harvard has taken steps in recent years to encourage less-wealthy students to apply by increasing financial aid. It provides free education for families with annual incomes below $85,000. Almost a quarter of the incoming freshman class met that criteria.
Many US colleges dropped standardized tests during the pandemic, but Harvard went a step further. The university said in 2021 it would suspend the requirement for four more years. If schools continue to steer away from metrics like the SAT and evaluate how students take advantage of opportunities afforded to them, they’ll have more diverse classes, said Andrew Fairbanks, co-author of The Early Admissions Game.
Michael Dannenberg, senior fellow with College Promise, a nonprofit advocacy group, said Harvard could look at alternative ways of measuring wealth, such as by examining homeownership.
Redlining prevented generations of Black families from buying homes, and census data show Black homeownership rates continues to lag behind.
The Supreme Court ruling didn’t address other ways that schools favor applicants, such as admissions that help students whose parents attended the schools, called legacies.
“Eliminating legacy admissions will be satisfying, but it’s not nearly enough,” said Dannenberg, a former senior aide in the Obama administration.
One advantage that Harvard seeks from diversity is the opportunity for students to learn from classmates. Rising sophomore Maya Bodnick, 19, said she’s gained new perspectives on a variety of issues, such as policing, in conversations with people of different backgrounds.
“College students learn as much from their peers as they do from their professors,” said Bodnick, a government major from Atherton, California, one of America’s richest zip codes.
Gay, the incoming president, extolled those values in describing the “thriving, diverse intellectual community” as essential to academic excellence. But she also made clear she doesn’t yet have the answers.
“I know that you have a lot of questions. We do too,” Gay said in the video. “In the coming weeks, we’ll be working to understand the decision and its implications for our policies,” she added. “We do know that we will move forward together.”
--With assistance from Patricia Hurtado and Guillermo Molero.
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