Connecticut colleges weigh in on Supreme Court affirmative action cases
Higher education institutions and professors in Connecticut have signed onto amicus briefs ― court filings from organizations or individuals who aren’t a party to a case ― in the two cases on affirmative action before the U.S. Supreme Court, supporting the inclusion of race as part of a “whole-person review process” in university admissions.
The court heard oral arguments Oct. 31 in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina. A decision is expected by the end of June.
Connecticut College, Trinity College and Wesleyan University joined 30 other small liberal arts colleges in a brief supporting Harvard and UNC.
Outside of professors, people in Connecticut who added their names to briefs in support of the universities include UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, and U.S. senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.
The Supreme Court previously banned racial quotas in a 1978 ruling, but in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, it upheld the ability to consider race among many factors in the admissions process. The Grutter opinion concludes with the expectation “that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
Students for Fair Admissions argues that Grutter improperly affords “broad deference to university administrators to pursue a diversity interest that is far from compelling. It endorsed racial objectives that are amorphous and unmeasurable.”
The brief notes that Harvard assigns academic, extracurricular, athletic and personal ratings, and Asian Americans consistently get the worst personal ratings. These look at qualities such as leadership, self-confidence, likability and kindness.
SFFA offers an alternative that eliminates racial preferences; gets rid of preference to the children of alumni, donors, faculty and staff; and increases the socioeconomic boost. The organization says in this scenario, Asian American admissions would increase, African American and Hispanic admissions would rise slightly, and white admissions would decrease.
Asian American individuals and groups have signed onto briefs both in support of the plaintiff and respondents. According to the 2022 Asian American Voter Survey, 69% of Asian American registered voters favor affirmative action programs, ranging from 59% of Chinese voters to 82% of Korean voters.
SCOTUSblog reported that 33 briefs support SFFA and 60 support Harvard and UNC.
Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron wrote a letter to the college community Oct. 31 stating, “As the Supreme Court considers the fate of race-conscious admissions in America, the Connecticut College community urges the justices to remember that civic development ― and the future of our democratic society ― depend on the ways we educate ever more diverse communities of students to speak purposefully, listen deeply and collaborate effectively.”
Bergeron said in a follow-up statement to The Day that Connecticut College “has a compelling interest in enrolling diverse classes” because studies show that diversity improves learning experiences and complex thinking.
“Diversity also generates pedagogical innovations and decreases prejudice,” she added. “These benefits are especially pronounced at liberal arts colleges and small universities, where smaller class sizes lead to greater engagement among diverse students.”
Albertus Magnus College in New Haven joined 56 other Catholic schools in a brief supporting the universities. The brief stated that in addition to the reasons secular institutions have for supporting affirmative action, Catholic institutions also consider race to advance the religious mission.
The brief states that 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.”
Social scientists push back against claims about Asian American applicants
At least 17 professors from colleges and universities in Connecticut joined a brief of 1,241 social scientists and scholars on college access, Asian American studies, and race. They voiced concern that the removal of race-conscious admissions would harm Asian Americans.
Regarding the disparities in personal ratings, the brief noted the district court found this is at least partially attributable to disparities in teacher and guidance counselor recommendations.
One signatory was University of Hartford sociology professor Woody Doane, who teaches courses on race and inequality. He thinks Asian Americans are “being really cynically used by the plaintiffs in this case.”
Doane said the stereotype and myth of Asian Americans as a “model minority” is “an artifact of very selective immigration” that opened the door for Asian immigration post-1965, in which highly educated people had a much higher chance of being admitted to the U.S.
“Today their children would be well-positioned economically and socially, and oftentimes locating in the east and west coasts where wages and other things are higher,” he said.
The brief noted that in 2015, 50% of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. had a bachelor’s degree compared to 4% of adults in China. It also criticizes SFFA for not accounting for disparities in admission and college completion rates among Asian American subgroups.
Doane said legal challenges to affirmative action are “really about access to scarce resources,” considering they target selective Ivy League institutions and flagship state universities rather than places like the University of Hartford.
“Baked into a lot of the attacks on affirmative action is the assumption that society’s now race-neutral, color-blind,” Doane said, but it’s not. He cited racial disparities in educational outcomes during the pandemic, access to Advanced Placement courses, and access to niche sports that can provide scholarships to elite institutions.
Another signer to this brief was Aram Ayalon, who retired from Central Connecticut State University in July after 33 years in higher education.
As a professor of education, he said teachers “need to reflect the diversity of their students, and it enables them to better identify with their students, become role models for them.”
He and Doane said it’s a misconception that unqualified students are accepted because of their race, and Ayalon said students “who come from difficult backgrounds or had maybe a lower quality education deserve an equal chance, so affirmative action allows for some correction.”
“I think thanks to affirmative action, we create more of a one Connecticut, a Connecticut that gets to know all the different segregated communities,” Ayalon said.
Historians push back on Fourteenth Amendment interpretation
SFFA cites the Fourteenth Amendment, that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” It was adopted in 1868.
The brief says the amendment makes no exceptions, and that according to its framers, it enshrines the principle that “free government demands the abolition of all distinctions founded on color and race.”
Former Attorney General Edwin Meese III argues in a separate brief that Grutter “flouts the Fourteenth Amendment’s original meaning.”
He said the Civil Rights Act of 1875 is an endorsement of race neutrality and “uniquely informs the Fourteenth Amendment’s original understanding.”
In a brief supporting the respondents, 18 professors of history and law say Meese “advances an incorrect account” and that the amendment’s framers recognized the distinction between “racial designations that denigrate and harm” and “race-conscious laws that ameliorate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity.”
Meese and the professors also disagree over whether federal laws from the period benefiting African Americans inform the original understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment.
One of the latter signers Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. She is heartened by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment, saying even though she will likely be in the minority, this view is important to have for the historical record.
Sinha said affirmative action has been “so politicized that people forget why it was put into place in the first place: For centuries, African Americans were literally barred from entering schools and universities.”
Pointing out that admissions offices also consider gender and geographical diversity, she thinks the fixation on racial diversity “is a kind of political tactic to sow racist division.” And as an Asian American woman, she feels the notion that Asian Americans are discriminated against is pitting minorities against minorities.
While most professors who joined briefs favored the universities, some signed onto briefs siding with SFFA. For example, 12 economics professors ― though none from Connecticut ― joined a brief arguing there is “robust statistical evidence of discrimination against Asian Americans compared to whites in Harvard’s admissions” when looking at overall and personal ratings.