Don't lose race-conscious policies

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Science  17 Aug 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6403, pp. 627
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau9807

Using race as a factor in admission decisions by U.S. colleges and universities—so-called affirmative action—has once again become a lightning rod for debate. Last month, several universities defended Harvard University against a lawsuit that attacks its use of race in student admissions. The backdrop of this case, and a similar one against the University of North Carolina– Chapel Hill, is even more disturbing. Also last month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE), both under leadership appointed by the Trump administration, encouraged “race-neutral” admissions practices, rolling back previous guidance for achieving diversity by these very agencies. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly allowed higher education institutions to consider race as one factor, among many, in admissions decisions. The rollback does not change that precedent.


Two summers ago, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities can use race in admissions decisions. This Fisher v. University of Texas decision added to a 40-year-old line of Supreme Court precedent determining that the policy helped postsecondary institutions attain the educational benefits of diversity. In 2011, 2013, and 2016, the DOJ and DOE issued guidance documents clarifying the implications of this precedent for higher education practitioners and administrators. Although not legally binding, these documents outlined the legal framework and actions that institutions could take to achieve diversity and advance their educational mission.

The 2018 decision to rescind this guidance follows action last year by the DOJ to redirect its resources toward investigating claims of discrimination at institutions that employ race-conscious admissions. These actions seek to deny the constitutionally endorsed tool that universities use to diversify and drive innovation—actions that improve public well-being and scientific inquiry. Is it a coincidence that the DOJ and DOE rollback was announced at a time when legal proceedings on two affirmative action cases are taking place?

As a legal scholar and researcher focused on access and equity in higher education, I have represented hundreds of social science researchers who have defended affirmative action before the Supreme Court. Those briefs joined over 100 other friend-of-the-court briefs filed in support of affirmative action in the Fisher case. In the face of a potential threat of legal action by the DOJ, it would be understandable for institutions to consider abandoning race-conscious policies. But doing so will have a dramatic and devastating effect on student body diversity and the racial climate of college campuses more generally. As public postsecondary institutions in states that ban affirmative action (so far, in eight states) have already experienced, the inability to consider race in admissions leads to substantial drops in the diversity of student bodies. These declines have taken place at public selective undergraduate institutions; in graduate fields of engineering, natural, and social sciences; and in law and medical schools. At public medical schools across six states with bans, for example, the share of enrolled students who are students of color dropped from 18.5% to 15.3% after the bans; in graduate engineering programs, it dropped from 6.2% to 4.6%; and in the natural sciences, it fell from 7.8% to 6.3%. The negative consequences also extend beyond admissions, making it more difficult for administrators to talk about race and racism, and undermining actions that support the educational experiences of students already enrolled.

The health of the nation and the rigor of its scientific inquiry require postsecondary administrators and leaders to respond to recent court actions and other legal intimidation by the Trump administration with a reinforced commitment to upholding student diversity. This commitment plays a critical role in preserving democracy and bolstering the global economy. Sadly, today's political climate has made efforts to realize these goals extremely difficult.

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