As the Supreme Court considers two cases that could potentially ban affirmative action, Northwest faculty and community members are getting involved by creating and signing amicus briefs to support both the defense and the accusation.
Initiated by the anti-affirmative action advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, the lawsuit argues that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause requires racial neutrality in higher education admissions decisions. – which would render affirmative action unconstitutional. The admissions processes of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are in the spotlight in these cases.
The affirmative action stems from an executive order issued by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration stating that organizations receiving federal contracts and subcontracts must expand employment opportunities for minority populations.
History professor Deborah Cohen said given the court’s conservative slant, she was not surprised to see it reconsidering the long-standing precedent. Given her professional background, Cohen said she thought it was important to write a memoir in defense of affirmative action.
“I’ve been fortunate that almost my entire career has taken place in classrooms where affirmative action was a guiding principle of building the student body,” she said. “The brief argues that precisely the diverse classroom is both an educational good and also a social good.”
Professor of African American studies and sociology Mary Pattillo said she signed Cohen’s memoir to show there was support among college professors to keep affirmative action going.
Pattillo said she was particularly concerned about the doors that could be opened if the affirmative action was indeed reversed.
“The plaintiffs are essentially saying that race should not be considered at all in higher education,” she said. “I don’t know what their end goal is, but I could imagine a next step would be a ban on racial data collection (in higher education).”
Pattillo added that states that have already banned affirmative action, including Michigan and California, could provide a glimpse of a world without politics. However, even this is not a perfect model, as both public and private universities in these states have always tried to expand opportunities for disadvantaged students without explicitly stating this.
Meanwhile, the seventh-grade Communication Sciences and Disorders Ph.D. Candidate Momoko Takahashi, discussed her personal college application experience in a memoir that argued for the affirmative action to be rescinded.
As a resident of Illinois, Takahashi said applying to universities in the United States was frustrating for her at the time. Despite earning excellent grades and entering “top schools” in Japan and the UK, she said she was denied admission to many US schools. She saw many other high achievers in her high school class facing the same results, while she said students with lower academic achievement were admitted to these US schools.
“There is a huge problem in the United States with (the) K-12 system. Where you end up in college is largely correlated to your postcode,” she said. “Using race as a measure of this is not the basic way to adequately address racial disparities here in the United States, in terms of educational attainment.”
Takahashi knew one of the memoir writers, and after telling them his story, he was asked to help write the argument. Takahashi said the current system doesn’t really address inequalities in education. Instead, she supports a shift toward funding underfunded schools and increasing academic opportunities in these communities.
She also said that universities’ goals for promoting diversity are often not clearly defined.
“If class looks exactly like racial distribution here in the United States, is it diverse?” Takahashi asked. “No one seemed to look into that question.”
Sociology professor Vilna Bashi also signed Cohen’s memoir. She said she was particularly concerned that racial inequality will go unaddressed in a post-affirmative world, limiting access to education – a proven path to reducing economic inequality.
But even if the court ends the affirmative action, Bashi said his support for the case is a commitment that his values will not change.
“My signature is an acknowledgment that I intend to use my career to push for a more equitable society,” she said.
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—Northwestern faculty reflect on Supreme Court affirmative action cases, discuss past and future of race in college admissions
—Northwestern remains in the background as its peers are scrutinized on admissions practices
—Harvard admissions trial highlights race-conscious admissions and value of diversity in higher education