As the Supreme Court goes to deliberation on a case that calls into question affirmative action practices in college admissions, many are concerned the case’s outcome could undo years of progress in forming racially diverse college campuses. Here at Swat, the case has raised deep-seated philosophical questions about what diversity means to us, about how and why we go about building a diverse community.
“This case raises issues that go to the heart of what it means to build and sustain intentional and inclusive educational communities,” said Dean of Admissions Jim Bock ’90. “I think a ruling in favor of the petitioner could harm the gains we’ve made in diversifying Swarthmore specifically and liberal arts colleges and universities generally.”
A suit brought by Abigail Fisher against the University of Texas at Austin, the case hinges on Fisher’s allegations that she was denied admission from UT Austin because she is white, and that the rejection has resulted in lower quality job offers and opportunities. Fisher recently graduated from the University of Louisiana.
In the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases, which concerned the University of Michigan’s policies in its undergraduate and Law admissions offices, the Supreme Court drew a line between acceptable use of race in admissions and unacceptable practices. The justices upheld, in a 5-4 vote, Michigan Law’s admissions policy, which considers race as one of many factors (Grutter), while striking down the University’s undergraduate admissions practice that assigned a “point value” to being a minority and thus automatically bumped minority students ahead (Gratz). The undergrad point system was too close to a “quota” system, which the court deemed unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court releases its decision on the Fisher case in the spring, the gray area the court precedent currently sports will be no more.
Of Swarthmore’s admissions practices, Bock placed his own office within the constitutionality of the Grutter decision saying, “students are not admitted or denied for any specific reason, however, we believe that race should be one of many factors that should be considered when used narrowly and appropriately. In building an intentional and inclusive community, we would like it to represent a multitude of experiences and backgrounds, including but not restricted to race alone.” However, he expressed concern that if the courts rule in favor of Fisher, Swarthmore and like institutions could be stripped of their right to consider race as part of a student’s application. “Without considering race, I fear our numbers of domestic students of color could and would drop here and across the country.”
In this vein, Swarthmore has joined 36 other colleges in filing an amicus brief stating that selective colleges benefit from being composed of diverse student bodies, and that race is an important but not singular aspect of this composition process. The brief argues that to disallow the use of race in admissions would impinge on the ability of admissions offices to create intentionally diverse communities.
“While the 2003 decisions seemed to hold that diversity could be a compelling state interest, it was not at all clear that the distinction drawn by Sandra Day O’Connor between the unconstitutional policies in Gratz and the constitutional policies in Grutter would survive her departure from the Court. And with Samuel Alito replacing O’Connor, Court watchers have been expecting a challenge such as the Fisher challenge to reach the Court” commented Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff.
Now that the case has indeed brought the question of race in college admissions back to the fore of the American consciousness, people are being forced to confront some of those sticky questions about the role of privilege in the American machine. In the Grutter decision in ‘03, Sandra Day O’Connor proposed 25 years as a time frame in which it might be possible to eliminate race from college admissions. The Grutter decision was made with the idea that it would be overturned when it became unnecessary, presumably because using race as an admissions criterion makes people (even Supreme Court Justices) uncomfortable. One question that Fisher’s lawyers keep leveling at the University is, in the improbable situation of two applicants who were completely identical except for their race, whether race would then become a deciding factor.
This potential equality seems to be a main part of how many students are conceptualizing the case as well – in a series of Swat student interviews, many referenced this hypothetical situation to illustrate varied opinions on the issue.
“I believe the purpose is to make an attempt to level the playing field for students who have been historically underrepresented in higher education. This would mean if you have a group of all qualified applicants, a student who comes from an underrepresented background would be favored for admissions,” commented Hope Brinn ’15 when asked about what she saw as the goals of using race as a factor in admissions. “If we were to stop considering race, people that deserve admittance would be overlooked because it’s [the admissions office] not understanding the whole situation and the whole student,” commented Ciara Williams ‘16 .
But the idea that race would be used in admissions in this way is problematic for some. “By this logic, a person of color should get into a university over a white person with equivalent qualifications, which seems fundamentally wrong to me,” commented Peter Amadeo ‘15.
But judging by Jim Bock’s comments, the answer to whether or not race could or should be used as a tiebreaker in an admissions stalemate doesn’t quite get at the meat of the issue. People tend to frame the issue of race in admissions, whether they are for or against the practice, as one that gives a “leg up” to underrepresented minorities. But, when asked about the matter, Bock did not frame the question this way; he did not even mention the “fairness” issue that people on both sides of the question often turn to in debate. Instead, he continued to come back to the phrase “intentional community” as a main focus of race-inclusive admissions. Swarthmore’s Title IX coordinator Sharmaine LaMar echoed this language, saying that if the courts rule in favor of Fisher, “we’ll need to review our own admissions decision model to ensure compliance with the decision, while maintaining our goal of sustaining an intentional and inclusive community.”
Bock and LaMar have deepened the issue. To me, framing it in terms of “intentional communities” makes the issue at hand less about equalizing opportunities, and more about valuing the diversity of opportunities people have had. Diversity of opportunities and experiences can result from where a student was born, who their parents are, and, yes, their race. None of these things are explicitly controlled by the student, but still contribute to creating a class of students in which people’s backgrounds complement each other. Everybody admitted to Swarthmore is qualified – at a certain point in admissions, you have to shift your focus from a person’s academic accomplishments to how they are going to fit into the type of community you are trying to build.
So then the question becomes: what kind of community do we strive for? In Jim Bock’s reference to the intentional community of Swarthmore, he points out that Swarthmore has the luxury of choosing to include people they think will best contribute to the richness and educational capacity of the campus. This is a unique situation, and a potentially powerful one. If the courts were to rule in favor of Fisher, admissions offices would lose this piece of the puzzle, which would arguably detract from the learning community. Marjani Nairne ’13 commented, “if you took race completely out of the equation, you would lose whole groups of people and it would be a huge blow to the community.”
But some wonder whether considering race in admissions actually contributes to a diversity of opinions on campus. “I think the diversity of Swarthmore is kind of an illusion. Going to classes, the perspectives are really similar. We have people from different backgrounds, races, countries, but it’s all the same chorus with different voices,” said David Hill ‘13. Since Swarthmore applicants are already a self-selective group in terms of ideology, Hill questions how much the student body actually benefits from having students from different backgrounds when their backgrounds have led them all to similar world-views.
Regardless of the outcome of the Fisher case, its presence in the public sphere has highlighted the importance of continuing dialogue about what diversity means on college campuses and how it can be achieved. Affirmative action practices are still only a band-aid solution to the inequities in our society. Large-scale systemic change would be necessary to create a context in which they are no longer needed – the context which, in 2003, O’Connor suggested might be just 25 years away. Such a context, in which race is not necessarily an indicator of a person’s status and opportunities, is one from which we as a society remain distant.
In Swarthmore’s admissions office, it seems as long as race remains one of many factors that may contribute to a person’s identity, the necessity to include it in the admissions process will remain. This is not likely to change anytime soon, nor do I think this would be a positive change. If the Supreme Court were to disallow the consideration of race in admissions, the diversity of our campus would be compromised. This is not because minority students necessarily need an “extra boost” in admissions, but because race, like many other factors, is an important part of students’ identities, and to ignore it would be to ignore a huge part of who many students are. And in the maintenance of an intentional community like Swarthmore, who students are is often one of the most important things.