On June 29, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling across two cases: Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina that effectively ended affirmative action in college and university admissions processes. In both cases, Students for Fair Admissions, a Virginia-based non-profit, alleged that the universities engaged in race-based admissions practices that, in the case of Harvard College, penalized Asian American applicants. The organization argued that the University of North Carolina failed to use race-neutral admissions practices. The university argued that a history of racial discrimination and a lack of diversity made it impossible to use a race-neutral admissions policy and uphold a commitment to diversity. Students for Fair Admissions has targeted the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but no lawsuit has been filed to date.
This decision struck down the 2003 decision in the Grutter v. Bollinger case. The Grutter decision argued that it could be possible to end affirmative action in college admissions in 25 years because it would not longer be necessary. Chief Justice John Roberts stated that he did not see and end in sight for race-based admissions in the 20 years since Grutter. Roberts and the five other conservative members of the court decided that this lack of progress means that affirmative action is no longer relevant in college and university admissions.
Immediately after the decision was rendered, higher education institutions around the country reacted publicly. Most of these public statements asserted that these institutions have a commitment to diversity and would navigate the decision in a way that would uphold that commitment.
In a town like Madison with a more liberal-leaning sensibility with respect to diversity, this decision was jarring, although not entirely surprising. Our local colleges—Edgewood College, Madison College, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—also responded quickly.
The decision came too late to have a great impact on admissions for the 2023-24 academic year, but Madison’s colleges have had to make decisions about how they will abide by the decision in their upcoming admissions cycles. Dr. Andrew Manion, president of Edgewood College, acknowledged that they are already behind the curve with respect to campus diversity, a situation that becomes even more challenging without a provision for affirmative action.
Madison College has a robust 5-year Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Plan that is set to expire in 2024. This plan addresses diversity issues with respect to faculty, staff, students, and contractors. The 2-year college has the most diverse student body of the 3 colleges, largely due to its vocational programs other programs that support students to remediate educational gaps and build a firm foundation before moving to a 4-year institution or to the workforce.
It has been said that the Supreme Court’s decisions hit the UW-Madison the hardest. The university admitted its most diverse freshman class ever in Fall 2022 and was prepared to continue this trend that has created a nearly 50% increase in undergraduate students from underserved backgrounds over the last 5 years. Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin has stated that, while the decision does require some changes to the university’s admissions practices, the holistic admissions process that the university has used means that the changes will not be drastic. The UW-Madison has considered race as a factor in admissions, while also using metrics that place great weight on the student’s academic record.
In practical terms, the UW-Madison will continue using a holistic admissions process and will add questions to the application that will encourage the prospective student to talk about their background and experiences. Application reviewers will not have access to any race-based data gathered in the application as part of administrative or federal reporting.
While the Supreme Court ruling poses a challenge for these schools, the UW-Madison’s more present threat may be the Wisconsin legislature and its moves to challenge diversity efforts on University of Wisconsin System campuses. The Supreme Court decision is limited to admissions, but the legislature has threatened those programs and supports designed to make the campus more welcoming and tolerant and less violent and hostile toward students of color. Many of these programs also offer the guidance and resources that make a difference to students of color and first generation students not only enrolling in UW-Madison, but staying the course to graduation. As the state’s flagship public university and neighbor to the state capital, the UW-Madison has always drawn scrutiny from the legislature, but some feel that the heat is much greater in this climate.
While it is easy to look at states like Florida and its governor’s draconian policies with respect to diversity in higher education, K-12 education, and other public institutions with disdain and disbelief, it would behoove us to pay close attention and to guard ourselves against a similar fate. Racial hostility is no greater than it has been in the past, but open racial hostility is rampant. The thinking that has prompted book banning and revisionist history in states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas lives in Wisconsin and in Madison. As the late legal scholar Lani Guinier urged us, we must pay attention to these situations and see them as the miner’s canary that alerts us to approaching danger for us all.
It remains to be seen what the effects of the Supreme Court decision on local college and university enrollment will be. Our best hope is that the institutions will continue to do the hard work of holding up the difficult work of diversity and inclusion in a state like Wisconsin that has clear and long-standing structural opposition to these ideas. Under this ruling, it would be easy for these institutions to shrink from doing difficult things. It is up to us to apply appropriate pressure to ensure that children of color in this and future generations have the opportunities necessary to accomplish their higher education goals.