Higher Ed Community Must Protect Equity in Education

The US Supreme Court’s decision today in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina is a significant blow to long-standing efforts of universities to ensure that students of all races have equal access to higher education. Despite this setback, the AAUP continues its fight for a more just and equitable society—one in which all students have a full and fair opportunity to receive a quality education and to contribute to the academic life of America’s colleges and universities.

On June 29, 2023, the Republican-appointed majority on the US Supreme Court issued a 6–3 decision holding that the race-conscious admissions policies used by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although the court majority recognized that the educational benefits that flow from achieving a diverse student body are “commendable goals,” it found that Harvard and UNC failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that their admissions programs achieve compelling interests through narrowly tailored means. The majority also noted, however, that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”

The decision overturns what had been settled law for more than forty years. In its landmark 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court held that the goal of achieving a diverse student body is a compelling interest that can justify college and university policies allowing for the consideration of race in admissions decisions. Twenty-five years later, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the court reaffirmed the constitutionality of race-conscious university admissions policies, emphasizing the importance of a diverse student body to achieving important educational benefits, promoting cross-racial understanding, breaking down racial stereotypes, and preparing students for participation in a diverse workforce and society. In 2013 and 2016, the court reaffirmed this holding twice more in Fisher v. University of Texas.

Today’s ruling came in response to a pair of lawsuits brought against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina by Students for Fair Admissions, an organization dedicated to overturning race-conscious admissions policies. The admissions policies at both universities conformed to Supreme Court precedents allowing an applicant’s race to be considered as part of a holistic evaluation process. In an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in support of Harvard and UNC, the AAUP and other groups outlined how race-conscious admissions policies can further the educational objectives of colleges and universities and discussed the importance of racially diverse student bodies.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision, it now falls to the higher education community to protect what we value: ensuring access to higher education for all students, promoting equity in education, and fostering vibrant university campuses characterized by the freedom to learn, teach, and conduct research. The AAUP maintains its commitment to the crucial goal of ensuring that a diverse range of students have access to America’s colleges and universities. The AAUP pledges to work with faculty, college and university administrations, and social justice organizations to make this goal a reality.


Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 29, 2023