Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona said Wednesday that the U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling against affirmative action in higher education will be a challenge to leaders at all levels of education similar to that of the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring boldness and collaboration to help maintain student body diversity.
“We come together today at a turning point in higher education, perhaps in all of education,” Cardona said at a National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education at the Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington. “We didn’t ask for this moment, but as leaders, we must answer it.”
The secretary spoke passionately to hundreds of educational leaders, including some from K-12 education, about the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 29 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, which struck down race conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
“For many of us, the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action feels like a new low point,” Cardona said. “It’s going to take the same kind of bold leadership and collaboration at every level of education we saw during the pandemic to address the fallout of this deeply disappointing ruling.”
Cardona, a former teacher, principal, and state superintendent in Connecticut, said, “I can’t help but view this dilemma with a K-12 lens.”
While “our colleges have lost the most effective tool they’ve ever had for building diverse campus communities,” he said, “our K-12 schools, which are the pipeline for future higher education students, continue to wrestle with longstanding inequities laid bare by the pandemic.”
Federal officials say ‘resource document’ on decision is coming
The daylong conference, which included remarks by other Biden administration officials and panel discussions of educational leaders, was relatively light on legal advice for what colleges and universities may still do for racial diversity in the wake of the decision.
In a joint appearance at the conference, Catherine E. Lhamon, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, and Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice, said the administration was preparing a “resource document” on lawful admissions practices that would likely be released next month.
“The court’s decision, as we know, sharply limited a tool that colleges and universities with selective admissions policies had used to create diverse campus communities,” Lhamon said. “The court did not question the educational value of diverse student bodies.”
“Even after the decision, lawful avenues remain open to colleges and universities to pursue diverse classes,” Lhamon added, referring, for example, to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s language in his majority opinion 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.”
(Roberts emphasized that a college admissions decision based on such a discussion must be tied to that individual student’s experience.)
Lhamon said she has heard about groups contacting schools with their interpretations of the Supreme Court decision. One such letter has gone out from Students for Fair Admissions to 150 colleges, warning them against using student essays or other workarounds to continue to make race-conscious admissions decisions.
“I have heard about groups who are not the Department of Education or the Department of Justice who are sending schools notifications about what they say the law is and what they want you to do,” Lhamon said. “I will offer you this. You will know when you hear from us.”
Touching on legacy admissions and DEI
Neither Cardona nor Lhamon specifically mentioned the news this week that the Education Department’s office for civil rights had opened an inquiry into legacy admissions at Harvard. The investigation is a response to a complaint from a Boston-based civil rights group that argues that admissions preferences for children of alumni tend to favor white applicants from wealthy families.
But Cardona and Clarke each addressed the issue more generally.
“This may be time [for universities] to confirm that all admissions preferences and policies directly relate to an applicant’s individual merit or potential and ensure that existing metrics or criteria do not increase inequality or disparities,” Clarke said.
Cardona asked the participants whether “admission policies that benefit the wealthy and well-connected reflect your values?”
“Look, I have nothing against the legacy student who did really well at an elite private school,” he added. “But I am in awe of the straight-A student from a Title I school who spent hours on a bus every week to take an AP class that wasn’t offered at her school and still found time to contribute to her community, all while having to take care of siblings at home.”
Cardona said some state and local leaders were “overreacting” to the Supreme Court decision by arguing that it outlaws all diversity, education, and inclusion efforts in school districts, higher education institutions, and other entities.
“We have politicians trying to turn diversity, equity, and inclusion into bad words, as if the alternatives—racial inequity and exclusion—were the good ones,” Cardona said. “Now is not the time to ignore the reality of ongoing racial inequality. Now is not the time to abandon our support for students of color.”