Students, faculty debate affirmative action as decision looms

Aidan McCahill, Contributing Writer

The Supreme Court heard arguments on affirmative action in October, signaling their conservative majority is on the verge of overruling race-conscious admissions. (Jude Papillion)

The Supreme Court heard two cases that consider the legality of race in college admissions on Oct. 31, sparking hours of debate that signaled the Court’s conservative majority is on the verge of a landmark ruling that would end affirmative action. 

Colleges nationwide watched that debate closely and will face new questions about maintaining diversity and upholding the law if the court rules against the practice. 

At Tulane University, students and faculty said that balance could be tough to strike. 

“The law absolutely has had an impact on granting not only racial and ethnic minority students greater access to educational institutions but for women as well,” Samantha Francois, assistant professor at Tulane’s School of Social Work, said. 

Affirmative action, a set of laws intended to benefit groups that have been historically discriminated against, has been practiced since the Civil Rights Movement. It has largely played out in college admissions, where selective universities weigh factors like race and gender to assemble a more diverse student body. 

Affirmative action’s demise could pose challenges for Tulane, which already struggles with low levels of students of color, to create a diverse student body. 

We still have a lot more work to do, but Tulane has made great strides to recruit and enroll a more ethnically diverse student body in recent years,” Dean of Admission Shawn Abbott said. “We continue to evaluate all scenarios and work to increase our diversity as we wait for a decision from the Supreme Court.” 

The case for affirmative action

Students For Fair Admissions filed lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Both seek to overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, a landmark decision that held the University of Michigan Law school’s consideration of race in admissions did not violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause if race was considered with other factors. 

Proponents of affirmative action say institutions of higher learning are an avenue of social mobility and groups historically denied these chances should get a leg up. 

“What is important to recognize is how [it] plays into racial financial equality,” Gabe Liu, a junior studying political science and public health, said. He said he believes affirmative action helps eliminate racial wealth gaps through better access for underrepresented groups to high level jobs. 

Supporters also argue that the practice provides a “compelling state interest.” This idea was cited in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a case that argues that diversity in education benefits society. 

“We’ve learned that diversity in school and diversity in class is very, very useful and should happen, because it’s good for society,” junior legal studies major Blaze Robin said. 

Several major corporations and top military officials filed amicus briefs last month detailing the importance of diversity in the workplace and education. 

“Are you learning the things you need to learn, both hard and soft skills to be effective in a multi-racial society? I think that’s the question that a lot of these companies may be concerned about,” Casius Pealer, a Tulane professor and former law student at the University of Michigan during the Bollinger case, said.

Intentions vs reality

Affirmative Action remains highly controversial. Recent polling shows 73% of Americans do not believe colleges and universities should consider race and ethnicity in admissions. 

“There is still a lot more to do, and there is still a need for diversity. But I don’t really agree,” Robin said. “Taking race as a checkmark is what irks me.”

In the ongoing case, plaintiffs argue that Harvard, a private university that receives federal funding, violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Asian-American applicants, including giving them lower scores than other races in areas like “personality ratings.” In the University of North Carolina’s case, plaintiffs argue that the school violated both Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause by giving preference to underrepresented groups to the detriment of white and Asian applicants while ignoring race-neutral alternatives. Some Asian-American groups have shown support for SFFA, and others have filed briefs in support of affirmative action. 

Another argument contends that affirmative action sets up students for failure and alienation by accepting students from under-resourced primary schools to elite, predominantly white institutions. 

Junior Jay Sexton said she supports the principle of affirmative action but raised questions about its practice. 

“Being Black and having attended predominantly white schools my whole life, I’ve been pushed to be hyper-aware of both my immediate parental and generational background in terms of education,” Sexton said. But affirmative action “is not a perfect practice and has indeed been weaponized in political discourse by those who see no issue with our country’s racist past, as well as misused by certain institutions who only care about meeting a quota of diverse individuals.” 

Francois, citing experience both as a non-white faculty member and graduate student at Tulane, said she understands the challenges that come from discrimination at predominantly white institutions like Tulane. But “as a Black student, and now as a Black faculty person, I do believe that there are doors that my being at Tulane have opened for me that may not have been open for me, had I been somewhere else.”

What’s next?

After admission, affirmative action raises another challenging question: can students afford to attend the institutions that admit them? 

Tulane’s base tuition is $62,844 – among the highest in the country. 

 Abbott said a “significant portion” of students receive need-based financial assistance and the class of 2026 was the most diverse in Tulane’s recent history.  

“The university continues to create new opportunities to increase access,” he said. 

Current programs intended to increase the affordability of Tulane for underserved populations include the Only the Audacious campaign, Posse and College Track and the Louisiana Promise.

But if the Supreme Court rules against affirmative action, Tulane would face new hurdles. 

“Those of us who work in higher education administration should be thinking about all the other factors that we can raise up and focus on when we’re thinking about admissions,” Francois said. That could mean considering socioeconomic or first-generation status instead of race. 

In California, Black and Hispanic enrollment in its more prestigious universities declined shortly after banning affirmative action in 1998, even after implementing policies that consider factors like lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

“Those policies disproportionately help white people of lower incomes,” Liu, a California resident, said. “Whereas the enrollment rates for Hispanic students and Black students goes down when those are the people who make up the majority of those lower-income communities.”

The court’s decision is expected in late June or early July. A reversal could also raise questions for how private and public employers conduct hiring. 

“I do think that the court will strike down affirmative action, and I’m scared about that,” Robin said. “I don’t know if we have the answer for something else yet.”

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