UNC-Chapel Hill trustees continue to debate admissions policies in the aftermath of a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the use of affirmative action. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)
Reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision against race in admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University was swift Thursday, with opponents decrying a fundamental change in higher education as UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC System officials said they would follow the ruling.
“We are closely reviewing today’s decision and will follow the law,” said UNC System Peter Hans in a statement shortly after the ruling.
“Our public universities do extraordinary work every day to serve students of all backgrounds, beliefs, income levels and life experiences,” Hans said. “Every student in North Carolina should know that the UNC System welcomes their talent and ambition. The most important work of higher education is not in deciding how to allocate limited admissions slots at highly competitive schools, but in reaching and encouraging more students to take advantage of our 16 remarkable public universities.”
David Boliek, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, struck a similar note in his own statement.
“On behalf of the people of our state, we will work with the administration to ensure that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill complies fully with today’s ruling from the nation’s highest court. We intend for America’s oldest public university to keep leading.”
Affirmative action in admissions, using race as a criteria, has long been politically divisive. In the current case North Carolina has been in an unusual political position. The state’s Republican legislative majority generally opposes affirmative action. That majority appoints the governing board of the UNC System as well as trustees at individual campuses. But UNC-Chapel Hill was defending its policy of using of race in admissions – and by extension that of universities across the 16 campus UNC System.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz called the decision “not the outcome we hoped for” in a message to the campus community, but said the university will follow the high court’s guidance.
“Carolina is committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and to making an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond,” Guskiewicz wrote. “We are passionately public, and that will always be true. Our strategic plan’s first initiative is to ‘Build our Community Together.’ We will build that community with you and work to provide a campus environment where all of our students know they belong and can thrive.”
“I know that this decision may raise questions about our future and how we fulfill our mission and live out our values,” Guskiewicz wrote. “But Carolina is built for this, and we have been preparing for any outcome. Our leadership team will need time to thoroughly review the details of this outcome and its potential impact before determining specifically how we will comply with this decision. In the coming weeks, we will communicate our plans with the campus community.
Marty Kotis, a current member of the UNC Chapel-Hill Board of Trustees, was a named party in the original suit as he was then a member of the UNC System Board of Governors. For that reason, he said Thursday, he felt compelled to speak out on the decision.
“‘My reaction would be, ‘I told you so,'” Kotis said.
Kotis has for years pushed for policies and statements that would oppose consideration of race in admissions and employment with the university system and its individual campuses.
“I’ve never believed you can end discrimination with discrimination,” Kotis said. “And I don’t believe in quotas. I don’t think you should have two seats on an airplane for this group, two seats for this group and five seats for that group. I mean, that’s apartheid. It just doesn’t make any sense to have quotas. You cannot judge people based on the color of their skin, their gender or their religion. It doesn’t make sense.”
Kotis said the suit should have been settled and race based affirmative action done away with years ago by university leaders. Fighting it was a waste of time and money, he said.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus, strongly criticized the decision shortly after it came down Thursday.
“This decision undermines decades of progress made across the country to reduce systemic discrimination and promote diversity on campuses which is an important part of a quality education,” Cooper said in a statement. “Campus leaders will now have to work even harder to ensure that North Carolinians of all backgrounds are represented in higher education and to ensure strong, diverse student bodies at our colleges and universities to train the next generation of leaders for North Carolina and the nation.”
N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, who is running for the Democratic nomination to succeed Cooper as governor, released a statement championing diversity but not explicitly slamming the ruling.
“Students learn best when they are exposed to a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds,” Stein said in the statement. “I believe that our schools and businesses should reflect the full strength and richness of our state’s diversity. That’s when North Carolina is at its greatest.”
U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat representing the state’s second congressional district, went further in her own statement.
“Once again, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has overturned decades of legal precedent and undercut the important progress we’ve made towards racial equity,” Ross said in the statement. “Students of color often face unique barriers to accessing institutions of higher education, and affirmative action has played a critical role in remedying lingering injustices. Promoting racial diversity on college campuses unlocks more opportunities for communities of color and supports the education of all students. Today, the Supreme Court has seriously jeopardized our nation’s painful progress towards equality in education.”
U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, made a succinct statement on Twitter.
“The Supreme Court made the right decision today,” Tillis wrote. “Colleges should not be able to discriminate against applicants based on the color of their skin.”
U.S. Rep. Valerie Foushee, a Democrat who represents the state’s fourth congressional district, called the ruling “a step backwards.”
“Today’s ruling is devastating and will dismantle the race-conscious admissions efforts to ensure that higher education is accessible to all students – especially Black students and students of color who are historically disadvantaged,” Foushee said in a statement. “Ending affirmative action in our colleges and universities is not only a step backwards in establishing a more equitable society, but the repercussions of this decision will be felt for generations. Diversity makes our nation stronger, and all students deserve equal opportunity to a quality education, regardless of their income or their racial and ethnic background.”
N.C. Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), House Majority Whip and co-chair of the N.C. House Education – Universities committee, applauded the decision in his own statement Thursday.
“People should be treated equally, regardless of immutable characteristics,” wrote Hardister, who is currently running for the Republican nomination for Labor Commissioner. “We should judge people on their merits, not the color of their skin.”
“No matter how well-intentioned, race-based admissions promote racial discrimination and cause division in our society,” Hardister wrote. “If we want to move forward as a more just nation, we need to stop this sordid affair of dividing ourselves based on race. This ruling is a positive step towards fairness and equality in our society.”
Mimi Chapman, now finishing her term as chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, said there has been concern about the ruling given the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court. That majority has shown its willingness to overturn long-standing precedents such as Roe v. Wade.
“But I know we understand the value of a diverse campus and that that makes for the most robust learning environment,” said Chapman, who is also a founder of the Coalition for Carolina. “I know we will do what we can as a campus to preserve that.”
UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Christopher Everett said the decision has the potential to make the student body at Chapel Hill less diverse and harm student outcomes.
“Carolina should be a place teeming with the same diversity we see across our state,” Everett wrote in his statement. “But this decision makes many of us – including me – feel less at home here, and I want to echo your anger and your anxiety.”
“As a Black student, I know firsthand that the barriers to higher education are high enough,” Everett wrote. “Today, they might feel insurmountable. In her dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson writes:
‘deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.’ Though we have lost affirmative
action, there is nothing we can do to shake the centuries of oppression Black Americans have
faced since the founding of our country and our university.”
“We cannot allow ‘race neutral’ to become the new ‘separate but equal,’ Everett wrote. “If we allow
ourselves to become complacent, this decision could make our student body less representative,
lowering student outcomes and leaving graduates less prepared for an increasingly diverse world
– the results of which could be felt for generations to come.”
Lamar Richards, a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill who served as student body president as the lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court, took to Twitter to decry the decision Thursday.
“When should affirmative action end?” Richards asked. “Simple — the time on affirmative action has run out when white people no longer benefit from the generational wealth amassed as a result of slavery and access to education while Black people were beaten & killed for learning to read or write.”
Richards noted that affirmative action in the form of legacy admissions, employee relatives and well connected donors were not addressed in the decision.
Eric Muller, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Law School, said the majority opinion does not appear to close the door on every way universities might consider race in applications.
“The majority opinion does say it’s permissible for universities to consider applicants characterizations of how race has impacted their lives,” Muller said. “As long as they consider that in a way closely related to attributes of character that will bring value to the university.”
“That strikes me as a place where, perhaps, universities might continue to be able to at least in some contexts think about the role race has played in the lives of people in applications,” Muller said.
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