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The Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in college admissions: ‘This decision marks the end of an era’

Northwestern University entrance
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere
Chicago Sun-Times
Northwestern University is among the schools in the U.S. most impacted by Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down race-conscious admissions policies.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday put a final stake in affirmative action policies in college admissions, ruling that the consideration of an applicants’ race at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is unconstitutional.

Now, selective colleges across the country will have to rethink how to maintain or foster racially diverse student populations.

Lisa Philip from WBEZ interviewed Northwestern sociology professor Anthony Chen about his initial reaction to the ruling.

Chen is writing a book on the history of affirmative action in American higher education.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What message do you think the justices are sending with this ruling?

Anthony Chen: This decision marks the end of an era.

My initial reaction is the majority wants to get rid of the way affirmative action is practiced today by schools like UNC and Harvard. The kind of holistic, individualized review that both schools undertook – considering race in a flexible way – is just not good enough for this court.

This decision raises other questions for you. What are those questions?

What is clear is that UNC and Harvard can’t do what they have been doing … So, what can they do?

It seems like from what I’m seeing in the opinion initially is that schools can look at application essays that applicants write in which those applicants talk about their race. But what is the right way for schools to think about information that applicants are providing about their racial background when they do it in their application essays?

What are they are permitted to do in terms of weighing that information and using it to factor into the admissions process. That’s not quite clear to me, and that’s what I’ll be looking for in the hours and days ahead as I digest this opinion.

What kind of changes are likely for your own institution, Northwestern, and other selective universities? These schools aren’t likely to change their mission as it relates to diversity because of this ruling.

I think a lot of the schools are going to explore race-neutral alternatives to affirmative action. So, essentially proxies for race, to try to achieve some degree of racial diversity.

But … the question for these schools is how good are these proxies going to be for each of them? Some schools will be able to use them fairly effectively and I think create a diverse class according to the way they think about diversity. But other schools are going to have more trouble given their competitive standing or other factors that they’re facing.

I think schools are going to look really carefully at the experience of other schools and places like California and Michigan, where affirmative action has been banned.

They’re going to ask themselves: Can we do what they’ve been doing? How much is it going to cost and what is it going to get us? How far is it going to get us, and is it going to get us to the final destination that we want to reach? Is it going to get us toward the kind of diversity that we want to provide to our students educationally?

What kind of impact do you think this will have on your students and on rising high school seniors who will be applying?

If there’s less diversity in my classroom as a result of this ruling then I think that my students’ experiences in the classroom will be poorer. I think that a nontrivial number of students are going to feel like the court has kind of turned its back on diversity.