University Stays Committed to Diversity Despite SCOTUS Affirmative Action Decision

The Supreme Court’s decision on Affirmative Action brings questions for institutions of higher learning. Photo Credit: Erin Hurley/The Trail

By Erin Hurley

In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court determined it is unconstitutional for colleges and universities to use race or ethnicity as a determinate in admissions processes, effectively eliminating affirmative action at the collegiate level. The two cases brought against Harvard andUNC by a conservative group named Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. have left institutions of higher learning questioning.

Colleges and universities use race as a factor in admissions to create a diverse student body. Numerical determinants, like SAT scores or grades, may discriminate against minority applicants who may not have had equal access to resources and opportunities as their white counterparts had. President Lyndon B. Johnson initially introduced affirmative action in 1964 with the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement to create a more fair playing field for Black Americans. Over the years, this policy eventually expanded to include women and other racial minority groups.

Prior to the SCOTUS decision last summer, the University of Puget Sound, a predominantly white institution, used race in the admissions process to gain a “holistic” understanding of the applicant. In a statement following the ruling, President Isiaah Crawford emphasized “our commitment to admitting, supporting, retaining, and graduating a diverse student body.” He believes it is important for students to learn and grow with others who maintain “viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences that are different from their own.” This sentiment is echoed by other administration leaders, and the University continues to emphasize its dedication to expanding diversity on campus.

Dr. Lorna Hernandez Jarvis, Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity is not worried about the SCOTUS decision. The University of Puget Sound has long held ties with programs such as the Tacoma Public School Commitment, Access Scholars, and the Summer Academic Challenge, which strive to connect minority communities with access to a college education. Participants in these programs who are interested apply to enroll in the fall, and as long as they meet enrollment requirements, they subsequently receive financial and transitional support.

It is critical to note that these programs are not solely based on race. “It’s a whole spectrum of people who are traditionally underrepresented,” Dr. Hernandez Jarvis says. “And we know that those programs benefit minoritized students in terms of race, but they’re not the only ones that can benefit from those programs.”

She also explains that educational equity is not a zero-sum game, as some politicians conceive it to be. “It’s not because you’re giving rights to people who have not had it, that you’re taking them away from somebody else.” In reality, diverse campuses benefit and enrich the lives of all students of both majority and minority groups. Differences in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, political orientation, and ability enhance and expand one’s views of the world, and an institution of higher education is often a safe space to discuss these differences.

Dr. Hernandez Jarvis faces tough work in the coming years. Legal and financial barriers may stand in the institution’s way of cultivating diversity. She is urging the University to continue to push for the values that science has proven as critical.

In addition to external outreach programs, the University itself has outlined plans to ensure its recruitment process is intentional. Dr. Matthew Boyce, the Vice President for Enrollment, explains the importance of everything from who’s on the email list, to what community events the University is attending, to which cities recruiters are targeting. All of these decisions and more influence the pool of applicants that will apply

Dr. Boyce compares the admissions situation to that of a toolbox. “Just losing one tool doesn’t change the goal,” he says, referring to the summer ruling. Though the admissions team may no longer consider race or ethnicity as a factor in admitting students, other tools, such as recruitment tactics, outreach programs, and scholarship possibilities, are given a chance to shine. “For us to be able to have thoughtful conversations about how you improve in spite of that, I think it’s somewhat of a good idea,” he says.

He reiterates what Dr. Hernandez Jarvis made clear: that education is not a zero-sum game. He cites market components as the force that has driven people and politicians to think that way. Dr. Boyce knows that our school is not a perfect representation of diversity, but his team remains in pursuit of furthering it on campus. “This is an area we can’t shy away from as an area of growth, for the University as a predominantly white institution that has this role to play. We have a desire, and we’ve done better as an organization at becoming more diverse, but we have a long way to go. So, we can’t take our eye off the ball.”

The Trail will continue to report on how changes to Affirmative Action impact the University, particularly from a student perspective.