Last week, in a surprising move, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the affirmative action case Fisher v. Texas. The case concerns Abigail Fisher, a student who claims that she was denied admission to the University of Texas because she is white. The last time the Supreme Court issued a ruling on affirmative action, in 2003, the justices found that public universities could use race as a factor in the admissions process. Since then, the court has become considerably more conservative, and it appears increasingly likely that affirmative action will be rolled back to some extent when the court hands down its decision.
Harvard has historically endorsed the use of race-based affirmative action in admissions decisions. Now, the University has once more stated its support for the practice, and it is likely that the administration will file a brief with the Supreme Court to formally vocalize its support for affirmative action. We applaud Harvard’s stance on this issue and hope that the University does all it can to preserve affirmative action as a valid, and valuable, component of admissions.
Nearly 50 years after the peak of the civil rights movement, minorities still face numerous institutional and structural disadvantages in America. On average, African Americans and Hispanics still earn far less than their peers, and tend to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Minority students who are able to succeed in spite of the disadvantages they encounter should be recognized for their achievements, which is precisely what affirmative action allows colleges and universities to do.
In addition to leveling the playing for disadvantaged students, affirmative action allows colleges to ensure a diverse student body. A plurality of backgrounds and opinions is, in our consideration, a vital component of any learning environment. Of course, race should not be considered the only measure of diversity, or even the best. However, it is a necessary part of the picture that admissions officers consider when they gauge how a candidate will contribute to discourse on campus.
The extent to which race should be weighed as a factor in admission is a subjective matter, up to the discretion of the admissions office. In this sense, there any other number of admissions criteria that are just as subjective, such as what part of the country a student comes from, whether or not a student has legacy status, and the essay a student submits with their application. If the Supreme Court decides to do away with race as a factor in admissions decisions, it might as well mandate that schools only accept candidates based on strictly objective criteria, namely grade point average and standardized testing scores. It is our firm belief that Harvard’s holistic approach to admissions is preferable to any alternative system, and results in a stronger student body.
Of course, the only thing at stake in the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision is affirmative action. But these stakes are large. Without affirmative action, we would run the risk of regressing to the days when only those from elite backgrounds could attain elite educations. We urge the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action, and Harvard to stand firm in its courageous support of a valuable practice.