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Presidents of the nation’s most selective universities convened at Harvard Wednesday to celebrate the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold affirmative action decision and to discuss the uncertain future of minority-exclusive programs on their campuses.
In addition to college leaders—including University President Lawrence H. Summers and the presidents of Dartmouth, Oberlin, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Michigan—the closed-door conference at the Harvard Business School hosted professors from the Harvard Law School, representatives from private foundations and several attorneys who participated in the Supreme Court case.
The court’s 5-4 ruling last month struck down the point system employed by the undergraduate admissions office at University of Michigan, which gave minority groups a numeric advantage in admissions considerations. But in upholding that university’s law school admissions system, the Court maintained that affirmative action policies in themselves do not constitute an illegal quota and are a vital tool for diversifying college campuses.
According to organizers—including the Harvard Civil Rights Project (CRP) and the University of Michigan—the conference’s aim was to provide information and foster discussion about the effects of the June 23 ruling.
Angelo Ancheta, the director of legal and policy advocacy programs at CRP, said that while lawyers were invited to offer advice and general information about the ruling, the focus of the conference was on the college presidents.
“The leadership has to really go back to campuses, be very clear about what they want to do at their own institutions and really make some important decisions about how they’re moving forward,” Ancheta said.
For many highly selective universities—including Harvard—the court’s ruling in the pair of University of Michigan cases will not require wholesale changes to admissions policies.
But according to Ancheta, participants also debated the future of race-targeted and race-exclusive programs—like a Harvard Business School minority recruitment program—which remain very much up in the air.
“It’s not clear whether those types of programs are constitutional,” he said. “There was some back and forth about whether they were defendable ... particularly those that are exclusive to minorities.”
Two conservative advocacy groups had challenged as discriminatory a number of programs limited to racial minorities—including a MIT-based summer program for teens and the HBS program. MIT opened its program to non-minorities this summer, while Harvard said it was awaiting the Supreme Court ruling.
Above all, though, the conference was a celebration of the “tremendous victory” in the court, according to Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan.
Many of the conference participants said in a press conference that among their most important observations was the notion that affirmative action policies are meant to benefit the student body as a whole, not just individuals.
“When we’re making admissions decisions, we are building a class, building a community,” said Jared Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University. “From the university’s perspective and for the good of the student, we are building a class, and that has to be central to what we’re doing.”
Especially resonant among the conference participants was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s assertion that affirmative action should not be needed in 25 years.
But CRP Co-Director Gary Orfield said that university action alone will not suffice in leveling the playing field.
“It has to be part of a broader change in the society,” Orfield said. “It’s in the schools and in other institutions that are the root of the inequality that makes affirmative action necessary at this time.”
—Staff writer Ryan J. Kuo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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