Administrators, student activists respond to Supreme Court hearings on affirmative action

David Wignall

On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority appeared critical of race-conscious admissions during oral arguments in a pair of lawsuits regarding affirmative action. If the court were to rule against race-aware admissions, it would be the end of a 19-year-long precedent that has shaped the world of college admissions and Williams’ own admission policy.

On that day, members of the College’s admission team gathered in Weston Hall to listen to the court’s five hours of oral arguments. “It’s hard to imagine a moment in recent history that could have a greater impact on our work,” Dean of Admission and Student Financial Services Liz Creighton ’01 said.

The two lawsuits — which Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed against Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC) in 2014 — have been on the College’s radar since the beginning, according to Creighton. In August, Williams joined 32 other small residential colleges in signing an amicus curiae brief supporting the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions. The brief argued that banning race-conscious admissions would be especially destructive for smaller schools, many of which have invested substantially in diversity programs following legal precedent from Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, which established that it was constitutional for admissions offices to use race as a factor to diversify enrollment, thereby obtaining educational benefits.

Creighton said the apparent willingness by the court’s conservative majority to overturn Grutter was not unexpected to the admission office, despite their hope that the debate would go differently. “The general content of the arguments did not come as a surprise,” she said. “They generally aligned with the narrative and rhetoric that had been in the media leading up to Oct. 31.”

The College considers race as one factor in a highly competitive, holistic admissions process. “We consider literally hundreds of factors in the context of one another,” Creighton said. “Our process at the moment follows the guidance set forth in the Grutter case, which allows us to consider a student’s racial identity as one factor among many.”

Creighton’s explanation of the College’s admission considerations aligned with statements that Seth P. Waxman, the former solicitor general for the United States who argued in defense of Harvard on Oct. 31, made in the courtroom. “[Harvard] for the past 30 years had been using race as one factor among many to achieve genuine diversity in its student body,” Waxman said. 

Creighton stressed that cultivating a diverse student body is one of the primary goals of the admission process, and that a ruling against the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions could hinder the College’s ability to do so. “We are concerned about the possibility of having to function in a dynamic in which a really salient part of many students’ lived experiences — their racial and ethnic identity — couldn’t be considered,” she said.

The College reassesses its admission policy every year, but if the court rules against affirmative action, the College would have to undertake a larger-than-usual reassessment of its admission process, Creighton said. 

 In an all-campus email sent the day after the oral arguments, President of the College Maud S. Mandel reiterated the College’s support for affirmative action. “We will keep working to recruit a diverse, inclusive, and academically excellent community through whatever means are legally available to us,” she wrote.

The concurrent Supreme Court cases have been cause for intense student activism around the country, including a rally on the steps of the court that was attended by students from Harvard, UNC, and other universities.

At Williams, Asian American Students in Action (AASiA) has engaged in its own advocacy efforts in defense of affirmative action. In July, the group was one of 58 organizations to sign an amicus brief in support of Harvard and UNC filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Asian Americans. On Oct. 21, AASiA hosted a workshop on affirmative action that included an overview of the history of the affirmative action movement.

Two of AASiA’s co-chairs, Sunny Hu ’24 and Rika Nakato ’24, expressed disappointment with the court’s apparent inclination to rule against the use of race in admission decisions in the purported defense of Asian American students’ rights.

Hu said that she felt heartbroken by events. “This entire system is very dismaying to be in the middle of,” she said. “I, as an Asian American, don’t want to be used as a racial wedge.” Both Hu and Nakato spoke about how the stereotypical depiction of Asian Americans as members of a “model minority” has been used to legitimize the narrative that Asian Americans are victims of current race-conscious admissions policies.

“There is a lot of misinformation among Asian Americans who think that affirmative action is specifically targeting their demographic,” Nakato said. 

One of the faces for the anti-affirmative action movement is Michael Wang ’17, who attended Williams after Yale, Princeton, and Stanford rejected his applications. In 2013, Wang filed a complaint with the Department of Education alleging that the schools who rejected him had discriminated against him on the basis of his race.

Hu and Nakato said they felt frustrated by their lack of ability to protect a policy that is important to them, especially when their attention is already focused on other topics, including the Asian American Studies Movement.

“There’s only so much activism you can do,” Nakato said. “And when you’re working with a problem that is being [decided] by the Supreme Court … in many ways it feels like there’s nothing we can really do about whether affirmative action is going to be overturned or not.” 

Hu stressed that the College’s isolated location makes political activism difficult. “We are in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “So it is very hard to make that time and commitment to go all the way to D.C.”

Rachel Jiang ’23, who serves as AASiA’s senior advisor, highlighted other factors that hinder activism efforts. “Williams is not a very conducive place [for] activism,” Jiang said. “Everyone has so much schoolwork, and there are all the extracurriculars. Political organizing gets really sidelined in the face of sleep, grades, and jobs… I’ve just seen so much apathy.”