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Supreme Court Affirmative Action Ruling

In October 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, that challenged the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions practices. Today, the court held that “Harvard’s and UNC’s admission programs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Beginning with the landmark decision in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court had consistently held that colleges and universities had a “compelling interest” in facilitating diverse teaching and learning environments. Much of the ongoing legal saga has involved the narrowly tailored practice of affirmative action in college admissions.   

Although universities have practiced affirmative action and race-conscious admissions for many years, these practices remain widely misunderstood. One of the biggest misconceptions is that a less qualified student of one race could be admitted over a more qualified student of a different race. A second misconception is that affirmative action or race-conscious admission practices are employed across all higher education institutions equally. Roughly 250 of the most selective institutions in the nation (out of more than 3,000) practice using race as one of multiple factors to make admissions decisions among a pool of qualified candidates. Other factors might include whether a student is a musician, demonstrates leadership ability, entrepreneurship, athletic talent, household income, or whether they continue a generational legacy in some instances, in addition to more traditional academic indicators. The two institutions that were before the court, Harvard University and the Univers ity of North Carolina Chapel Hill, have acceptance rates of 3.4% and 16.8% percent respectively. Roughly 250 of the most selective institutions in the nation (out of more than 3,000) practice using race as one of multiple factors to make admissions decisions among a pool of qualified candidates.

SIUE does not consider race in admission decisions. Last fall, the University accepted more than 90 percent of applicants while experiencing one of the most diverse first-year cohorts ever. Our institutional mission is grounded in expanding access to higher education. In 1956, parents and community leaders formed the Southwestern Illinois Council for Higher Education to aggressively advocate for greater access to a college degree. SIUE opened its doors in Alton and East St. Louis a year later in 1957. I am proud to say that the commitment to access and opportunity remains strong and our graduates compete successfully in the world against anyone.  

The opinion of the court released today went beyond mechanics of admission practices and invoked a more universal assessment of the Equal Protection Clause “without regard to any differences of race, color, or of nationality.” In the coming days, senior leadership will consult with legal counsel to thoroughly review the ruling to determine the implications for University programs and practices. The University will comply with the law of the land and will begin communicating about any necessary changes as soon as possible while ensuring that SIUE is well-positioned to advance its mission and strategic goals. 

I want to reaffirm SIUE’s institutional value of inclusion and openness to the rich diversity of humankind in all aspects of university life. The practice of this value has and will continue to evolve over time, but the commitment is enduring. Equally important is the commitment to academic freedom and diversity of thought within our university community. As individuals, scholars, and the nation debate the merits of the decision today, I trust that SIUE has the capacity to exchange ideas in ways that are respectful, thought provoking, productive and with an appreciation for differences. These principles are, after all, what makes universities special places.

James T. Minor, PhD