Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

On the likely impact of the Supreme Court's rulings on race-conscious admissions

Christopher Connell, a writer for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, recently interviewed me for a story on the likely impact on Princeton University of the Supreme Court's rulings on race-conscious admissions policy in the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases. Some quotations from me appeared in the story, but (quite reasonably) he was unable to include everything I said. I'm therefore reproducing here his questions and my complete answers:

  1. What do you think will be the impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling against explicit use of race in admissions decisions on the composition of Princeton’s student body and those at other highly selective U.S. colleges and universities? Will that be for good or ill?

    I suspect that Princeton and other universities will revise their practices to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling that an applicant’s race or ethnicity, as such, may not be counted for or against him or her. These institutions will, however, continue to seek to admit classes in which students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and bring a diversity of experiences. I expect that Princeton will redouble its efforts to admit more students from less affluent backgrounds, especially those who have attained high levels of academic and other forms of achievement despite their comparatively modest family circumstances. The Supreme Court’s rulings in the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases forbid giving preferences to applicants based on race or ethnicity, but do not forbid preferences based on, for example, socio-economic class. To the extent that these rulings push universities to assess applicants as individuals, and not treat them as members of groups (be they so-called “overrepresented” or “underrepresented” groups), I think they are for the good. They won’t prevent Princeton or other colleges and universities from having diverse student bodies.
  1. Virtually all colleges embrace efforts to increase the diversity of their students, faculty and staff. Do you think that this ruling will undercut that? Do you foresee a Princeton that is less racially and ethnically diverse?

    As I said, I do not expect the rulings in the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases to result in a less diverse student body. Indeed, more individualized assessments of candidates, especially taking into account the challenges they have faced (which could be the result of social class, race or ethnicity, disability, religion, or a range of other factors), is likely to result in what will be in important ways a more diverse student body. Among the respects in which the student body might be more diverse, is that there could be a broader mix of political, moral, religious, and cultural viewpoints than we currently have. You note that colleges are seeking more diversity of faculty as well as students. The Supreme Court decisions, though the cases directly concerned the admission of students, by their logic do apply to faculty and staff hiring. An area in which Princeton, like most other prominent private and public universities, needs improvement is the area of faculty viewpoint diversity. This was stressed by Dr. Cecilia Rouse, writing in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, when she was Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School. I hope it will be very much in our minds as we move forward in light of the Supreme Court’s rulings.
  1. Should Princeton keep giving legacy applicants an advantage? Last year, 12.5 percent of undergraduates were legacy admits [presumably mostly with strong academic credentials, not marginal ones].

    The Supreme Court’s rulings do not forbid giving legacy applicants an advantage. My sense, however, is that the days of giving the children or grandchildren of alumni a leg up in admissions are numbered. Although it is not hard in the abstract to make the case for giving a small advantage to “legacies” in the admissions process, it’s harder to make the case in the concrete historical circumstances we have here, given the fact that Princeton (like virtually all of what the University regards as its “peer” institutions) has in its record certain forms of invidious discrimination (not only against racial minorities, but also against Jews, Catholics, and others). Will abandoning the legacy preference make a big difference? I doubt it. Princeton alumni are deeply devoted to their alma mater, and strongly encourage their children to aspire to attend Princeton and make it their first choice. Many, many alumni children are super high achievers and are going to do extremely well in the admissions process, even without a legacy preference. Most alumni children who are admitted will elect to attend. Frankly, I doubt that the legacy preference makes much of a concrete difference these days in admissions decisions; so its abolition, which I suspect is coming, will not dramatically alter the make-up of the student body. We’ll still have plenty of alumni children with strong family ties to Princeton.
  1. Princeton today admits twice as many Pell Grant-eligible students (~20 percent) as it did 15 years ago. Is enrolling more students from lower-income families sufficient to maintain the current enrollment levels of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups?

    I don’t think or speak in terms of “overrepresented” and “underrepresented” groups. Our students are not here to represent groups. Sometimes I’ll hear people say that Jews, for example, or Asians are “overrepresented” at Princeton. I find that kind of talk deeply troubling. There’s simply no such thing as “too many Jews” or “too many Asians.” Yet it really isn’t possible to embrace the concept of “underrepresented” groups without validating the idea that some “groups” are “overrepresented.” Our policy should, therefore, be one that eschews this way of thinking. High achieving students come in all colors and from every ethnicity. We need to find them, encourage them to apply, assess them on an individualized basis (taking into account the challenges they’ve faced), select among them in a strictly non-discriminatory way, and do everything we can to encourage those we admit to enroll.


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