Harvard, other Mass. universities express anguish over SCOTUS affirmative action ruling

Download Audio

Poised with a video rebuke, Harvard University had braced itself for the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down its affirmative action policy, overturned decades of legal precedent and upended how race can be considered in college admissions.

Leaders at the prestigious university, which was one of the two schools at the center of the court's decisions, reacted quickly to affirm Harvard's commitment to diversity.

"For nearly nine years Harvard vigorously defended our admissions process and our belief that we all benefit from learning, living and working alongside people of different backgrounds and experiences," said President-elect Claudine Gay in the video released to Twitter Thursday afternoon. "We will comply with the court's decision, but it does not change our values."

Gay, however, acknowledged the "real possibility" that the decision could prevent some prospective students from gaining acceptance to Harvard, but she stressed that its effects also strengthen the school's resolve "to continue opening doors."

Many questions remain for Harvard, Gay added, as it grapples with how to comply with the court's insistence that universities and colleges, including private ones that take federal dollars, must avoid using race as a criteria in admissions. The court's majority ruling said that affirmative action practices violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Several other colleges and universities also clarified Thursday that they will ensure their admissions processes comply with the court's ruling.

Provosts and admissions directors from across the University of Massachusetts system's five public universities said in a statement that they were working to assess how their current policies might change, while adding the schools will uphold their commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.

"We believe this is essential to the advancement of academic excellence and critical to the preparation of our students to succeed in a global economy,” the system's leaders wrote.

Similar sentiments were shared by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, which wrote in an email that its members "are unwavering in their commitment to serve every student who seeks the opportunity to learn on a college or university campus."

Several collegiate student groups delivered sharp criticism for the decision.

The Harvard Black Students Association, for example, called the ruling an “elimination of our stories, contributions, and selves,” and said in a statement posted to Instagram that its members felt "deep disappointment."

“This detrimental decision not only compromises the integrity of the admissions process but also poses a significant threat to the future of the Black community on and beyond our campus,” the group wrote.

The group added that its members “refuse to be defeated" and will fight to protect and advance diversity.

Several other college-aged student groups, however, praised the Supreme Court's decision to end race-conscious admissions processes.

Natalie Le, a local coordinator with Students for Liberty and a Harvard graduate student, said she supports the court's ruling.

“I believe that everyone should be judged by their merit, and then, of course, I believe there are other features, such as socioeconomic background that should be greatly considered, and not just race,” said Le. “If you just focus mainly on my skin color, then I'm very much the same as any other Asian individual, when I'm so much more than that.”

Meanwhile, many educators and advocates focused on K-12 education, including several local teachers unions, offered and echoed concerns about how this would affect prospective college applicants.

"Today’s terrible Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action undermines the pursuit of equality in our society," said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

Tang, an alumna of Harvard who also identifies as Asian American, added she stands "firmly in support of affirmative action."

The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, which includes affiliate local unions like the BTU, called the Supreme Court decision "unjust," adding it ignores the ongoing effects of race-based discrimination.

"AFT Massachusetts stands alongside community organizations and civil rights groups in demanding that Massachusetts take urgent action to eliminate educational inequalities and prevent this decision from sending us further backwards," the group's president, Beth Kontos, said in a statement.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page and Vice President Deb McCarthy said in a joint statement that the Supreme Court's actions are "widening the racial education gap and turning back decades of progress.

"This decision will have harmful consequences for all students — but particularly Black, Latino, Asian-American and Pacific Islander, and Indigenous students."

The decision also drew the ire of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, with members calling the court "extremist" and reiterating their support for diversity and inclusion on college campuses.

WBUR's Max Larkin reports in the audio atop this post.

This article was originally published on June 29, 2023.


Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live