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The U.S. Department of Education released a statement Thursday from Secretary Miguel Cardona regarding the Supreme Court ruling on college affirmative action programs. According to the statement, the secretary reaffirmed the education department’s role as a civil rights agency committed to equal access and education opportunities for all students.

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The statement continued that students of color have long faced inequities in education and college access, and today’s ruling is yet another blow to the fight for equal opportunity.

“I want to send a message to all aspiring students, especially Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and other students from underserved communities…do not let this ruling deter you from pursuing your educational potential,”  he wrote.

Cardona also urged higher education leaders to continue raising the bar for inclusivity and work intentionally to support students of color better because the inequities in higher education access and outcomes remain unacceptable.”

In November 2022, USBE Online published a commentary by John Brooks Slaughter, Ph.D. The 1987 Black Engineer of the Year served as the first African-American director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Dr. Slaughter is University Professor Emeritus of Education and Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Southern California and President Emeritus at Occidental College. Read on:

Many higher education leaders and pundits are convinced that affirmative action in college and university admission practices will be on the chopping block due to the Supreme Court’s hearings on the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases before them.

The plaintiffs are charging that in their efforts to achieve diverse student bodies, those institutions discriminate against Asian American applicants in favor of less qualified students, primarily Black and Latinx candidates.

In a recent article, “Derailed by Diversity,” that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford University professor of law, argues that justice – not diversity – should be the purpose of affirmative action and that the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1978 Bakke case led higher education down a path that it has, perhaps unmindfully, been unable to exit.

The Bakke opinion by Justice Lewis Powell, whom Ford asserts “was not an advocate of racial equality,” framed the Court’s decision. Justice Powell maintained that affirmative action could only be used where educational benefits would accrue because of diversity, but not to erase racial discrimination. Thus, “Diversity” became the aspiration for most of American higher education.

I found Ford’s article both compelling and unsettling. It has caused me to review and question my writings, speeches, and actions over the past 40 years as the chancellor of the University of Maryland, College Park, president of Occidental College, and, more recently, as a USC professor.

I have always emphasized the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion but failed to consider that the root cause for their need is the invidious and enduring racial injustice in American society. The Supreme Court led me astray, also.

In my most cynical moments, I have thought that perhaps Justice Powell’s emphasis on diversity for educational purposes only was to provide privileged students an opportunity to learn something from Black and Brown students about their cultures, backgrounds, and experiences.

I envisioned that this might be a strategy to assist them in determining how they can continue to succeed, thrive, and lead in a society that is becoming increasingly multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural. But I trust that is not the case.

Whether “Affirmative Action” survives or not, colleges and universities need to assiduously and honestly examine all their policies and procedures. They need to ensure that no overt or covert practices prevent full access and opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities and women, LGBTQ, disabled, first-generation, and international students.

To do less, even in the face of the political interference many public institutions are experiencing, will, in the long term, prove disastrous – not only for higher education but, more importantly, for the nation.

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