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The Dartmouth
March 2, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Students, faculty reflect on upcoming Supreme Court affirmative action case

Campus grapples with the possible overturn of affirmative action by the Supreme Court later this year.

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A decision limiting race-conscious admissions will likely be released this spring or summer, based on the Supreme Court’s conservative makeup, according to the New York Times. While some Dartmouth students expressed concerns about affirmative action being rolled back by the Court, College employees predict that admissions will find other ways to ensure racial diversity on campus.

Affirmative action, as it exists today, is the result of civil rights movement legislation from 1961 and aims to ensure opportunities for minority students. The current Supreme Court’s lack of commitment to longstanding legal precedents — such as the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade — and the ramifications are concerning to some students, according to Manny Rodriguez ’23. Rodriguez added that programs promoting diversity on campus are currently growing.

“This is the biggest [First-Year Summer Enrichment Program] class we’ve had in a while, and it’s exciting to see that a lot of these students are getting the opportunity to attend institutions like Dartmouth,” Rodriguez, who was in FYSEP as a freshman, said. “In that same regard, it’s kind of scary to see that these different opportunities could also very much be taken from them.”

Affirmative action means that “admissions is thinking about the diversity of the class and the composition of the class as a whole,” First Generation Office director Jay Davis said. This allows more students from lower income backgrounds to attend institutions like Dartmouth, he added. Among other programs, Davis runs FYSEP, which provides a month-long transitional program for freshmen before classes start. 

Favion Harvard ’26 said that a diverse student body can be important in making students of color feel comfortable on campus. He said that potentially losing affirmative action made him worry about losing spaces that are not predominantly white, such as FYSEP and identity-based houses, adding that he found community at the Shabazz Center. 

“Affirmative action doesn’t discriminate against a group of people because white people still dominate the admissions process,” Harvard said. “There already aren’t enough people of color at this school.”

An amicus brief submitted to the Court by 33 colleges — including Barnard College, Middlebury College and Williams College — predicted a return to “1960s levels” of Black student enrollment if affirmative action is removed from college admissions.

Furthermore, a 2019 Pew Research Center study reported that 73% of Americans don’t believe in accounting for race in admissions. Government professor John Carey, on the other hand, found through his research that a “hidden consensus” exists in support of holistic admissions — meaning people generally support race-conscious admissions when the concept is framed as an evaluation of multi-dimensional applicants. 

In 2016, Carey conducted research into diversity with government professor Yusaku Horiuchi, testing out a new survey methodology to gauge how much people value an array of experience in admissions and faculty recruitment. They scrambled different application qualities — race, gender, test scores, grades and extracurriculars — and asked respondents who should be admitted. 

The professors found broad support for diverse classes. Even those who vocally opposed affirmative action still showed a preference for minority candidates when presented with two randomly composed applications. 

“Use the words ‘affirmative action’ and people go to their partisan corners,” Carey said. “We know that Americans are super polarized by party, and I think people separate out on that. What was different about our research was, instead of giving people a kind of shortcut which leads to polarization, the exercise we ask them to engage in looks a lot more like the holistic exercise that our admissions officers are up to.” 

Stanford University Ph.D. candidate Katie Clayton ’18, who worked with Carey and Horiuchi on their research, said the admissions process is rarely solely based on race. 

“When you’re comparing people’s lived experiences — writing about what they’ve experienced in their lives — I think it’s really hard to actually definitively demonstrate that there’s some type of race-based discrimination,” Clayton said. “I do fundamentally believe that these admissions officers, at least Dartmouth’s, are trying hard to holistically evaluate applicants.”

Davis and Carey said that they doubt any Supreme Court decision can dismantle a diverse and inclusive student body at Dartmouth.

Davis said that if race is removed from the admissions process, the College could use alternatives to ensure a diverse incoming class, such as noting students’ zip codes. 

“I’d like to think that our admissions office will still do a successful job of ensuring there’s diversity,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of different information that we can use to ensure that we have a diverse student body. Overturning affirmative action will likely have less impact on our diversity than people might think.” 

Carey agreed, noting that at the public university admissions systems in Texas and California, the top percent of each graduating high school class is guaranteed admission to a state school. The system is designed to address residential segregation and ensures diversity, even though “the law itself is facially blind to the racial demographics,” according to Carey. 

“We know that economics and racial demography are closely correlated in this country,” Carey said. “There are going to be other measures that schools can take to try to maintain some element of diversity. I think it’s an open question as to how that’s going to translate through into demographics.”

If institutions like Dartmouth want to continue to produce leaders, they must admit a diverse group of students, Davis said, in order to reflect the diversity of the real world.

According to Carey, diversity is essential to strong classroom debate, and a Supreme Court case cannot prevent admissions officers from harboring inner “preferences.” Still, the final effects on universities nationwide are yet to be known. 

“It’s going to reduce racial and ethnic diversity to some degree,” Carey said. “We’re going to find out how much.”

Paul Sunde and Lee Coffin from the Dartmouth Admissions Office declined to comment for this story.