SCOTUS action could impact college admission process

By Car­son Swick | UConn Jour­nal­ism | Dec. 2, 2022

STORRS, Conn. — Forty-sev­en per­cent stu­dents of col­or; 26.5% of stu­dents from eth­nic back­grounds “tra­di­tion­al­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed” in high­er edu­ca­tion — Black, His­pan­ic, Hawiian/Pacific Islander, Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alaskan native stu­dents. These fig­ures rep­re­sent the stu­dents admit­ted into the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut Class of 2026, the most diverse in the school’s his­to­ry. But as ear­ly as just next school year, UConn’s demo­graph­ics could look much different. 

On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court heard oral argu­ments in the Stu­dents for Fair Admis­sions v. Har­vard case, which was brought to chal­lenge the race-con­scious admis­sions poli­cies at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na-Chapel Hill and sev­er­al oth­er schools. With the Court’s 6–3 con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty, observers and schol­ars alike are expect­ing these “affir­ma­tive action” poli­cies to be struck down next spring, which could impose new bar­ri­ers to admis­sion for minor­i­ty stu­dents across the country.

At UConn, race-con­scious admis­sions have been in prac­tice for decades. As defined by the uni­ver­si­ty, affir­ma­tive action is “a process in which employ­ers iden­ti­fy prob­lem areas in the employ­ment of ‘pro­tect­ed class mem­bers,’ set goals and take pos­i­tive steps to ensure equal employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties” for those so-called pro­tect­ed class mem­bers. This is done in pur­suit of diver­si­ty, which UConn defines as “a broad con­cept that val­ues all peo­ple equal­ly, regard­less of their differences.” 

How­ev­er, the Supreme Court’s con­ser­v­a­tives thrust affir­ma­tive action pro­grams on the chop­ping block by pick­ing apart the lat­ter term dur­ing the oral argu­ments of Stu­dents for Fair Admis­sions v. Har­vard. Jus­tice Samuel Ali­to indi­cat­ed he felt that “diver­si­ty” had lit­tle con­crete def­i­n­i­tion, while Jus­tice Clarence Thomas said he had “no clue what diver­si­ty means” in the con­text of the case. 

While use of the term has puz­zled some jus­tices, lead­ers of two UConn cul­tur­al cen­ters — the African Amer­i­can Cul­tur­al Cen­ter (AACC) and the Asian Amer­i­can Cul­tur­al Cen­ter (AsAAC) — offer more con­crete inter­pre­ta­tions of diversity. 

Diver­si­ty, to me, means peo­ple with dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties, dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences in terms of race, gen­der [and] socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus,” said Vel­da Alfred-Abney, a Saint Lucian immi­grant who serves as the AAAC’s inter­im assis­tant direc­tor of oper­a­tions. “Two stu­dents that look alike could def­i­nite­ly be diverse. Every­body in a sense is dif­fer­ent — as dif­fer­ent as our fin­ger­prints.” “Each indi­vid­ual [views] diver­si­ty through a dif­fer­ent lens, based on the expe­ri­ence of how you’ve been social­ized,” added merz lim, asso­ciate direc­tor of the AsAAC. 

lim, who low­er­cas­es his name to empha­size his role as one Fil­ipino man with­in the larg­er, col­lec­tive Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty, ques­tioned the motives of the case’s plain­tiff, Edward Blum. 

Blum, who is white, found­ed Stu­dents For Fair Admis­sions in 2014 with the clear pur­pose of chal­leng­ing race-con­scious col­lege admis­sions. lim implied that Blum’s fail­ure in the 2016 Fish­er v. Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas case — in which the Supreme Court ruled against a Blum-aligned white stu­dent alleg­ing that UT’s race-con­scious admis­sions pol­i­cy had dis­crim­i­nat­ed against her — led him to use high-achiev­ing Asian Amer­i­can stu­dents to chal­lenge sim­i­lar poli­cies in the future. 

The rea­sons why [Blum] is doing it are very unclear to me,” lim said. “But what I’m assum­ing is that he’s adding the com­mu­ni­ty of Asian Amer­i­cans to be part of this when there’s a white stu­dent com­plain­ing that she didn’t get accept­ed into UT… He just need­ed to be able to find anoth­er com­mu­ni­ty to be able to add into this, and he hap­pened to choose high-achiev­ing stu­dents of col­or also, so why not pick Asians?” 

The notion of “high-achiev­ing” Asian Amer­i­cans is cen­tral to the cur­rent Supreme Court case, as the plain­tiffs have argued that race-con­scious poli­cies not only dis­crim­i­nate against white stu­dents, but Asian Amer­i­can stu­dents — a group which col­lec­tive­ly scores high­er on col­lege admis­sions tests than white stu­dents and oth­er minorities. 

Accord­ing to UConn’s Class of 2025 demo­graph­ics, Asian Amer­i­can stu­dents com­prise 14% of cur­rent UConn sopho­mores — despite mak­ing up less than 5% of Connecticut’s total pop­u­la­tion. Fur­ther­more, Chi­na, India and South Korea are the three most com­mon home coun­tries of UConn’s inter­na­tion­al stu­dents.

But accord­ing to lim, not all groups with­in the Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly high-achiev­ing; some stu­dents of cer­tain Asian nation­al­i­ties tend to score bet­ter and inflate the community’s over­all averages. 

There’s only cer­tain pop­u­la­tions that are high-achiev­ing, and that’s main­ly because of the fact that they have been here longer — specif­i­cal­ly more so the Chi­nese, South [Kore­ans] and the [Fil­ipinos],” lim said. “But if you actu­al­ly look at the South­east Asian com­mu­ni­ties — Thai, Cam­bo­di­an ear­ly refugees [and] Viet­namese — you’ll see that those are folks that don’t have the oppor­tu­ni­ty and access [in] the way that oth­er Asian Amer­i­can-iden­ti­fied folks have been able to obtain in col­lege or education.” 

The affir­ma­tive action issue has divid­ed the Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty into those who believe such pro­grams are nec­es­sary to fos­ter diver­si­ty and those who believe they close the door to valu­able oppor­tu­ni­ties that would be avail­able with race-blind admis­sions in place. 

A July poll con­duct­ed by Asian Amer­i­cans Advanc­ing Jus­tice found that 69% of all Asian Amer­i­cans sup­port race-con­scious pro­grams “designed to help Black peo­ple, women, and oth­er minori­ties get bet­ter access to high­er edu­ca­tion.” Alfred-Abney struck a sim­i­lar chord, argu­ing that this split is a “nar­ra­tive” to divide minori­ties and dis­tract from the greater prob­lem of com­bat­ing racism in society. 

I think it’s just [a] nar­ra­tive to have peo­ple fight against each oth­er,” Alfred-Abney said. “It’s sad that Asian fam­i­lies are bring­ing this case up to the Supreme Court… That’s how racism works, that’s how oppres­sion works, [by] mak­ing sure the oppressed groups nev­er come togeth­er to fight that com­mon oppressor.” 

While Alfred-Abney can­not speak on behalf of her orga­ni­za­tion before the impend­ing affir­ma­tive action rul­ing is reflect­ed in any UConn pol­i­cy changes, she believes cul­tur­al groups like the AACC should improve their recruit­ment efforts to ensure diver­si­ty and hold the uni­ver­si­ty accountable.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tion on com­mit­tees mat­ters,” Alfred-Abney said. “In terms of the [African Amer­i­can Cul­tur­al] Cen­ter as a whole, we should be doing more out­reach to try to get stu­dents pre­pared for col­lege and apply­ing to UConn.”

UConn just recent­ly sent out a com­mu­ni­ca­tion say­ing that no mat­ter what deci­sion is made, they’re still going to hon­or mak­ing sure the stu­dent body is diverse,” she added. “I’m hop­ing that, in prac­tice, they do that, and that the dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al cen­ters and groups hold UConn up to that.” 

The “com­mu­ni­ca­tion” refers to an Oct. 31 email sent out by UConn Pres­i­dent Raden­ka Mar­ic. In this email, Mar­ic affirmed “UConn’s com­mit­ment to cre­at­ing and sus­tain­ing a diverse stu­dent body and work­force,” and linked to a pro-affir­ma­tive action edi­to­r­i­al she pub­lished in The Con­necti­cut Mir­ror on Oct. 25. 

While UConn offi­cials have oth­er­wise remained silent about — pre­sum­ably as they try to pre­pare for — the impend­ing Supreme Court deci­sion, the university’s his­to­ry of sup­port­ing appellees in affir­ma­tive action cas­es means it will work with­in the frame­work of any legal changes to con­tin­ue attract­ing tal­ent­ed stu­dents of tra­di­tion­al­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed ethnicities. 

Of affir­ma­tive action pro­grams being ruled uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, Alfred-Abney expressed her dis­ap­proval and not­ed that, in a fair world, we would have an “equal per­cent­age of all races [and] all iden­ti­ties” rep­re­sent­ed on cam­pus. lim argued that any poten­tial rever­sal would adverse­ly affect all non-white col­lege stu­dents, includ­ing those at UConn. 

It will impact every­one who the insti­tu­tions are not made for, which is every­one else [who] is not white-iden­ti­fied,” lim said. 

Car­son Swick is a senior at UConn major­ing in jour­nal­ism and polit­i­cal sci­ence. He report­ed this sto­ry as part of UConn Jour­nal­is­m’s Fall 2022 Pub­lic Affairs Report­ing course.